Saturday, March 31, 2012

Note to Readers

Computer woes fixed

hard drive on fireWhat was supposed to be a one day swap of a five-year old desktop Windows XP machine for an Intel i-5 Windows 7 performer turned into a repair run lasting several days.

Back in the bad old early days of personal computers, vendors set up burn in centers to test components of fully assembled machines.  Out of 100, usually one or two could be counted on to give up the ghost with a fried hard drive, bad motherboard, etc.  Now manufacturers “certify” their equipment will work out of the box.  That’s bad news for the consumer who get a bad apple.

This was my experience with a 1 Tb hard drive that went south with just ten, that’s right 10, hours of service under its belt.

The goods news is Micro Center, the retailer located in Mayfield Heights, OH, replaced the drive in one day and never blinked.  However, having moved most of my data and programs to the now unrecoverable drive, I had to start over from backups with the new unit.

I am back in business and blogging will resume soon.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

German utilities retreat from U.K. new build

E.ON and RWE pack it in for Wylfa and Oldbury

Two of Germany's biggest nuclear utilities slated to build Westinghouse 1100 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at two sites in the U.K. have packed up and gone home.  E.ON and RWE announced today (March 29) they will not be carrying out business plans worth an estimated $24 billion to build nuclear power stations in the U.K.

The companies said in a joint statement that the "accelerated nuclear phase-out" in Germany has led to a decision to pull back from a number of international investments.

Last year Germany closed eight of its oldest nuclear reactors and scheduled to close the remaining nine by 2022.  The two utilities are hard hit by these moves as the reactors were essentially depreciated cash cows that would have provided money for international expansion projects.  E.On said in its financial statements it suffered a 50% decrease in profits due to the closure of the older reactors.

Both utilities said they would begin seeking a new owner for the 50-50 joint venture in the U.K., called Horizon Power, that was set up in 2009.  The purpose of the new firm was to build new reactors on the island of Anglesey and at Oldbury in Gloucestershire.

In addition to blaming the closure of their reactors in Germany, the two utilities said that the global economic crisis made it harder to raise capital for large, long-term investments like nuclear reactors.

One hurdle too many?

The U.K. government was taken by surprise by the announcement and some analysts said that the decision of the German utilities to pull out was a set back for the U.K. new build.  It raises questions about energy security for the U.K.

The government had hoped that by offering long-term contracts that would pay steady rates that it could overcome the risk issue for investors in new reactors.

It set its hope on construction of new reactors at eight sites and involving as many as 12 reactors for about 17-19 Gwe of new electricity generation.  The German utilities had planned to build 4.5 Gwe of power.

Westinghouse said in a statement issued from its offices in Pittsburgh, PA, that it was "disappointed" with the decision.  The firm emphasized that new nuclear plants are "hugely important" to the U.K. economy.  Thousands of construction jobs were riding on the plans to build the new reactors.

Westinghouse may have sensed something was up because it did not proceed with the final, and expensive, stages of the general design assessment for its AP1000 reactor in the U.K. The firm said last year it would do so when a customer placed an order.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Surprise! U.S. thinks nuclear energy is a good idea

A Gallup poll shows 57% of Americans favor its continued use

A poll published by the Gallup organization shows that a majority of Americans continue to favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S. According to the poll, the 57% who favor nuclear power this year is identical to the percentage measured in early March 2011 just before the Fukushima accident.

The data come from Gallup's annual environmental survey, conducted March 8-11, 2012. The history of the poll's results are that when it was first taken in 1994, exactly the same percentage felt positive about nuclear energy. They also felt it was safe. The highest number, 62% ,occurred in 2010 and the lowest, 46%, in 2001.

The Gallup organization said in its report the extensive news coverage of the Fukushima crisis does not appear to have had a long-term effect on Americans' attitudes about nuclear energy.  Although there may have been a short-term shift in perspectives, the Gallup report notes that attitudes now are almost identical to where they were before March 11, 2011.

Other highlights of the report include

  • Men and women have sharply different views of nuclear energy with men favoring it by 72% to 27% but 51% of women oppose it with just 42% in favor.
  • Republicans favor nuclear energy with 65% in favor  but Democrats are split with only 50% in favor.
  • Age wise persons age 18-49 favor it by 53% and those 50 and older by 61%.
The poll notes that the economics of cheap natural gas are more likely to influence decisions to build new reactors in the near term.  That's true especially in deregulated states.

What about California?

The published information about poll does not break down the data by state.  Readers might think, well the national data are interesting, but what about the arch druids of green political correctness which rule in California?

And isn't the statehouse occupied by a political leader who has some far out ideas that resulted in the label "Gov Moonbeam"?  A recent development there might surprise many people.

According to the DowJones News Wires and MarketWatch, Gov. Jerry Brown says he may be warming up to the idea of building new reactors in California.  Brown told a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal March 23 that while there are no proposals for new nuclear reactors in California, he might consider one it it came up.  

"Nuclear has issues but it is good for greenhouse gases. Nuclear is serious technology that serious people have to talk about."

Brown's comments probably come as a surprise to two groups. The first is the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group which wants to build two new Areva 1,600 MW EPRs in the heart of the California agricultural region. The second is the Sierra Club and other anti-nuclear organizations like NRDC which have aggressively pushed continuation of the state's now three decade old ban on new reactor projects.

Gov. Brown is good at making speeches. Maybe he should pay more attention to what's going on at home than going to business conferences.  

NRC ready to issue licenses to Scana

Regulatory agencies do not subscribe to a theory of political momentum.  Each decision is seen as a "one off" based on its merits.  However, many observers see the upcoming decision scheduled for this Friday March 30 as exactly that phenomenon.  

It is expected the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will award Scana Corp. a license to build and operate two new Westinghouse 1,100 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at a site on South Carolina.  The V.C. Summer Station is located in Cayce, SC, about 25 miles northwest of Columbia.

The vote is the second is a series with the NRC issuing a permit to build and operate two similar reactors to Southern at a site in Georgia.  Both states are regulated markets and support CWIP which allows the utilities to charge the rate base for the cost of the reactors as they are being built.  This mechanism is a key factor which buffers the new build from the competitive threat of very low prices for natural gas.

Japan likely to restart reactors

A common sense signal from an unusual source suggests that Japan may move more quickly than anticipated to restart the 54 reactors that are now shut down.   Cameco, a Canadian mining firm which is a major global supplier of uranium, says that it approached Japanese utilities to see if they wanted to sell back the uranium they had contracted for these power stations. The assumption, says Cameco CEO Tim Gitzel, is that if the Japanese are planning an indefinite shutdown of the reactors, they won't need the fuel.

That turns out not to be the case. According to Gitzel, as reported by Reuters March 26, there are two factors which convince him the Japanese will restart their closed reactors and sooner rather than later.  

First, the Japanese utilities refused to sell back their uranium to Cameco.  Second, Japanese investors in Cameco mines, and other Canadian exploration projects, have retained their positions.  They are not backing away from locating new supplies.

Cameco also noted that another reason is that it sees strong demand for uranium from China, India, and South Korea.  Japan knows that while there is an over supply of uranium now, that might not be the case in a few years.  China is building 40 new reactors by the end of this decade. Gitzel says overall by 2020 there will be 96 new reactors in operation worldwide.  

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

NRC sheepish over Colorado uranium letters

Colorado regulators are red hot about the correspondence

It is frequently the case that when a large regulatory agency stumbles, with help from someone with an agenda, that the news media will use a baseball analogy. It is called putting your foot in the bucket.

Coaches refer to it as the misalignment of the batter's stance that contributes to strike outs.  They also mutter about rookie mistakes and not paying attention to coaching advice.

Batting averages go down and in some cases once promising players are sent down to the minors.  But once you've been a player in the big leagues for a while, rookie mistakes are no longer tolerated by the head coach.

This leads us to a complex but flawed story of how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "allegation process" was turned into a tempest between the agency and the State of Colorado over a permit for a new uranium mill to be built by Energy Fuels (TSE:EFR) in Montrose, Colo.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety (CDPHE) has the authority to review applications for uranium mills and to issue the permits. This is because Colorado is an "agreement" state with the NRC.  In return for meeting regulatory requirements for the program, the federal agency has a hands-off policy.  Its role is limited to oversight and evaluation of the delegated program.  It does not get involved in specific permits.

Hijacking a loophole

But what happened over the past two weeks indicates that like most regulatory set ups, there are loopholes and this one turned out to be big enough to create a significant controversy.

 Last year CDPHE issued the permit for the mill to Energy Fuels much to the consternation of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, and other environmental groups, which have opposed the action at every turn.

The state agency decision followed the prescribed process including public hearings and the listing of a raft of requirements the came with the permit for environmental compliance.

Thwarted by the regulatory process, the Sheep Mountain Alliance took another path and filed an "allegation" with the NRC which is designed to raise issues about safety at nuclear power plants.  In effect, it protects whistle blowers reporting cover ups of safety lapses at nuclear reactors from retaliation by management.  The distinction here is that the Sheep Mountain Alliance is not an employee at a nuclear power plant and the uranium mill hasn't been built. There is no facility at which a safety violation can or has occurred.

That didn't stop two NRC employees from writing back to the Sheep Mountain Alliance saying that CDPHE failed to conduct a proper hearing on the permit.  That's when all hell broke loose in the news media.  Worse, the NRC did not notify CDPHE of any defects in the process or the permit for Energy Fuels.  Under the agency's allegations process, it writes to the person(s) making the complaint and not to the plant operator.

Colorado to NRC - back off

That prompted a fiery five-page response from CDPHE director Christopher Urbina.  He demanded that the NRC retract the letter to the Sheep Mountain Alliance.  He points out that no determination has been made by the NRC that any corrective action is needed in the state's licensing process.  He also pointed out the NRC has no legal authority to change the state's procedures.

Urbina also wrote that the NRC's letter was an "outrage" and would, in effect, "muddy the waters" over the permit. It is one angry piece of correspondence.

Nancy Roth, a senior editor at Fuel Cycle Week, who has been covering the issue, told this blog in an email, "I think the two NRC staff who wrote those letters made a big mistake."

Roth says what's not clear is why two experienced regulators would allow the Sheep Mountain Alliance to "game" the allegations process that is limited to safety issues at an operating reactor and apply it to a uranium mill permit.

Check facts much?

What happened next is entirely predictable. The environmental community plastered the NRC's letters all over the news media producing headlines such as one in the Denver Post March 15 "Feds: Colorado bungled review of proposed uranium mill."

In fact, a legitimate party in a safety allegation process would never go to the news media wanting at all costs to keep their identity secret.  By hijacking the allegation process, the Sheep Mountain Alliance got itself a bullhorn supplied by the NRC.

The group benefited from the news media in Denver not doing the necessary fact checking to find the truth of the matter.  In fairness, it is unlikely any would have heard of the allegation process which may have been something the Sheep Mountain Alliance counted on when it sent out its press releases.

What's will hopefully happen next is the NRC will come to terms with putting its foot in the bucket. It will have to address the state agency's concerns and basically clean up the media mess made by its staff. In the meantime, the Sheep Mountain Alliance got a boatload of free publicity even if the facts are dead wrong.  As for Energy Fuels, it will still have its permit and continues the search for investors to build the 500 ton/day hard rock uranium mill.

An after thought is that every other "agreement state" that issues permits for uranium facilities might now be wondering if they're going to see interference from the feds any time an anti-nuclear group comes knocking.  In the lower 48 only a handful of states are not agreement states.  That could be a lot of people with something on their mind.

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