Thursday, February 23, 2012

TVA uses supercomputers to look inside its reactors

A partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory will yield results for years to come

Reactor core simulation imageLiving next door to the most powerful computers in the world offers the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a unique opportunity to get answers  to important questions about its operating nuclear reactors.

The utility has multiple reactors at three sites–Browns Ferry (three boiling water reactors), Sequoyah (two pressurized water reactors), and Watts Bar (one PWR).  And TVA is having its own mini nuclear renaissance: It completed a reactor at Browns Ferry in 2007, it will complete a reactor at Watts Bar next year, and by the end of this decade, it is likely to be nearing completion of a reactor at Bellefonte.

So where does TVA go when it wants to look deep inside its reactors to help optimize their performance? After all, with billions of dollars invested in these facilities, the utility's managers want to insure that they get every ounce of performance out of them while securing safe operation in all respects.

The answer is that TVA turns to the Department of Energy-funded Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) operating at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Real the full story exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

NRC Releases early Fukushima transcripts

An exercise in transparency about the nuclear crisis in Japan is a distraction from the agency's regulatory oversight and safety mission in the U.S.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has released transcripts of discussions between senior U.S. managers and with one of their number on station in Japan during the early days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The NRC blog announcement describes the release as "3,000 pages of transcribed conversations from the agency’s emergency operations center representing much of our communications over the first 10 days of the Fukushima reactor crisis in Japan in March 2011."

The transcripts document two things that this blog, and others, reported months ago.  First, the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Reactor #4 was never empty of water.  Second, remote sensing platforms, both aerial and in low earth orbit, were able to establish the status of the pool and that it had water in it.

If the pool had been empty of water, the infra red heat signature of the pool would have been a white hot spot visible even in the surrounding wreckage caused by a hydrogen explosion.  The Japanese government has declined to reveal their low earth orbit remote sensing data about Fukushima citing national security reasons.

Notes: The Department of Energy's NNSA conducted multiple aerial overflights of the Fukushima region producing a series of radiation maps.  For comparison purposes only in terms of the technology of remote sensing, check this web page from U.S. defense contractor Northrup-Grumman about unclassified earth observing satellite systems.

Questions about the transcripts

Readers might ask that if all the NRC transcripts do is air the uncertainties that we all knew about for months, what's the significance of releasing the information now?  Another question is how would the NRC respond if an earthquake devastated a nuclear reactor in the U.S.?

Is the release of the transcripts in the name of transparency another act in the ongoing soap opera of the dysfunctional relationships between four members of the NRC and its chairman?  How much more media driven drama are we going see which is a distraction of the first order from the NRC's regulatory oversight and safety mission?

The transcripts were released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request from the Wall Street Journal and other organizations. The agency's dramatic, and understandably defensive, language in its blog post suggests more is being made of it than meets the eye. (see below).

What the transcripts report

The U.S. added to the tumult in Japan in the first days of the Fukushima crisis when it ordered a 50-mile evacuation away from the reactor site for all Americans. Japanese citizens who had been told by their government to evacuate to a 13-mile radius were startled and alarmed by the American zone which was four times the one ordered by their government.

NNSA aerial survey of
Fukushima radiation - April 29, 2011
As it turns out according to the transcripts, and this is old news, the NRC incorrectly acted based on reports from its staff in Japan that the spent fuel pool at reactor #4 had lost all of its water and was spewing huge amounts of radiation as a result.

According to the transcripts, Bill Borchardt, the executive director for NRC operations, told NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, "If this happened in the U.S. we would go out 50 miles."

Later, the NRC transcripts report that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flew over the reactor persuading NRC executive Chuck Casto, who was the NRC's man in Tokyo, that there was after all some water in the pool.

Apparently, the data was not conclusive at the time and Jaczko stood firm with his 50-mile evacuation order.  He went public with this view in testimony to Congress on March 16, 2011.

In December 2011, TEPCO revealed that based on aerial photographs and other data that it concluded the fuel rods remained covered with water and were never exposed to the air, suffered a zirconium fire, nor were they the source of radiation measured as coming from the reactor site.

The right question and one thing right

The Obama White House appears to have asked the right questions which given what we know about the safety of U.S. reactors, how would the NRC handle a crisis like the one in Japan if it happened here?

That's still the right question. The NRC has been working to answer it albeit Mr. Jaczko seems to have over-achieved in his enthusiasm for the subject by voting against the Vogtle licenses.  For information on the NRC's Fukushima safety related recommendations, and its priorities for action, check out the agency's documents and briefings on this work.

Jaczko did get something right in the early days of the unfolding events. He predicted that Fukushima Units 1, 2 and 3 would suffer partial or complete meltdowns.  TEPCO later confirmed that's what appears to have happened though the utility has not yet been able to inspect the reactor pressure vessels to visually confirm it.

Performance under pressure

It is said that a good metaphor for working in a nuclear facility emergency operations center during a crisis is that is is like being the universal joint in an 18-wheeler drive train.  You are getting enormous stress from multiple directions while events are spinning around and at a very high rate of speed.

The NRC defends the performance of the agency by noting on its blog that the first days of the crisis were very hectic. 

"These documents provide a rare look inside the workings of the agency’s crisis center as the men and women of the NRC worked 24/7 to find ways to help Americans in Japan, the Japanese government and the firm that owns the Fukushima reactors."

"It is up close and personal, gritty and unvarnished. It lays out the very human stories of staffers working with little rest, talking to counterparts half a world away while at the same time conversing with other agencies in the executive branch, our armed forces and the domestic nuclear industry."

That's all true.  However, as these transcripts reveal, the expertise of the agency has been called into question by its performance during the Fukushima crisis, and the reputation of its impartiality has been tarnished, separately, by the disputes aired in congressional hearings between its chairman and the other four commissioners.

Desi Arnaz & Lucille Ball
The NRC does not regulate nuclear reactors in Japan and its role helping the Japanese government and TEPCO during the Fukushima crisis was at best advisory.  True, it made some mistakes during the early days based on uncertain information, but the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors was not compromised by them.

Also, the NRC can cite TEPCO and the Japanese government, with some justification, for not being as forthcoming as needed in the early days of the crisis. Had crucial information been shared sooner, it might have made the NRC's job a lot easier.

Enough with with blame game

It is time for the NRC to exit from the Desi Arnaz paradigm of "Lucy, you got some explaining to do," and the related distractions from its focus on its mission in the U.S.

The transcripts answer the questions about the spent fuel pool and the 50-mile evacuation order.  Nothing can be served by yet more finger pointing or more media driven congressional criticism.  It's time to move on. The NRC has some work on Fukushima related safety measures it needs to finish. That's where it should put its energy.


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SMR developers seek investors and customers

First, they have to prove they can build one

This is my updated coverage from Fuel Cycle Week, V11:N460 for 02/16/12 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC. This is the second of two articles. 

Bike Race Image: Library of Congress
Developers of small modular reactors (SMRs) of both the light water and fast neutron flavors are in a race to get to market. The reason is a hypothetical SMR producing 100 MW electrical, costing $4,000/Kw to build, is not a 'bet the company investment' making it attractive for a mid-size utility.

Further, the revenue from the first one can pay for the next unit, and so on, which is why they are marketed as "modules." Investors in utilities like the idea of step-wise capital spending at a conservative scale relative to market valuation and ramping up a commitment to nuclear energy in stages rather than 1,000 MW at a time.

Key milestones for success by SMR vendors are securing investors to complete their technology, jumping through the NRC's licensing hoops, and booking that all important first customer. SMR developers see themselves primarily as vendors, and not as nuclear reactor utility operators. However, some may wind up in a hybrid role to get their first sale on the books.

What works for refrigerators does not work for reactors

In the old days of American manufacturing process, the first-of-a-kind unit was called a "prototype." As is the case in any product development cycle, the vendor has to prove that the product will work as claimed to meet the needs of the customer. This means building one, or several units, and getting the mechanical gremlins worked out before committing to factory production.

What works for refrigerators does not work for reactors. Even with a much lower cost than their 1,000 MW cousins, SMRs are still too expensive to build one simply to demonstrate that the technology works. However, some of the SMR developers are planning on building all the components of their SMRs in factor settings so that the entire reactor can be shipped via truck, train, or barge to the customer site.

In the case of SMRs, one option is building a first-of-a-kind unit at a customer site with a cost share agreement. Having a slice of the $452 million in DOE money recently announced will help, but only one or two firms will get a seat at the table. For the rest, other arrangements are needed to drive a path to success.

Prototypes at Savannah River Site?

This is where the Savannah River Site (SRS), a Department of Energy site, comes in. Tom Sanders, Associate Laboratory Director for SRS, told FCW he is developing the capability at SRS to host first-of-a-kind commercial development of SMRs of all types for power generation and process heat applications. He welcomes both LWR and fast reactor developers.

Tom Sanders, Ph.D.
Associate Lab Director, SRS
Sanders touts the advantages of SRS for SMRs and some of the firms working on them are listening. For instance, Sanders told FWW, SRS has access to many types of nuclear fuel include spent fuel. It has good infrastructure, potential customers for electric power and process heat, and most importantly, a supportive community.

Sanders, a former president of the American Nuclear Society, headed up its Special Committee on Small Nuclear Reactors in 2009-2011. His vision for SRS as an enterprise, and for SMRs, is that "it is an opportunity to rebuild American exports."

Additionally, he says that without export of nuclear technology, the U.S. will lose negotiation leverage on nonproliferation issues.

Is anyone  from the SMR world listening?

There is interest in SRS. Denver based Hyperion Power, which is developing a 25 MW fast reactor that will uses a metallic uranium fuel and will be cooled by a liquid lead bismuth mix, has established a memorandum of understanding with SRS. Forrest Rudin, VP for Business Operations, says that with the design 90% complete the firm is looking for new investors, a customer, and a place to build one.

The Hyperion design is based on technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Hyperion has been taking it to commercial scale through a licensing agreement and funding a cooperative R&D agreement with DOE.

Hyperion CEO Robert Prince declined, for competitive reasons, to provide any more details of the firm's thoughts about building its first unit at SRS or anywhere else.

GE-Hitachi (GEH) is also tentatively interested in the SRS site. Michael Tetuan, a spokesman for the firm's effort to build a 300 MW fast reactor called PRISM, told FCW the SRS site "is attractive because of its infrastructure and trained workforce."

He added that the PRISM reactor is designed to burn plutonium which Tetuan says "makes it a candidate for the Department of Energy's plutonium disposition program."
DOE is currently building a MOX fuel plant in nearby Aiken, SC, to process 34 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium and turn it into the equivalent of 1700 PWR MOX fuel assemblies.

However, according to NNSA, the DOE organization responsible for the MOX plant, plutonium disposition will eventually involve "hundreds of tonnes" of the material. NNSA says on its website that "denying access to plutonium and HEU is the best way to prevent nuclear proliferation among rogue states and terrorist organizations."

GEH has also proposed the PRISM reactor for similar use by the U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) which has a similar mission of plutonium disposition and for the same reasons as NNSA. It's possible PRISM's prospects are better on the other side of the pond.

U.K. climate change chief science adviser David MacKay called the GE PRISM reactor "a very elegant idea." A spokesman for the NDA is quoted as saying that the earlier report in the Guardian that the agency had rejected the PRISM proposal "is completely without foundation."

Light water reactor developer NuScale has a toe in the water in terms of interest about SRS, but has made no commitments. Bruce Landry, VP for Marketing, told FCW his firm is talking to SRS.

"We are providing guidance on what is required to develop an SMR project on the site."

General Atomics challenges TerraPower's design

GA plans to deliver the RPV for its SMR by truck
Not to be left out of the picture, General Atomics, based in San Diego, is developing a 240 MW fast reactor called the EM2. Senior VP for Energy & Advanced Concept John Parmentola told FCW that his firm has a tangential link to SRS. It is setting up a Center for Transformational Nuclear Technology at the University of South Carolina with the objective of producing engineers who can take its EM2 plant design to commercial success.

Parmentola says the EM2 SMR works along the same lines as the 1000 MW TerraPower's Traveling Wave reactor, "except that there is no shuffling of fuel elements."  Also, The General Atomics design is one-fourth the size of the TerraPower 1000 MW concept.

He says the innovative fast reactor design uses 12% enriched uranium to start the fission process with depleted uranium or spent fuel at the core. The reactor breeds outward creating PU-239 over a 30-year period. Neutron reflectors and a proprietary geometry complete the design. Additional challenges include new materials for fuel cladding and remote handling tools for managing the core for fuel change out.

The objective, Parmentola says, is to produce an SMR that can produce electricity at $0.06/Kw. He added that General Atomics will likely have to build eight units for customers before the costs get down to the point where power is produced at the target rate. And he says that his firm isn't alone in that scenario. Everyone, even the LWR guys, will have issues with ramping up manufacturing of reactor components, getting the fuel right, as well as issues surround materials, licensing, and public acceptance.

Parmentola says some of the LWR competitors will have initial costs of electricity generated of $0.10/Kw, but he also notes that everyone in the SMR business will have start-up costs higher than natural gas. Getting on par with natural gas on price and speeding up construction in terms of time to market are the two competitive advantages of SMRs Parmentola says his firm has as its targets for success with customers. The faster an SMR reactor design can get into revenue service, the more likely a customer will order one.

Whether he would build the first unit at SRS, or anywhere else, isn't nearly so important as getting the cost curve down to the right price for electricity by the eighth. What Parmentola and his competitors might really be looking is a way to get the cost curve down to giving gas a run for its money by the second or third unit.

DOE's 2013 budget flatlines support for new nuclear tech

Its' a dark time for expectations of new funding for nuclear reactor technology. The Obama administration's budget request to Congress for DOE's nuclear energy programs for fiscal year 2013 reflects it.

Here are a few highlights of the Obama administration's financial plans for nuclear energy R&D. The 2012 figure is the amount appropriated by Congress for the current fiscal year that ends next October and the 2013 figure is the amount requested by the President.
  • SMR licensing support is cut by $2 million from $67 million in 2012 to $65 million in 2013. 
  • Advanced reactor R&D and development is slashed by $41 million from $115 million in 2012 to $74 million in 2013. 
  • Fuel cycle R&D is nicked $9 million down from $186 million in 2012 to $175 million in 2013. Of this amount $60 million is allocated to implement recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
So what does it mean for SMRs? In a word, not much has changed from 2012. It will be an uphill battle for SMR developers of all types. A presidential budget request is just that - a request. It is not a decision.

It is a presidential election year with the entire House and one-third of the Senate up for a vote. Also, many incumbents are mindful of the fact that public approval ratings for congress in general are in the single digits making a "throw the bums out" spirit stronger than usual.

The turmoil surrounding decisions about federal funding will be more intense than usual and that means nothing should be taken for granted - especially the numbers in the President's budget. Competition for nuclear R&D dollars is way down the priority list for a deficit minded Congress that yet seeks to prove to voters they matter for something.

How get more juice for SMRs?

Smart SMR developers seeking federal support for their segment of the nuclear industry will likely take a page from the playbook of defense contractors by showing members of the key appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate how jobs and tax base in their districts and states will grow from investments in SMR R&D.

They might also show how the value and jobs linked to supply chains for units costing $400-to-800 million add to the economic mix.

In the House Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which could support advocacy for the NGNP and SMRs in general, but no representatives from South Carolina also serve on the committee.

That said Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher has noted that the first unit of the NGNP is not likely to be built in Idaho, but rather at a customer site possibly under a cost share agreement with the government. No site has been selected and it is too early in the development cycle to speculate on one.

An industry consortium that includes some petrochemical firms interested in process heat applications, called the NGNP Alliance was pivotal last year in boosting federal funding for the NGNP line item.

There's a better opportunity for funding support for SMRs at SRS on the Senate side where South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, a Republican, sits on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Energy & Water. His role there could be pivotal in supporting SRS lab director Tom Sanders' vision for the site and the likelihood prototype or full scale SMRs would be built there.

As to whether he'll use his influence depends on the answer to the question he undoubted posed to SRS management which is, "who else besides you thinks this is a good idea?"
Right now there definitely are a few hands in the air. Will be oars in the water as well? That remains to be seen.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vermont Yankee in the Spotlight

It is cast as central figure on CNN horror flick

Steel engraving for the frontispiece
to  Frankenstein. by Mary Shelley,
The novel first appeared in print in 1818.
The administration of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has several times declared the Vermont Yankee dead, but like the comical characters in the plot of the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, the reactor keeps coming back to life. At least that’s how it must look to the governor and his "green energy" supporters.

This week Shumlin said the Vermont Attorney General will spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to appeal a U.S. District Court decision that threw out efforts by the Vermont Legislature to usurp the regulatory and safety oversight roles of the NRC. This development falls under the heading of “what is you don’t understand about ‘no’?”

And just when you thought it was safe to turn on the TV because the NFL season is finally over, CNN showed up this week with a documentary that made the reactor look like a hockey masked killer from a teen slasher movie.

Think that’s an exaggeration?  Then how else would you explain the fact that CNN Presents  went out of its way to compare the land-locked Vermont Yankee plant to the tsunami ravaged reactors in Japan?

“It's the same design that was used at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where three reactors melted down after the station was struck by the tsunami that followed Japan's historic earthquake in March 2011. The disaster resulted in the widespread release of radioactive contamination that forced more than 100,000 people from their homes.”

With the CNN program having our rapt attention, the question arises whether the nuclear industry can expect fair treatment from the mainstream news media? Usually the answer is a qualified yes. However, keeping in mind the horror flick analogies used here, there’s a serious bet on the table that the only thing that will affect CNN's fixation on monsters is to ship a few loaves of garlic bread to their producer in hopes of better results next time.

Here’s what some of the nation’s nuclear bloggers has to say about Vermont Yankee news generally and CNN in particular. 

Yes Vermont Yankee
  • Vermont AG to appeal Federal court ruling – Blogger Meredith Angwin writes that yes, we all knew it would happen. The State is appealing the judgment. The State is throwing good money after bad, but Shumlin has to show his hard-core supporters that he really tried.
  • Citizens Rights, State Rights, and Vermont - Everyone knows that the Vermont Attorney General stressed "state's rights" as he fought Vermont Yankee and two clauses of the Constitution (Commerce Clause and Supremacy Clause).  However, once a state begins defying the Constitution, the rights of the citizens are also compromised.
NEI Nuclear Notes
ANS Nuclear Cafe

On January 19, the Federal District Court in Brattleboro, Vt., issued a court decision in favor of Entergy Corporation, regarding the continued operation of its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.  Howard Shaffer examines the political milieu of the Vermont Yankee court decision in light of states rights issues, shared authority among Federal and State regulators, and the political history of some other rather extreme positions taken by state governors.

Tamar Cerafici has a plain English review of the legal ins-and-outs of the Federal court ruling. It is worth your time to step through the issues because so much is at stake.

And now back to our movie

The movie Young Frankenstein was nominated for two academy awards. Here's the original trailer for the movie. Maybe it will have a comeback in the governor's mansion in Montpelier?



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