Saturday, January 7, 2012

The politics over Davis-Besse

Concrete cracks in the containment structure aren't the reason for anti-nuclear fervor by Rep. Dennis Kucinich

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH
The ongoing saga of anti-nuclear opposition to the continued operation of FirstEnergy's (NYSE:FEDavis-Besse nuclear reactor located on the shores of Lake Erie is linked to a gift to voters from the Ohio's Republican dominated state legislature.

In a redistricting plan that is driven by gerrymandering at its finest, the congressional district of liberal Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich is mashed into that of Democrat Rep. Marcy Kaptur.

In the process, it strips Kuncinch of parts of his west side Cleveland political base. However, it gives him a big fat target to raise voter ire and that is the Davis-Besse plant.

Kucinich has long been a critic of the plant, but since it wasn't in his district, until now, he had to contend with the fact that his anti-nuclear rants didn't matter very much.  Rep. Kaptur has taken a more balanced approach calling for a focus on safety and also keeping the plant open with its 800 jobs and stable electricity supply for industry in her district which includes Toledo, OH.

Concrete cracks energize criticism

The saga of Davis-Besse this Fall has given Kucinich ample opportunity to ramp up his criticism of the plant now that it is in a district where he has to compete in primary election March 6.  The plant discovered small cracks in the containment structure when it replaced the reactor pressure vessel lid, its third, during a scheduled fuel outage.

FirstEnergy notified the NRC about the cracks which launched its own inspections.  After extensive reviews including test core drilling conducted by FirstEnergy, the NRC said the plant was safe and it restarted the first week of December.

A public meeting to explain the NRC's decision held in western Ohio Jan 5 drew 300 people including some national and regional anti-nuclear groups.  These groups make no bones about their objective which is to shut the plant down.  They are opposed to the application to relicense it for another 20 years.

These groups point to safety issues ,which emerged in 2002, involving serve corrosion of the reactor head, and admissions by employees of FirstEnergy that they misled the NRC about the extent of the problem. The firm paid a fine of $28 million and initiated $600 million in repairs which kept the reactor out of revenue service for two years.

However, in the current era FirstEnergy notified the NRC as soon as the cracks were found during the outage. The utility fully cooperated with the agency in the investigation of the problem.

NRC Regional Administrator Cynthia Peterson explained to those at the meeting last Thursday that the agency "rigorously examined the cracks, how big they were, and what may have caused them."

She added that the agency consulted with structural experts and came to the conclusion the plant is safe to operate.  Readers interested in more technical detail are referred to the NRC's Fact Sheet on the cracks.

Scare tactics

Anti-nuclear groups were not persuaded that this was the case.  In a blatant effort to scare people, Michael Keegan of Don't Waste Michigan, referred to a 4.0 earthquake that took place in Youngstown, OH, last week which is 170 miles away on the other side of the state. Yet, he called it a threat to the reactor.  On its face this statement is ridiculous. To put it in perspective, that's like saying a a car crash across town is going to shake the spice rack in your kitchen.

In another leap of exaggerated rhetoric, Kucinich, who has no engineering expertise, said that as far as he is concerned, the cracks are structural and the plant should be shut down.  The NRC and FirstEnergy have pointed out that based on their testing and inspections the cracks are not safety related, but this distinction seemed to get buried in the rhetoric flying around the packed meeting room.  Instead, Kucinich accused the NRC and FirstEnergy of not being forthright.

This allegation is a dishonest political tactic. Kucinich raises a red flag about safety and then he seeks to undermine the credibility of the regulatory agency charged with making sure the plant is safe.

The objective here is to sow enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt with the public that it becomes "self-evident" the only way to address the issue is to shut the plant down.  It is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophetic which Kucinich pushes hard at every opportunity.

In short, the fact that Kucinich now has to get elected in a congressional district that includes Davis-Besse plant gives him a gorilla in the closet to wave at the voters and a reason to challenge Rep. Kaptur on the issue of keeping the reactor open.

Why are we not surprised?

Kucinich isn't the first elected official to run against a nuclear reactor as way to get votes and raise cash for his election.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made a career out of attacking Entergy's Indian Point reactors. In an alliance with environmental groups like Riverkeeper, Cuomo rakes in election-related cash from the green community by bashing the reactor complex any way he can.  He has opposed relicensing of the two reactors there and held up a state water quality permit that is part of the process.

U.S. Rep. Mary Kaptur, D-OH
In Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin won his election based on making Entergy's Vermont Yankee plant out to be a threat of millennial proportions.  It didn't help Entegy's case that it's management stumbled badly in communications with the state legislature over the issue of underground pipes and tritium leaks.  A pending Federal District Court decision on state authority over the reactor will likely get kicked up to the Court of Appeals.

Getting back to Ohio, Kucinich knows he is in a primary battle with a popular incumbent who doesn't have his track record of left-wing positions. Add to that Cuncinich's widely reported off-the-wall statements about foreign policy, and what you get is a fringe politician who's high velocity hand waving over Davis-Besse strains the bounds of credibility

Keeping the lights on with good paying jobs, at a safe plant, may actually make sense as a campaign position. It is one that Rep. Kaptur has promoted for the past decade.  Kucinich's fear agenda may, or may not, make much headway against it, but he is trying hard just the same.

# # #

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Plentiful Energy – the book on the Integral Fast Reactor

Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor: The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists [Paperback] Charles E. Till (Author), Yoon Il Chang  (Author) (Available on Amazon)  

The subtitle of the book is “The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific basis for non-specialists.”

Written by the two leading engineers and Argonne National Laboratory, Associate Directors behind the integral fast reactor, Dr. Charles E. Till and Dr. Yoon Il Chang, it is a landmark in the sustainable energy literature.

The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) (Chang 1988) is a fast reactor system developed at Argonne National Laboratory in the decade 1984 to 1994. The IFR project developed the technology for a complete system; the reactor, the entire fuel cycle and the waste management technologies were all included in the development program.

The reactor concept had important features and characteristics that were completely new and fuel cycle and waste management technologies that were entirely new developments.

The reactor is a “fast reactor”– that is, the chain reaction is maintained by neutrons with high energy, not moderated by water, and which produces its own fuel. The IFR reactor, which is cooled by liquid metal sodium, and associated fuel cycle, is a closed system. Electrical power is generated, and new fissile fuel is produced to replace the fuel burned.

Its used fuel is processed for recycling by pyroprocessing – a new development – and waste is put in final form for disposal.

The scale and duration of the project and its funding made it one of the largest nuclear energy R&D program of its day. Its purpose was the development of a long term new energy source, capable of meeting the nation’s electrical energy needs.

ANL West
ANL-W the home of IFR
Safety, non-proliferation and waste toxicity properties were improved as well, these three the characteristics most commonly cited in opposition to nuclear power. Yet, most of the development had been done when the program was abruptly cancelled by the newly elected Clinton Administration.

In his 1994 State of the Union address the president stated that “unnecessary programs in advanced reactor development will be terminated.” The IFR was that program. By 1998 the Clinton Administration has for all intents and purposes zeroed out all nuclear energy R&D funding.

Paradoxically, this policy decision was driven by then VP Al Gore who later won a Nobel Prize for his work on global warming. It is a continuing mystery why Gore has been so hostile to an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases and is, fundamentally, a replacement technology for coal and natural gas in providing base load power.

Accessible to the non-technical reader
This book gives the real story of the IFR, written by the two nuclear scientists who were most deeply involved in its conception, the development of its R&D program, and its management. The authors felt there is room for a volume that, while accurate technically, is written in a manner accessible to the non-specialist and even to the non-technical reader who simply wants to know what this technology is about.

For more details check out Barry Brook’s blog post, and the back story of his role in the book’s publication, at Brave New Climate.

For more details on how the IFR technology has a new life, see my blog post at ANS Nuclear Cafe on the PRISM reactor being proposed for use in the UK to burn that nation’s plutonium stockpile.

Additionally, last November at the ANS winter meeting, I interviewed John Sackett, who was a senior manager at ANL-W, on his current work to close regulatory gaps for licensing the IFR.  Check the links at the end of that post for the technical papers on the project.

# # #

Nuclear Energy R&D Budgets Trimmed

Congress cuts funding while adding new priorities

electric razorA Congress that has public approval ratings in the single digits over deficit-related gridlock managed to get some of the federal budget out the  door for 2012. The Energy & Water Appropriations bill, which covers funding for the U.S. Department of Energy, contains $768 million for nuclear energy programs.  Funding for some programs were trimmed, and some got a buzz cut.

Nuclear energy at the DOE fared better than some other high profile DOE programs. The Obama administration's poster child for a green economy---Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy---suffered a cut of $1.9 billion reducing the amount requested by the White House by more than half. The DOE’s Science programs also saw a significant reduction of $616 million from the President's budget. And, nationwide environmental cleanup of DOE sites suffered a reduction of $469 million.

Emphasis on small modular reactors

Of the $768 million in the bill for DOE NE programs, $439 million is allocated to nuclear energy research and development. A key element of the appropriation is a $67 million line item for licensing technical support for light water reactors. It provides funds for first-of-a-kind engineering support for two reactor designs and sites.

Read the whole story exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

# # #

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A new broom sweeps clean

News items you might have missed in 2011

Nuclear bloggers work differently than the mainstream media and are not shadows of the nuclear trade press. We don't have time to report everything so we try to focus on developments that look like they'll have more than average influence on the industry. At this blog I try to answer the "so what" question about the news.

During the course of the year, as a blogger I wind up with stand alone news items that just don't fit into larger patterns. I hold on to them hoping that there will be a place to fit them into the jig saw puzzle that makes up the global nuclear industry. So for better or worse, here are a few of those "keepers" that may yet emerge in a larger picture, or maybe not. These are issues this blog will continue to watch to see where they go.

Californians like nuclear energy less, but they still like to eat

Last July conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found a steep decline in support for nuclear energy. The poll shows a 14% drop in support from a year ago. Now just 30% of the population, based on the poll sample, support building more nuclear power plants there. There is a definite partisan split with just 23% of Democrats in favor of new reactors compared to 48% for Republicans. The new levels of "dislike" are linked to the Fukushima crisis in Japan which pumped up anti-nuclear sentiment in California.

The bad numbers appear to have left the Fresno Nuclear Group unfazed by their importance. John Hutson, who heads the effort to build two Areva 1,600 MW EPRs in the state's agricultural belt, says what else is new?

He is pushing ahead with the project which is intended to provide cheap electricity to food processing factories and to desalinate brackish water. Hutson thinks the plants could handle up to one million acre feet of water at a cost of $200/acre foot.

An acre foot is approximately 324,000 gallons. One million acre feet per year times 60 years is a lot of water, a lot for crops, and a lot of clean water for processed food factories. If I were Hutson, I might design a bumper sticker that says - Want to eat? Support nuclear energy!

Thrifty Swiss may balk at the high cost of going green

The Wall Street Journal reported Nov 29 that Switzerland's reliance on nuclear energy means a switch to other sources of energy to generate electricity may hit them hard in the pocketbook. The reason is the country's parliament voted earlier this year to close its nuclear reactors by 2034.

The country has benefited from the reactors by being a profitable net exporter of electricity and by having a stable, reliable supply of energy for heavy industries. Like Japan, Switzerland is not self-sufficient in terms of agricultural production so it exports electricity and high value finished goods and gets food in return. It's a two-way street.

Here's where the sticker shock hits. The WSJ reports that according to a leading renewable energy think tank, the cost of new investments in hydro, solar, and wind power to replace the reactors would be $108 billion, or roughly the price of 15 new 1,000 MW reactors built over the next 20 years. Then there are also the $22 billion in decommissioning costs for the current fleet which will extend into the end of this century.

A U.S. think tank put the diversion of capital into these channels in a stark light. It told the WSJ the phase out of nuclear energy in Switzerland "will have harsh consequences for economic growth and job creation."

South Korea and U.S. at odds over spent fuel

The revision of a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement between South Korea and the U.S. is taking place during an uncertain transition to the North. South Korea wants to get U.S. agreement to support its efforts to develop a spent fuel reprocessing center to provide fuel for its growing fleet of 21 nuclear reactors.

The U.S. sees the request as a red flag for North Korea. That country might regard the new technology as 'dual use' capable of manufacturing weapons grade materials as a deterrent to the threat of invasion by the North's massive army.

The new head of what passes for a government in North Korea is said to be the 20 something son of the late dictator Kim Jong II. Anyone who thinks the kid is a real political leader, and not a "face" for the North Korean military, should line up to buy a bridge in Brooklyn.

For its part, the U.S. is nervous that the North Korean military, which is likely to be inwardly focused these days in terms of who is in charge, may not take kindly to a "provocation" from its neighbor to the south. Bear in mind the North Koreans have their own nuclear weapons capability having conducted at least one underground test.

South Korea has also become an exporter of nuclear reactors selling four of them to the United Arab Emirates in a $30 billion deal. It may be looking at the development of a spent fuel reprocessing center, and MOX fuel fabrication center, as an additional product line to meet needs for nuclear fuel domestically and elsewhere.

So when South Korea talks about the new agreement being an "important test" of relations with the U.S., the translation from diplomatic speak might be something different. South Korea has no geologic repository for a once through fuel cycle and there is value in reprocessing the fuel.

While South Korea lives under the U.S. military's protective umbrella, it doesn't see it as a reason for giving ground on the spent fuel issue. Nonproliferation experts in the U.S. worry that one day a future South Korean government might take the next step and develop its own nuclear weapons program. For now the diplomats will continue to talk with a wary eye on the North.

Bids and finances move up and down

The Czech Republic, which recently released bid documents for up to five new nuclear reactors worth an estimated $28 billion, is looking at providing the equivalent of loan guarantees to investors. The government may also seek to set guaranteed rates for the reactors over a period of years once they enter revenue service.

S&P Credit Rating System ~ Chart: S&P
South Africa is getting ready to let bid documents out for six-to-nine new nuclear reactors. A bid process for up to 12 reactor was cancelled in 2007 because neither the government nor Eskom, the state-owned utility, had the money to pay for them.

It's not clear what's changed in South Africa which may mean it expects bidders to self-finance turn-key plants with guaranteed rates for the first 15-20 years and sale of the plants in their cash cow phase to investors after that point. Bidders include the usual suspects plus China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Group.

Areva, which is a bidder for the Czech project, and an expected bidder for the South African tender, will have a more difficult time attracting capital for these kinds of projects. Standard & Poors cut the firm's financial rating to BBB-. This is the last rung on the "investment grade" ladder.

It said it expects Areva's credit standing and cash flow to remain weak in 2012 with substantial recovery no earlier than 2014. For its part Areva slashed costs and capital investments and will sell over {e}1.2 billion in assets by the end of 2013

Russia's Atomic Energy Power Corp.. got a boost from Standard & Poors which raised the credit rating for AtomEnergoProm to BBB. The occasion is that the normally secretive state-owned firm allowed its books to be audited using international financial reporting standards. S&P went on to say it expects the Russian nuclear company can depend on the deep pockets of the Kremlin for domestic projects. The export arm was not rated by S&P.

# # #

Monday, January 2, 2012

Details emerge about failures at Fukushima

Interim Fukushima report lists lapses

27 Dec 2011 (NucNet): Japan’s response to the crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant was flawed by poor communication and delays in releasing data on dangerous radiation leaks at the facility, a government-appointed investigative committee has found.

A 507-page interim report released 12/26/11 attaches blame for the March 2011 nuclear accident and its consequences to Japan’s central government and administration, as well as the utility that operates the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

(Note to readers: See link at end to 22-page executive summary in English.  Additional media coverage at links below.)

Additional Coverage at:
Report highlights

The report says poor planning worsened the disaster response, noting that authorities had underestimated tsunami risks that followed the 9.0-magnitude earthquake.

The 15-meter-high tsunami that struck the plant was twice as high as the highest wave predicted by officials. The erroneous assumption that the plant’s cooling system continued to function after the tsunami struck worsened the disaster, the report says.

The report, whose final version is due to be completed next year, also found that plant workers had no clear instructions on how to respond to such a disaster, causing miscommunications, especially when the tsunami destroyed backup generators.

Workers failed to immediately look for alternative sources of water to cool the overheating reactors because they assumed the system was working, even though warning signs told them otherwise.

The report highlights a number of specific inefficiencies. It says unit 1 at Fukushima-Daiichi lost its all power supplies shortly after the tsunami and when its isolation condenser system (IC) failed “appropriate corrective action” was not taken nor instructions given.

Emergency response headquarters and Tepco head office in Tokyo knew about the IC failure, but maintained their view that the system was operating normally.

“These incidents in sequence indicate that not only the shift operators, but also the emergency response headquarters and Tepco head office did not fully understand the function of IC operation”.

The report says some decisions were made only among shift operators and a limited number of staff at emergency response headquarters. They did not ask for instructions from managers and reports from emergency response headquarters to plant managers were delayed. This was a direct cause of the delay of alternative water injection at unit 3.

The report also highlights failures in establishing and operating an emergency response center. Japanese law says that once a nuclear accident occurs, a local nuclear emergency response centre should be set up close to the accident site.

The center for Fukushima-Daiichi was about five km from the plant, but did not function as intended. It was evacuated for a number of reasons including loss of telecommunications, loss of power, shortages of food, water and fuel; and elevated radiation levels in the building which was not equipped with air cleaning filters.

In other words, says the report, the emergency center lost its functions because there was no allowance for a nuclear accident happening at the same time as an earthquake, and the building itself was not designed to withstand elevated radiation levels, despite being intended for use in nuclear emergencies.

Monitoring radiation levels in the environment should have been indispensable for preventing radiation exposure and planning evacuations, but the monitoring system was not sufficient because “many monitoring posts” were washed away by the tsunami or became inoperative because of power cuts.

The interim report confirms that of the six reactor units at Fukushima-Daiichi, units 1 to 3 were in operation when the earthquake struck and units 4 to 6 were in “maintenance mode”.

It says units 1 to 3 “appeared to have automatically scrammed”, but external power supplies and almost all in-house AC power supplies were lost because of the earthquake and tsunami.

Reactors and spent fuel pools lost their cooling capabilities and hydrogen explosions occurred at units 1, 3 and 4. The explosions “were presumably caused” by hydrogen released from possible core damage The unit 2 reactor core also seems to have been damaged, although the investigation is still incomplete, the report says.

The investigation committee also blames authorities for their “inappropriate preparation” of nuclear disaster recovery. In particular, it says the prefectural and national governments should “proactively involve themselves” with local governments of cities, towns, and villages for prevention and evacuation planning.

The English language executive summary of the report is online:

# # #