Saturday, May 5, 2012

Surfing the waves of misinformation about SONGS

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif) wiped out in his remarks about the future of nuclear energy in his home state

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif)
is an avid surfer
The perils of an incomplete technical briefing for an elected official were starkly apparent this week in California where a Los Angeles Congressman mixed up passive safety in GEN III+ LWRs with can't fail the fuel properties of 4th generation fast reactors. In swimming out to meet a traveling wave, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher appears to have slipped off the surfboard one too many times.

What the congressman said is that the NRC should deny issuing 20 year licenses to the two reactors when they come up for renewal in 2022. Plus, he calls for a national moratorium on construction of new light water reactors. He wants their replacements to be fast reactors that can burn spent nuclear fuel.

Rep. Rohrbacher's extended remarks to the Orange County Register got point-by-point dismissal from hot headed anti-nuclear groups who have the single-minded agenda of permanently shutting down the twin reactors at Southern California Edison's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

Here's what the OC Register reported May 3:

He said his call for new technology is not advocating a shutdown of any existing plants, just building no more of their type and replacing the energy they produce with new-generation plants that use spent fuel to power their reactors. At San Onofre, radioactive waste being stored could be put to use, he said.

"We could actually kill two birds with one stone if we go in this direction," the congressman said. "We can actually eliminate the waste problem that we face now. ... There is no reason why we should not be building a new type of reactor right here. The new reactors are so safe and so impossible to melt down or to have radioactivity escape that we can put them anywhere."

Ahead of his time or over his head?

Based on his remarks, it seems likely that Rohrbacker was briefed on either the GE PRISM reactor, which is, in turn, based on the Integral Fast Reactor, TerraPower's nicknamed traveling wave reactor, or a fast reactor design being developed by General Atomics which is located on San Diego.

Update 05//7/12: The Los Angeles Times reports that Rohrbacher specifically mentioned the General Atomics fast reactor in his remarks to the newspaper's reporter.

Lots of people have the idea in mind of using spent fuel in fast reactors, but not in the time frame of just ten years from today. Even the Chinese government, which is placing multiple bets on various types of fast reactor technologies, doesn't see "burners" in widespread commercial use before 2040.

In the U.S., MIT's Ernie Moniz, who served on the Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission, told Congress in 2011 that fast breeder reactors, which will make more fuel than they consume, are decades away as commercial offerings to utilities.

Lots of experts disagree with Moniz, on that point, but no one thinks that they'll be towering over the energy landscape like sunflowers in your garden and within the next decade.

The Department of Energy, which is offering $452 million in cost sharing funding for new small modular reactors, will most likely award it to one or two applicants with LWR technology. Indeed, the one SMR firm with plans for a 25 MW portable fast reactor design recently pulled out of the competition. TerraPower, which has 500-and-1000 MW designs concepts, has made no bones about its plans to go overseas to license its technology with partners for the first of a kind unit.

Rohrbacher said in his remarks that experts have told him fast burners could be built in the U.S. in as short a time as five years. Based on where the developers are going, that doesn't seem plausible or even that this is what they told him.

A few beers short of a six pack?

Rohrbacker's error isn't that he got the technology wrong. He got the time frame for bringing them to market condensed like it was the contents of a can of Campbells Soup. Even if he swam too far from shore to show off the marvels of futuristic fast reactors, he neglected to remind the reporter at the OC Register that the same anti-nuclear groups that want to close SONGS forever also want to keep California's now three decade old ban on building new nuclear reactors of any kind.

Now to his credit he does make what appears to be a good faith effort to endorse Gen III+ passive safety designs such as the AP1000 and the EPR, though he does not mention them by name. Had he stayed on that set of cue cards, he could have made some interesting and useful points.

For instance he could have talked about the passive safety features of the four Westinghouse AP1000s being built in China and another four under construction in the U.S. Not to leave Areva out of the picture, he could have also pointed out that two of its EPR reactors are under construction in China, one more in Finland, and a fourth in France. Two and as many as six EPRs are planned to be built in India. All of these are projects have completion dates this decade and not by 2040 or later.

Why sound off about new reactor technology?

For obvious political reasons, no one at SONGS is going to say something in public to correct his primary assertion that it is feasible to replace the current facility in a short period of time with new, passively safe reactors.

Like many elected officials, his view is that if you snap your fingers, metaphorically speaking, it is a case of just add water and microwave, and like instant oatmeal, ta da, new reactors.  As this blog has noted many times, politicians are always more enthusiastic about new technologies than engineers.

Then there is the question of whether a correction would matter to Rohrabacher. His confused comments about SONGS and fast reactors are an obvious effort to position himself in the coming election to be as far away as possible from the current power crisis without coming out at an anti-nuclear critic.

It's another example of a politician wanting to have it both ways and putting his foot in the bucket as a result. He might just as well have promised to put his footprint on the moon next Tuesday.

Rohrabacher represents Los Angeles (46th CD) while Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), in who's district the SONGS reactors are located, represents the 49th CD (San Diego). Power from SONGS keeps air conditioning humming in Los Angeles so rolling brown outs this summer in that city, if the reactors remain shut down, could have potential splash effect on Rohrabacher, hence his statement to the press with fractured facts about nuclear reactors. Maybe last Thursday Rohrbacher should have gone surfing for real instead of hanging ten on what his staff turned up surfing the Internet.

Re-start in June?

Southern California Edison (SCE), which owns SONGS, told wire services May 2 it may have at least one of the shut down reactors back online by June. The reactors would operate at reduced power for three-to-five months and then be inspected for excessive wear on the steam generators.

SCE said it will submit a re-start plan to the NRC in mid-May The regulatory agency will evaluate it and decide whether the reactors are safe to start operations.

SCE CEO Ron Litziner told investors he thinks both units could be back online by the second week of June, but hedged saying those dates depend on the review by the NRC.

SCE CFO Jim Scilacci said at the same meeting repair costs for the shut down reactors could rise to $65 million and that the utility will seek to recover them from Mitsubishi which manufactured and installed the trouble prone steam generators.  He added that the firm has spent $30 million buying replacement power and will seek to pass these costs on to rate payers.

When both units are operating at full capacity they provide 2,200 MW of power to homes and businesses in Los Angeles and San Diego.  

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Progress reboots Florida reactors back to the future

Utility cites lower than expected customer demand, economic down turn, uncertainty over potential carbon regulation, and low natural gas prices

A segment of this blog post appeared in the News Briefs section of Fuel Cycle Week, V11:N471, 05/03/12 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC. 

Progress Energy (NYSE:PGN) has pushed back the completion dates for its planned twin Westinghouse 1,100 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at its Levy county site on Florida's west coast. Also, it increased the cost estimate for the two reactors, the land, and the transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Progress changed the date for the first reactor entering revenue service from 2020 to 2024 with the second unit following 18 months later. The utility increased the cost of the power station from a range of $17.2-22.5 billion to a range of $19-24 billion.

These estimates are closer to the PSC's Public Counsel estimates that the "all in" costs to be in the range of $22-25 billion. Florida PSC Chairman Eduardo Balbis said last February he worries that further delays at this point "could result in a reduction in the cost-effectiveness to the point where the project is no longer viable."

Progress spokesperson Susan Grant told this blog that $3 billion is for new transmission and distribution costs and the rest represents the “all in” costs, not just the reactors from Westinghouse. Still, the costs are considerably higher than other AP1000s scheduled to come online after 2020.

Progress CEO Vincent Dolan said in a prepared statement that despite pushing back the start dates of the two reactors into the middle of the next decade, the plants remain a priority for the utility.

Dolan added, "Nuclear remains a key component of Progress's balanced solution strategy to meet customers' future energy needs."

"The Levy County nuclear project continues to be the best long-term baseload generation option for Florida when evaluating cost, potential carbon regulation, fuel-price volatility, and the benefits of fuel diversification."

Anti-nuclear groups call candor refreshing

Jim Warren, an attorney for NC Warn, a North Carolina based anti-nuclear group, told this blog that the announcement about the new schedule and cost estimate "is a refreshing contrast to unrealistic low-ball estimates we see from other reactor projects."

He said the announcement shows that the price is going up event before the utility has received its license. He added that Progress Energy's customers would be better served by investment in co-generation of electricity and steam from natural gas as well as energy efficiency.

Asked whether the 10-year record low of natural gas prices is likely to continue, Warren observed that "people predicting the price of natural gas have had a lot of trouble with their numbers."  

He said that Progress and the Florida PSC "have a point" that natural gas prices won't stay low forever. 

Warren's group is part of a coalition of anti-nuclear organizations that have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, to stop the construction work at Southern's Vogtle site, which is also building two AP1000s.

Warren said the basis of the appeal is that the NRC failed to take NEPA into account relative to Fukushima safety issues. These are (1) multiple reactors at a site, (2) spent fuel storage, and (3) seismic risk. The NRC rejected the contention the groups filed to over turn the license the agency issued last February for the two new reactors.

Fuel prices and sources

Carbon taxes are have unlikely prospects in the near-term as republican members of the House and Senate regard then with great hostility. However, the issues of fuel price and source diversification seem to be the ones that gets the most attention.

The utility said in its news release that "over dependence on any fuel, e.g., natural gas which supplies 60% of Florida's needs for electricity generation, "can expose customers to fuel spikes and supply disruptions.

Progress made common cause with the Florida PSC which it said has cited the "growing lack of fuel diversity" in the state "as a major strategic concern."

In plain English, the utility and the regulator are described here as worried that natural gas prices, which are running at 10-year lows, e.g., $2.30/MBtu, could spike in future years or have supply problems or both.

The new schedule and cost estimates were made public as a result of the utility filing its annual nuclear cost recovery numbers with the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC).

According to the NRC, the schedule for the combined construction and operating license for the plants indicates a decision by the regulatory agency in 2013. Progress has not said whether it will ask for the agency to change the licensing schedule relative to the new, later planned start date.

Crystal River reactor containment repairs

Progress is working on an engineering analysis of the technical steps and costs to fix the broken concrete in the containment building at its Crystal River reactor. The unit has been shut down since Fall 2009. The containment structure was damaged while Progress was replacing the steam generator for the reactor.

In a rate agreement with the Florida PSC, Progress committed to starting the repairs by December 2012 and having the reactor back in revenue service by 2014. It faces substantial financial penalties if it fails to meet these milestones.

As part of its rate agreement with the Florida PSC, the utility is limited in terms of how much it can charge for work on the new reactors and for repairs to Crystal River. The repair costs are estimated by Progress at between $900 million and $1.3 billion. The revenues from the rate agreement that would be allocated to new reactor development are quite low compared to the cash flow the utility would have needed if it had retained the old schedule.

Along with the plan to to put a repaired reactor containment building back in service, Progress wants to execute a power uprate for the reactor from 900 to 1,080 MW.

Levy site gets clean environmental bill

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Jacksonville District, have completed the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Combined Licenses (COL) for the proposed Levy County Units 1 and 2.

The NRC concluded in the FEIS that there are no environmental impacts that would stand in the way of issuing the COLs for construction and operation of the proposed reactors at the site on Florida's west coast.

The NRC’s publication of the FEIS is only part of the overall review of the Levy County project. The agency staff continues to compile its final safety evaluation report (SER), which will include recommendations from the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, an independent group of nuclear safety experts.

The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is currently conducting a proceeding on challenges to the staff’s environmental review. The objections were raised by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE).

The NRC’s five Commissioners must also conduct a mandatory hearing regarding the application and the staff’s review. All of these items must be completed before the NRC can reach a final decision on the COL application.

Progress Energy submitted a COL application July 30, 2008, seeking permission to construct and operate two AP1000 nuclear reactors at the Levy County site. The AP1000 is a Westinghouse 1,100 megawatt electric pressurized-water reactor design the NRC certified in December 2011.

Duke merger still pending

Last January Progress Energy and Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) agreed in principle to a merger said to be worth almost $14 billion. Duke is developing the William States Lee III power station in South Carolina which references two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors.

It is not clear whether the combined firm would proceed with both the Levy County and Lee projects at the same time. Duke has estimated the cost of the new reactors at the Lee site at $11 billion. The NRC licenses for the Lee reactors are due in 2013. Duke has said the start date for the Lee units would be 2020 and 2021.

The utility isn't waiting until then to boost its electricity supply.  In July 2011 Duke signed a letter of intent to buy a 5-10% stake in the twin AP1000s being built at Scana's V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina.

And Duke isn't the only utility buying up stakes in the Scana reactors. Dow Jones News Wires also reported these developments.

In February 2011, Jacksonville, Fla. municipal utility JEA agreed to pay $7.5 million for an option to buy up to one-fifth of the Lee plant after Duke obtains a license to build it.

In March 2011, Santee Cooper signed a letter of intent with Florida municipal utility Orlando Utilities Commission to explore selling that utility a 5% to 10% stake in the V.C. Summer project.

Neither Progress nor Duke would comment on future plans for their respective reactor projects relative to the merger since it has not taken place yet.

A key question for the two firms is whether the combined business has the financial and organizational resources to sustain construction of four reactors at the same time.

The closing date for the merger has been postponed to July of this year pending approvals from state and federal energy regulatory agencies on the market impacts of the merger.

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No easy road for U.S. nuclear new build

Getting the NRC license is just the first step

detour-aheadLast December, Southern Nuclear had plenty to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had just approved the safety certification for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, setting the stage for a decision on February 9, 2012, to issue licenses to build and operate two of them.

As Southern began mobilizing the full scope of its construction activity at its Vogtle site in Georgia, two issues arose that appeared inevitable based on what we know about the nuclear energy industry in the second decade of the 21st century.

First, the federal government continued to drag its feet on fulfilling its commitment to complete the final term sheet of the $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the project. Second, anti-nuclear groups launched a campaign to stop the construction activity.

Read the full story exclusively at ANS Nuclear Café online now.

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Monday, April 30, 2012

New twists for UK nuclear new build

China and Russia seek opportunities after German utilities withdraw from the market

China's State Nuclear Power Corp., a government owned enterprise, is in talks to fund the Horizon nuclear power project originally organized by German utilities RWE and EON.

The Chinese firm is said to be in talks with Toshiba, which owns Westinghouse, to come up with $10 billion for the first two reactors and up to $60 billion for completing several multi-reactor power stations in the UK.

The Westinghouse 1100 MW AP1000 has passed all but the final regulatory hurdle in the UK general design assessment.  The firm is currently building four AP1000s in China and transferring the technology to China for domestic use and for export.

Russian firm Rosatom is also said to be investigating entering the UK nuclear market by offering its 1200 MW VVER design for the Wylfa site.  That would take some doing since it has not been vetted by the UK nuclear safety authorities.

Rosatom is involved in building more than a dozen reactors globally including India, Vietnam, and China.  The China Daily reported April 29 Russia will build two more reactors at the Tianwan site once China lifts its ban on start of new projects. The Russians will supply 1,000 MW VVERs.

UK government authorities expressed security concerns about the possibility of Chinese and Russian investments in the nation's energy grid.  However, a source at Whitehall told the BBC April 11 that the government is open for business from new investors.

Last month the two German utilities slated to build Westinghouse 1100 MW AP1000 reactors at several sites in the U.K. backed out citing a lack cash to cover the enormous costs of the projects. The reason they ran out of cash is that the German government back home shut down eight of 17 nuclear reactors which reduced revenue by about 50% compared to a year ago.  See this blog for March 29 "German Utilities Retreat from UK New Build".

Parliament looks at new build schedule

(NucNet) A House of Commons committee is nervous about the nation's energy security future.  To that end it plans to hold hearings whether the 2019 target date for the first of a new generation of reactors can be met.

The energy and climate change committee, which will hear evidence nex month, will focus its  investigation on the feasibility of delivering on the UK’s nuclear timetable.

Testimony will come from Volker Beckers, CEO of RWE; Tony Cocker, CEO of EON UK; and Charles Hendry, minister of state for energy and climate change.

In a statement the committee said: “The committee is aware of the significance of the electricity market reform process in determining the viability of investment in new nuclear power stations and does not intend to focus on this aspect in this inquiry.”

The issue the committee is referring to is whether the UK government will guarantee electricity rates for the new reactors to make them financially feasible for investors.  The Financial Times reported April 20 that Centrica, which is slated to build new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point with EDF says it will pull out if the government does not give assurances about the future price of nuclear generated electricity.

Tim Yeo, Chairman, Energy and
Climate Change select committee 
According to the Financial Times for April 23, Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy select committee, said it was ominous that no buyer had come forward to purchase Horizon.

He also warned he was “very alarmed” by the threat of withdrawal from Centrica, which is planning a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset in a joint venture with EDF Energy.

The energy security issue for the UK is that all but one of the existing nuclear plants are scheduled to close within the next 11 years if their lifetimes are not extended.

The government’s timeline for the first of a new generation of nuclear power plants is for it to be built by 2019. Industry had set out plans to develop up to 16 GWe in the UK by 2025

This outcome may now be in question following RWE and E.ON’s recent decision to withdraw from new nuclear investment.  The committee also called for testimony addressing questions such as which factors contribute to investment decisions in new nuclear, what lessons can be learned from new build in France and Finland, and what have been the political and policy impacts of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident.

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