Saturday, March 10, 2012

Talking Fukushima one year on

Now that the American Nuclear Society Fukushima report is out, here are a few additional notes

FukushimaFukushimaFirst of all the full report is available either in sections or as an all-in-one PDF file from the special ANS Fukushima web site.

Second, you can watch the full one-hour long streaming video of the National Press Club event held March 8 by clicking here.

Third, I had an opportunity to talk via phone with the four members of the commission who participated in the press event March 8 to get some insights into their views. I’ve added in some of their remarks from the press conference. I live ‘tweeted” it so I combined the two sessions in this blog post. Here's a summary of what they had to say.

The co-chairs of the ANS Commission are Dale Klein, the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Michael Corradini, a senior faculty member (nuclear / mechanical engineering) at the University of Wisconsin (bios of both men here).

Klein prefaced his remarks by saying that one of the purposes of the ANS report is to set aside misinformation about Fukushima. He added that the purpose of the ANS report is not to affect policy and procedures at regulatory agencies, but to say what we know, and don't know, with technical and scientific accuracy.

"ANS has an obligation to set the record straight."

Klein, who worked in several senior positions in the federal government as a presidential appointee, has a firm grip on getting his message across in a matter of a few words. He starts by pointing out that no one has died from radiation exposure at Fukushima and that the health effects from radiation exposure are too small to measure.

"Fukushima was no Chernobyl."


50 mile hike

One of the most contentious and still least understood events that took place from the U.S. point of view is the declaration March 16, 2011, by Gregory Jaczko, the current chairman of the NRC, ordering all Americans to evacuate to a distance of 50 miles from the Fukushima reactor complex. Klein and Corradini, speaking for the ANS Commission as a whole, said the technical basis for that decision is still unclear and that they remain "puzzled" by it.

While debate over the reason the Jaczko's statement continues, anti-nuclear groups have seized on it calling for the current 10 mile evacuation standard in a reactor emergency planning zone (EPZ) to be expanded to 50 miles. Klein's response to that viewpoint is that a very large evacuation zone could create more problems than any level of safety achieved by declaring it.

"Sheltering in place" is a viable strategy in many instances."

Corradini says a 50 mile hike is not a logical approach to the problem.

"The EPZ should be risk informed and not an arbitrary distance. The technical basis for the NRC's 50 mile evacuation order for Americans was based on incorrect information."

That information was a report that the water in the spent fuel pool at Fukushima reactor #4 has boiled off and that the entire contents of the pool had vaporized spewing radioactive materials into the atmosphere. This report turned out to be completely untrue. The spent fuel was never uncovered by water and suffered no damage from the hydrogen explosion that wrecked the outer containment building.

The hydrogen did not come from the spent fuel pool, but rather leaked into unit #4 from the adjacent reactor #3 which is believed to have suffered a partial meltdown inside the reactor pressure vessel.

Paul Dickman, the staff director for the ANS Commission, said the NRC transcripts of conversations during the early days of the Fukushima crsis show the effects of the "fog of war" where incomplete information coming from Japan contributed to difficulties in deciding how to respond.

Returning to the issue of what's been learned from Fukushima, Corradini said that nothing that has been learned from the experience at Fukushima shows that U.S. nuclear reactors are unsafe.

Design basis issues

Cooradini said, anticipating the NRC's action, that risk-informed regulations can help plan for unexpected events and mitigate their consequences. He points out that low probability, high consequence events require multiple "defense-in-depth" measures to deal with events like station blackout where off-site power is lost.

This point also gets at the definition of design basis. The ANS Commission report points out that TEPCO, the utility that owns and operated the Fukushima reactors, had multiple opportunities to build better defenses against tsunami events. A stone marker dated 869 AD was found at Fukushima which clearly showed the extent of waves from a 1:1000 event reaching much higher than elevation above sea level of the Fukushima site.

Corradini said there is a lesson learned there for the NRC which is that it should periodically review the design basis for extreme events like seismic activity and flooding. How much protection is enough? Klein says that cost-benefit analysis is useful because it will help explain how much safety is being added for the additional cost of proposed regulatory measures.

What about spent fuel?

Klein said that with all the focus on wet storage of spent fuel at the nation's 104 reactors, it is important to point out the Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission has called for the creating of an interim storage facility for it. In terms of priorities, he says DOE's plan to simply move the oldest fuel first isn't the best approach. Instead, he says the fuel that should be moved first is what's left from decommissioned reactors. It's an expense in terms of security and should be the first material to be moved to an interim site.

Second. fuel should be moved that would otherwise require a utility to expand its wet or dry storage facilities. Relieving utilities of the burden of building new on-site storage should be a priority. He added that the "right of first pickup" is something that could be sold between utilities depending on their needs.

Any feedback from Japan?

It is too early to know what the Japanese nuclear community thinks of the ANS Report. In Japan ANS Commission member Akira Tokuhiro, rolled out a presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club on Friday March 9. In a telephone call to this blogger from Japan a few days before the press event, Tokuhiro said that mistrust of the government runs deep and will be a significant impediment to efforts to restart the nation's reactors. As of March 10, 52 of the 54 units are shut down and the other two are expected to be shut down within the next 30 days. The 54 reactors supply 30% of Japan's electricity.

The Los Angeles Times confirms his view that the "insidious legacy may be a shaken trust in government."

The newspaper reported, "Many Japanese feel they've been lied to by their government," said Mitsuhiro Fukao, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo who has written about the public loss of trust. "In a time of disaster, people wanted the government to help them, not lie to them. And many wonder whether it could happen again."

Jacopo Buongiorno, a member of the ANS Commission, and a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT, said that the Japanese nuclear authorities and the government have been "even more forceful" in their critique of the design basis issues that contributed to the disaster.

Klein noted that the ANS Commission had good cooperation from Japanese sources and TEPCO. The utility provided Klein with a four-hour briefing on what it knew and when at various stages in the crisis.

NRC orders follow Fukushima task force report

What's next for regulation of U.S. nuclear reactors? This past Friday the NRC issued the first orders for enhanced safety based on its July 2011 Task Force Report.

According to the NRC two of the orders apply to every U.S. commercial nuclear power plant, including those under construction and the recently licensed new Vogtle reactors.

The first order requires the plants to better protect safety equipment installed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and to obtain sufficient equipment to support all reactors at a given site simultaneously.

The second order requires the plants to install enhanced equipment for monitoring water levels in each plant’s spent fuel pool.

The third Order applies only to U.S. boiling-water reactors that have “Mark I” or “Mark II” containment structures. These reactors must improve venting systems (or for the Mark II plants, install new systems) that help prevent or mitigate core damage in the event of a serious accident. Plants have until Dec. 31, 2016, to complete modifications and requirements of all three orders.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

ANS Fukushima Report at National Press Club 10 AM today (March 8)

Tsunami woodcutThe American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Fukushima will issue its full report on March 8 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, at  10AM EST today, Thursday, March 8. 

  • Live video of the press press conference will be available for viewing via this link.
  • The event will also be live tweeted at the ANS twitter feed (@ans_org).

The release of the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima report offers the opportunity to hear an independent, scientifically, and technically informed view on the accident by world-class experts in nuclear science and technology.

The leadership of the American Nuclear Society, a scientific and technical organization of 11,600 nuclear professionals, commissioned the Special Committee to provide a clear and concise explanation of what happened during the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and offer recommendations for the nuclear community, for citizens, and for policymakers based on lessons learned from their study of the event.

Special Committee members at the press conference will include:

  • Co-Chair Dale Klein, Ph.D., former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Co-Chair Michael L. Corradini, Ph.D., vice president/president-elect, American Nuclear Society, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin
  • Regulatory Issues Lead Jacopo Buongiorno, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Study Director Paul Dickman, Senior Policy Fellow with Argonne National Laboratory

Topics addressed in the press conference and in the report will include risk-informed regulation, hazards from extreme natural phenomena, multiple-unit site considerations, hardware design modifications, severe accident management guidelines, command and control during a reactor accident, emergency planning, health impacts, and societal risk comparison.

The full report will be available for download after 10 AM Thursday morning at the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima dedicated website.

In addition, ANS Special Committee on Fukushima members Professor Akira Tokuhiro and Professor Hisashi Ninokata will hold a press conference at 3:30 – 4:30 Japan Time on Friday, March 9, at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, Japan, concerning the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima report release. More information is available at this link.

This blogger was a volunteer contributor to the Risk Communication chapter of the ANS Report.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

U.S. nuclear renaissance not a sprint but a marathon

Cheap natural gas prices push back some projects by 10-20 years

This is my coverage from Fuel Cycle Week V11:N462, for March 1, 2012, published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

businessman barrierIn the past year the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pushed back the schedules for two early site permits and two combined license applications, but there hasn't been so much as a peep of protest from the affected utilities. The agency's rationale is that none of the related plans, and schedules, for new nuclear reactors are concrete enough to justify a squawk. 

The agency is right: plunging natural gas prices have prompted those utilities—PSEG, Exelon, Luminant and NextEra—to reevaluate the timelines for their new build ambitions.

Meanwhile the NRC is using the reprieve to focus on an ambitious new Fukushima-related regulatory agenda; agency resources that would have been otherwise slated for staff work on the four new build cases are now being used to impose new safety requirements on the nation's 104 operating nuclear reactors.

PSEG’s Reactor #4

The planned addition of a fourth reactor at PSEG's artificial island on the Delaware River in the southwest corner of New Jersey would create the single largest nuclear plant in the U.S.

But in a letter sent to the utility just before Christmas, David Matthews, Director of New Reactor Licensing, told PSEG that due to "resource constraints," the NRC had pushed back the completion date for the Early Site Permit (ESP) by 15 months, from March 2013 to June 2014. 

Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, told FCW the resource constraints on PSEG's ESP were caused by a "shift in resources" to Fukushima-related safety measures.

"The agency has quite a bit on its plate," Sheehan said. He added, "The delay won't make much difference." 

The reason is an ESP contains no requirement to build a reactor. Instead, the regulatory approval is technology neutral, with no reference to a specific design, and it preserves a utility's options for 20 years.

What's interesting is that the utility agreed with NRC's assessment. Joe Delmar, a spokesman for PSEG, told FCW that even when the utility completes the ESP, "there is no likely decision to build anytime soon."

Today’s record low natural gas prices are to blame.

According to figures published by AP on Feb. 27, the price of natural gas is $2.61 per 1,000 cubic feet, a 32% drop from a year ago. The cost of burning natural gas to generate electricity, plus pipeline distribution fees, results in an equivalent cost of roughly $5.61/1,000 cubic feet.

Delmar said that for nuclear energy to be competitive, that price will have to rise to $8-12 per 1,000 cubic feet. He said that toward the end of the ESP’s 20-year shelf life prices might become a reality.

Merchant Nuclear vs LNG

On Dec. 1, Exelon received a similar letter for its Victoria County, Tex., project. NRC moved the ESP application’s completion date to March 2014. That delay didn’t seem to bother Craig Nesbit, vice president for communications at the company’s Chicago offices.

Like his counterpart at PSEG, Nesbit saw the price of natural gas as the real cause of the delay, particularly for a merchant plant, as any reactor Exelon built in Texas would be operating in a deregulated market.

"The delay has no practical impact on our decision making process. Market conditions indicate it will be a long, long time before we build there,” he explained. “The price of power dictates what we can do relative to market conditions and natural gas is driving them."

Nesbit said the utility still holds the Guadalupe River water rights it acquired when it originally filed a combined license application for two reactors. That application was later withdrawn in favor of an ESP.

Exelon's history with the application was also complicated by its decision to switch reference reactor designs, from the uncertain licensing outlook (at the time) for a General Electric ESBWR to the fully certified GE ABWR. 

That move, designed to secure a federal loan guarantee, came too late to help the utility. The ensuing drop in natural gas prices then put a long-term lid on Exelon's plans for the site, which is 130 miles southwest of Houston.

Obstacles Times Two

The two-fold problem for Luminant is that the agency has to first complete the design certification for the Mitsubishi reactor before it can then approve the utility’s construction and operating license (COL) application.

Last February NRC and Mitsubishi had a conversation about that process, and the schedule remains in flux. The agency wrote in a March 2, 2011, letter to Luminant that it is "premature" to accept proposed schedule improvements in the design review. The mandatory hearing for Luminant's combined licenses was pushed back to November 2013.

Meanwhile, the NRC’s website showed certification for the APWR in mid-2014 and approval of the COL in early 2015. Clearly, there's been more schedule slippage in the past year.

Asked if natural gas prices in a merchant state like Texas would have any bearing on the timing of Luminant's decision to pursue construction of the two new reactors, the utility told FCW via email that it will make a decision to build once it has the licenses. Based on the latest NRC license schedule, it could be a while.

Too Humid to Hurry

Florida Power & Light, which wants to build two 1,100 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at its Turkey Point site near Miami, has seen its NRC schedule for completing a COL application delayed by 18 months, from October 2012 to February 2014.

The good news for FPL is that it doesn't have to wait for the NRC to approve a reactor design. The agency certified the AP1000 in December 2011.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC in Atlanta, told FCW the agency revises licensing schedules when utilities don’t have concrete plans to build in the near-term. That's the case at Turkey Point he said.

"They (FPL) are just not close to finishing the application," Hannah noted.

Veronica Swanson, a spokesperson for FPL, told FCW, "The current project schedule includes some margin that may help absorb the delay or lessen its downstream impact."

With regard to the effect of natural gas prices, she said that that each year FPL conducts a feasibility analysis to determine the long term viability of the project.

"In 2011 the project was economically beneficial when compared to a similarly sized natural gas unit in 6 of 7 fuel and environmental cost scenarios and offered fuel diversity and zero greenhouse gas emissions not provided by natural gas generation."

According to its own data, FPL generates 64% of the electricity it delivers to rate payers from natural gas and another 20% from nuclear.

U.S. Renaissance Littered with Casualties

The NRC posts on its website current information on the status of early site permits and combined license applications. In some cases the future of the project is best characterized as indefinite limbo because the reviews have been suspended. Examples include Ameren's Callaway site in Missouri and Unistar's Nine Mile Point site in upstate New York.

Ameren keeps trying to convince the Missouri legislature to approve a CWIP mechanism that would allow it to charge ratepayers some construction costs as they are incurred, but has not been successful. Unistar halted the review of a new unit for Nine Mile Point, saying it wanted to put its resources into Calvert Cliffs 3.

Unistar's Calvert Cliff's project is also looking for a U.S. investor since by law, French nuclear builder EDF cannot hold more than a 49% equity stake in the project.

Constellation, the U.S. partner, pulled out after a public dispute with the Energy Department over the credit risk premium assigned to the loan guarantee for the merchant project. The company is now merging with Exelon. 

Exelon CEO John Rowe said in a speech in late 2011 it is "inconceivable" that a new reactor would be built as a merchant at Calvert Cliffs due to the low price of natural gas.

Dominion's North Anna 3, which changed from GE’s ESBWR to a 1,500 MW version of the Mitsubishi reactor, must also wait for the NRC to complete a safety review of that design.

NRG pulled out of the South Texas Project leaving reactor builder Toshiba without a U.S. investor.  The effort to build two fully certified ABWRs is on indefinite hold.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Good news about nuclear energy – March 2012

Mexico steps on the gas and opens options for new reactors

natural_gasIt wasn't too long ago that the Mexican government was cancelling plans for up to 16 new reactors to provide electricity due to the discovery of massive new amounts of shale-based natural gas. However, Mexican Energy Minister Jordy Herrera now says the government will consider new reactors as part of its energy strategy through 2026.

He told financial wire services March 1, "it is time to put nuclear power on the table," and added that the nation could "easily" build two new reactors at its Laguna Verde power station. Currently, Mexico operates two BWRs there generating about 1,600 MW.

One of the reasons that Mexico is reconsidering nuclear energy is that it wants to connect the entire nation to the grid, and for that to happen it needs the reliability of nuclear reactors. Mexico also plans to build solar and wind power, but cannot get the electricity generated by these technologies to market without base load sources.

Another reason is that looking further into the future, Herrera says the government realizes the gas won't last forever and new reactors have a long lead time. Another reason is that the government wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which is an outcome that is supported by replacing fossil plants with nuclear reactors.

Read the full story exclusively at Cool Hand Nuke online now.


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