Sunday, September 23, 2012

First fuel loading at Kudankulam

The Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board gave a green light for the action

Russian build VVERs at
Kudankulam
Work began on Wednesday, Sept 19, to load commercial fuel (3-5% U235) into the core of the first of two 1,000 MW Russian built VVER nuclear reactors located on India's southern tip in the state of Tamil Nadu.  A spokesman for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) said the fuel loading process will take about ten days.

Once the fuel loading is complete, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) will give the plant operator permission to close the reactor head and begin to hot start up. The IAEA will inspect the plant before this step takes place.

Once the reactor is generating electricity, it will be synchronized with the electrical grid.  NPCIL says that half the full power of the reactor, which should be available by the end of October, will be made available to rate payers in Tamil Nadu. The rest will be put on the national grid. India suffered two devastating power outages in July which left more than 600 million people without electricity and shut down the national railway system.

Fuel loading represents a victory over several legal challenges and more than a year of local protests. This is the first time a reactor of this size has been commissioned in India. Similar units are planned for the Kudankulam site.  Areva is working with NPCIL to start work on two 1,600 MW EPR reactors at Jaitapur on India's west coast.  A  December 2012 start date still looks good according to Areva.

India to reform its nuclear regulatory agency

India is reported to be in dialog with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct a peer review of its Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and propose changes to improve its operation. The government's actions follow an audit of the agency which levels severe criticisms of its capabilities and lack of conformance with international nuclear safety standards.

The first IAEA reviews will take place in late October and will include site visits to the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) which has two nuclear reactors.

India' state owned electrified railways
would like to have their own nuclear reactors
 to keep the trains running
It is expected that changes to the AERB, which may require parliamentary action, will improve public confidence in India's energy plans to build 20 Gwe of nuclear generating capacity over the next several decades.

The future of India's energy policy depends on stability in terms of government action.  The current government, headed by PM Singh, is facing an uphill battle due to a corruption  scandal involving the distribution of coal mining and electric power generation rights to private sector firms by state-owned power agencies.

Large parts of India are still without electricity from any part of the national grid so access to power is an important form of political patronage. Who gets electricity and when will be a central concern of whatever government succeeds PM Singh. The nuclear power program will likely continue, but it will need success with reform of the AERB to insure long term support of the ruling elites in and out of the government.

It is unlikely that any U.S. reactor vendors will land contracts to build new units in India. A draconian supplier liability law has locked out all commercial vendors including U.S. firms. State owned firms like Rosatom and Areven self-insure and any future liability claim would be disposed of through diplomatic channels and not the courts.

Opposition parties in the Indian parliament have fiercely resisted efforts by PM Singh to change the law or water it down via implementing regulations. Also, some political interests want all new reactors to be built by Indian firms with Indian designs.

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US nuclear news roundup for 09/23/12

Despite seemingly intractable problems at several reactor sites, there are some positive developments

Common sense report on Indian Point

New York Governor
Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has tried mightily to create a rationale for closing the twin nuclear reactors at Indian Point. However, it appears there is opposition based on the expected economic consequences of losing 2,200 MW of carbon emission free power.

It turns out, according to a New York think tank, (video)(report) that if the Indian Point reactors are closed that the results will be higher electricity costs, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and an economic downturn for the New York City region.

The Manhattan Institute, no paragon of liberal white wine and cheese thinking, says that any combination of wind power and natural gas will cost more than keeping the reactors running for another 20 years. The report, written by energy analyst Jonathan Lesser, makes no bones about the outcome of not relicensing the reactors.

"Politicians should be under no illusion that closing Indian Point will be painless. It will not be."

Among the report's findings;

  • The cost of electricity will rise by $2.2 billion a year
  • The average annual residential electric bill will rise by $76
  • Businesses will layoff as many as 40,000 workers to pay for increased electricity costs
  • The cost of running New York city's subways will rise by $1-2 million more per year with the increases passed on to strap hangers
The anti-nuclear group Riverkeeper, which is partnered with Gov. Cuomo in terms of politics and funding raising sources, dismissed the report saying that Indian Point kills fish in the Hudson River and that power from the reactors can be replaced by other sources.

The NRC is analyzing the safety of the plant as part of its determination whether to grant Entergy, the owner and operator, a 20-year license extension. Because of the twisted politics of spent fuel management in Washington, the agency has suspending licensing decisions for the next two years. 

That timeline coincides with the next gubernatorial election in 2014. This will give  Mr. Cuomo a gorilla in the closet to frighten people with and a means to raise more cash from the white wine and cheese folks who populate his political base in Westchester county. However, the results of fund raising parties do not drive NRC licensing decisions. 

Gov Cuomo may discover the same hard fact as Gov. Peter Shumlin, his anti-nuclear colleague in Vermont. In terms of licensing decisions, only the NRC can decide whether a reactor stays open or shuts down. 

Duke Energy says it will build twin reactors in Florida

Newly merged nuclear electric utilities Duke and Progress will proceed to build twin Westinghouse AP1000 1,100 MW reactors in Levy County, Florida, on the state's west coast and bring them online in 2024. That's what Jeff Lyash, a senior executive with Duke, which now runs the show, told the Florida Public Service Commission Sept 10th.

"We have made a decision to build," Lyash said. "I am confident in the schedule and the numbers."

Lyash said that to meet the 2024 date for entering revenue service, construction of the reactors needs to start by 2016. It will need combined construction and operating licenses for the reactors from the NRC. That's probably doable assuming the regulatory agency doesn't make hash out of its its current two year suspension of licensing decisions and turn it into a permanent policy.

Opponents of the plant say that the reactors do not make economic sense because they believe low natural gas prices are likely to remain so for some years to come. However, Progress says that over the next decade, natural gas prices will rise as the economy recovers from its current depressed state. 

One of the issues that gives opponents leverage in Florida is the state's policy designed, paradoxically, to reduce the cost of building new reactors. It allows Progress to request rate increases to cover new reactors costs as they are incurred while the plant is being built. This policy saves the reactor owner huge sums in terms of interest it does not have to pay on borrowing the money.

However, Florida's demographics are skewed by retirees who object to being billed for construction of a power plant they might never live to see. These intergenerational conflicts offer so-called rate payer groups the opportunity to leverage that opposition in rate case hearings.  

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) is in the forefront of such groups that are challenging an agreement Progress Energy made with the Florida PSC last January. It limits what Progress can collect to pay for the new reactors to $3.45/month through 2018. It means Progress will have to borrow some funds to get construction started in 2016 increasing the costs of completing the reactors.

What it boils down to is that in putting a cap on the basic policy of pay-as-you-go, opponents of the plants are insuring that future electricity costs will be higher once the reactors come online. So for the sake of political expediency and appeals to to current retirees, SACE is pushing higher costs on to the next generation of settlers in the sunshine state.

As Laurel once said famously to Hardy, "That's another fine mess you've gotten us into."

MidAmerican eyes potential site for SMRs in Iowa

MidAmerican Is an adviser to
NuScale which is developing
a 45 MW LWR design
Despite a setback in the last session of the Iowa State Legislature, MidAmerican is evaluating alternative sites in the state for building one or more small modular reactors (SMR) which have power in the range of 100-300 MW. Two sites are being looked at - one in Fremont and the other in Muscatine county. 

The utility is holding public meetings to explain what it is doing, but it also said it is not considering building an SMR next to its existing reactor at the Duane Arnold reactor site in Palo.

A spokesman for MidAmerican stressed in statements to the news media that the site feasibility studies do not represent a decision to build an SMR. The spokesman also said that the utility might consider a natural gas fired plant at those sites, but it won't build anymore coal plants due to environmental regulations covering mercury emissions. The spokesman also declined to give a schedule for the utility to make a decision or build any new power generating facilities saying it was too early in the process.

Opponents of a new nuclear power plant of any kind have piled into the state legislature twice so far and successfully beaten back legislation that would allow MidAmercian to request rate increases to cover the costs of the reactors while they are being built. Environmental groups and the AARP have battled against the proposal. They bottled up the bill in the State Senate preventing a floor debate on its merits.

A spokesman for the Iowa Environmental Council said that a combination of wind and natural gas plants would be cheaper and quicker to build to meet new demand for electricity.  He made no distinction between conventional large reactors and SMRs.

A 100 MW SMR costing $4,000/Kr would come in at $400 million and have an operational life of 60 years. Revenue from the first unit would pay for subsequent units.

MidAmerican may be betting on success among one or several U.S. SMR developers that are seeking $450 million over five years in cost sharing funds from the federal government. The Department of Energy is supposed to make a decision on who gets the money by end of this month. Once awarded, the funds can be used for technical and licensing costs. 

With or without the federal funds, SMRs using LWR designs are expected to get their safety certifications and first customer orders by the end of this decade.

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