Friday, January 03, 2014

The Rest of The Best Nuclear Energy News of 2013

Well, you know, not all the rest, but a few more items. This could go on all day:

nuscale1. Small Reactors – In December, The Department of Energy selected NuScale Power as the winner of up to $226 million in funding support for a cost-shared public-private partnership to develop innovative small reactor technology. The award will be disbursed over five years and will help the company design, certify and achieve commercial operation of its 45-megawatt NuScale Power Module small reactor design by 2025.

DOE’s selection criteria for this award focused on reactor technologies that have unique and innovative safety features to mitigate the consequences of severe natural events similar to those at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. NuScale’s press statement noted that its design’s “unique and proprietary break-through technology” using natural forces of gravity, convection and conduction will allow “safe and simpler operations and safe shutdown.”

DOE’s first award in 2012 focused on small reactor designs similar to certified large reactors that had the potential to be brought quickly to design certification and licensing. That award went to Babcock & Wilcox and its 180-megawatt mPower small reactor.

Small reactors have been discussed for over a decade and really came into focus in the last five years. The NuScale (and Babcock & Wilcox) awards represent  significant milestones.

2. Cumulative Impact of Regulation – This can be a tough topic, because it can read as though the nuclear industry is trying to skirt regulation. But actually, it ensures that all regulations are implemented in the order of their safety significance and without faltering because resources (human and otherwise) become unreasonably strained.

Over the years, the amount of regulatory activity and industry-driven requirements have increased, requiring nuclear energy facility operators to devote more resources to compliance efforts, some of which the industry believes do little to enhance safety. The industry supports adoption of a coordinated approach to regulation—informed by safety insights and cost-benefit analysis—to help ensure that high-priority actions are taken before those that would have less of an impact on safety and that there are no conflicting requirements or regulatory gaps.

In October, the nuclear energy industry submitted preliminary draft guidance to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin discussions on a process that ultimately would help plants make safety improvements more quickly. The guidance’s basic concept is to determine the relative safety contribution of various activities—both regulatory and plant-initiated—and place those with greater impact higher on facilities’ to-do lists.

The industry approach is consistent with a regulatory initiative proposed by two NRC commissioners as part of the agency’s efforts to improve regulatory efficiency and safety focus. NRC Commissioners George Apostolakis and William Magwood proposed an initiative in which licensees would prioritize regulatory actions in a 2012 memorandum to their fellow commissioners

This will definitely be an issue to track in 2014 and beyond.

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2013 had its share of discouraging news too – the plan to close several plants is a major one – but even these came with asterisks. The low price of natural gas unsettled the energy marketplace generally, but intimations of doom for nuclear energy rather stubbornly refuse to become explicit. The closing of Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee for economic reasons suggested to many that nuclear energy has become uncompetitive, but other closures were for technical reasons. 

Nuclear energy facilities are expensive to build but relatively inexpensive to run – especially for the amount of electricity they generate – so closing a functioning plant early is not necessarily the most economic move imaginable. That doesn’t mean that facilities won’t close early in 2014 and beyond, just to suggest that it is a more complex decision making process than it may seem at first blush.

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Speaking of bad news, don’t get us started on Germany. Its decision to shut its nuclear plants is tragedy or comedy depending on the day’s news.

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We’re not writing anything about international doings in this wrap-up, though it’s a subject we cover a lot here at NNN. Nuclear energy has at least two roles to play internationally – combatting climate change while producing baseload energy (see the rising interest in places like Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE, which is building out its first facility; I’d also include eastern Europe’s insistence that nuclear energy be included in the European Union’s renewable standard); and permitting quicker industrialization in developing nations. Climate change mitigation plays a part here, too. Countries such as India and China may be more focused on serving rapidly growing consumer needs as much as industrial development, but there are also a lot of countries nosing around nuclear energy to push their industrial development forward more quickly – Vietnam and Ghana come to mind, but there are many more.

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2013 proved to be a significant year, with plenty of milestones and developments to ponder. With Japan planning to restart many of facilities, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi has become an opportunity to make nuclear facilities even safer not an excuse to shutter the industry. The role of nuclear energy as a carbon emission free baseload energy source has never seemed clearer nor its benefits more manifest. I’m not sure I could have said that in 2012, at least outside core constituencies, but now it seems indisputable and generally accepted.

Except in Germany. As I said, comedy or tragedy. For the rest of the world, a good way to kick off 2014.

1 comment:

JRT said...

Do you have more information on the DOE SMR program. Are they going to build 3 reactors? And if so, are there candidates for the third reactor?