Thursday, April 16, 2015

How WANO & INPO Measure Excellence in Nuclear Operations

Anthony R. Pietrangelo
The following is a guest post from Anthony R. Pietrangelo, NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer.

Achieving one great year of performance for an industry or an individual is noteworthy. Sustaining exemplary performance over a decade or more is the true measure of excellence. The U.S. nuclear energy industry’s long-term performance is documented by the performance indicators monitored by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).

Why are these indicators so important? They are used as a management tool by nuclear operators to monitor their performance and progress against their peers, to set ambitious goals for improvement, and to benchmark the best practices of operators worldwide.

According to the 2014 industry performance indicators, U.S. nuclear energy facilities set or approached record levels of performance in many categories. Nuclear power plants have multiple safety systems which, if ever needed, can be used to safely shut down the plant. A key indicator of their performance is availability, which is known as “safety system performance,” This indicator tracks the time period the systems are able to perform their safety functions. In 2014 these systems were available 96 percent of the time, the second-highest level since 2005. Demonstrating the consistency of performance in this area, the annual availability of safety systems has always been 93 percent or more since 1999.

Safety and reliability of electricity production go hand-in-hand. The median capability factor of U.S. nuclear plants in 2014, a measurement of the amount of time a plant is on line and producing electricity, was 91.7 percent. A high capability factor means a plant is successful in reducing unplanned outages and completing scheduled work efficiently during planned maintenance and refueling outages. This is the 15h straight year the industry’s median capability factor has topped 91 percent—the best capability of any electricity generating source.

Nuclear plants schedule planned shut downs for refueling and maintenance in the spring and fall when electricity demand dips. Thus, they are generating power when it is needed most during the sweltering summer and frigid winter months. The industry works diligently to avoid “unplanned” reactor shutdowns, and in 2014 the industry set a record for the fewest unintentional interruptions in electricity production dating back to 2003 (link).

What does this mean for residential and commercial customers? It’s an assurance that their homes and businesses will have electricity when they most need it.

It is no surprise that this commitment to safe operations also breeds one of the safest working environments, with a record-setting 0.03 industrial safety accidents per 200,000 worker-hours in 2014. This record is well below the industry’s 2015 goal of 0.1 accidents per 200,000 worker hours. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that it’s safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector, leisure and hospitality industries, and the financial sector.

Congratulations to the nearly 100,000 dedicated men and women who work at U.S. nuclear energy facilities or with industry suppliers. Together they demonstrate an extraordinary and lasting commitment to safe, reliable operation.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Yucca Mountain: Nuclear Albatross or Top 10?

A couple of mentions in the Nevada press about Yucca Mountain suggested that the state might become at least a bit more open about reactivating the project. You can read about this a couple of posts below.

That’s just the tip of the mountain. There’s lately been a regular boomlet in interest in the brown mound, keyed largely to a Congressional delegation paying a visit there:

Five U.S. Congress members are heading to the mothballed site of a proposed national radioactive waste dump in the Nevada desert, amid new talk about a decades-old problem — where to dispose of spent nuclear fuel stored at commercial reactors around the U.S.

Note the word “dump” there? We’ll be coming back to that.

The daylong tour is being led by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, Republican chairman of the House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee and a supporter of plans to entomb the nation’s most radioactive waste 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. “Our nation desperately needs to advance our nuclear waste strategy and Yucca Mountain is a part of the solution,” Shimkus said in a statement.

This trip will include Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy (R), who got the ball rolling (a bit, anyway) with his op-ed we reference in the post below. He represents Yucca Mountain’s district.

Is it possible that Yucca Mountain is actually a countervailing force in the discussion of used nuclear fuel? The Hill has a long (long) article on the implications of reviving Yucca Mountain and titles it The Yucca Albatross, based on this comment:

The Yucca Mountain issue ... is dragging the whole effort to move forward on spent nuclear fuel,” says Timothy Frazier, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center who spent more than two decades managing nuclear programs at the Energy Department. “Yucca is like an albatross around its neck.”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Frazier means. The sooner Yucca Mountain is dropped, the better for moving forward on used nuclear fuel?

That doesn’t seem remotely true, as the article itself reveals:

The administration is forging ahead on interim storage, announcing on March 24 that the Energy Department would begin establishing a consent-based process for siting temporary facilities and reaching out to communities that may be interested in hosting spent fuel.

Used fuel policy can contain multitudes – consolidated storage sites and a permanent repository and splitting defense used fuel from domestic used fuel for storage and Yucca Mountain. Maybe Frazier means that stopping the Yucca Mountain project back in 2008 introduced uncertainty into the used fuel discussion. That’s true enough, so if the uncertainty were removed, by reviving the project, that would be good, wouldn’t it? (The article itself is balanced and very thorough – well worth a full read.

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NEI has posted a list of 10 facts about Yucca Mountain, also pegged to the Shimkus delegation. This is where the whole dump thing gets shaken around:

Reporters appear to delight in calling the proposed repository a “dump,” even though it would be a precisely engineered, state-of-the-art facility. As the National Waste and Recycling Association says of municipal solid waste landfills, “the ‘garbage dump’ is no more.”

A friend’s father owns a sanitation company and I wouldn’t care to run the word dump by him for fear of getting scorched, much less apply the word to something like Yucca Mountain. I think we can say that dump in almost any context is freighted with judgment and should be retired unless it truly fits. Bette Davis intoning “What a dump!” about her own home in Beyond the Forest (1940) works, but that’s about it.

Nine of the points are on target. We’ll let you discover the 10th – it involves lizards or maybe it’s insects – yourself.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Resilience Inside and Outside the Nuclear Plant

Bechtel-logoYesterday, a group of folks got together to talk about sustainability and resilience, especially in energy infrastructure and especially as a means of developing urban centers responsibly. It may seem that nuclear energy has only a tangential role here: it provides emission-free electricity to cities that want to be as emission-free as possible. But there’s more to it than that.

Sustainability in this context means doing the least damage to the environment in building and operating buildings and entire cities, with special attention paid to urban infrastructure in developing countries – a project in Cameroon was mentioned a couple of times as an example. Resilience proved to be a bit more interesting (to me) because it spoke to issues that have engaged the nuclear industry since the Fukushima Daiichi accident – ensuring that a facility can withstand and recover from a catastrophic natural disaster.

The major appeal of this meeting was the participation of Amos Avidan, the senior vice president and manager of engineering and technology at Bechtel. Bechtel is an engineering, construction, and project management company that does a lot of work in the nuclear energy industry – it is involved in both the V.C. Summer and Plant Vogtle projects, for example, so what Avidan has to say about energy infrastructure and its resilience is, by definition, interesting. This subject is obviously right in the company’s wheelhouse.

Most of the conversation steered around specific energy types, though solar panels got a shout out because they’re relevant to cities – you can put them atop buildings to provide emission-free electricity. Perhaps a bit problematic in Seattle, but very worthwhile in Phoenix.

Avidan looked at the subject from a broader view. But some of his comments did graze against the nuclear experience.

This is a little cleaned up from the transcript:

“One quick example is when Superstorm Sandy hit and you didn't have electricity for a while. The gas stations in your area wouldn't be able to pump gas because they didn't have a backup system for electricity; or when Hurricane Katrina hit years ago, the pipelines that supply refined products of the Gulf Coast to the Northeast were shut down for a couple of weeks. So there's much more interdependency in the energy infrastructure and hence it's important for us to look at systems and make those systems more resilient for the future, and that's what we call future-proofing.”

Which is exactly what’s been going on with American nuclear plants following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. I haven’t heard it called future-proofing per se, but the effort to further harden nuclear plants against earthquakes and flooding certainly fits into Avidan’s formulation. So does the FLEX program, which installs emergency kit into all the facilities and at two central locations that can be shipped whereever needed.

But a nuclear plant is as useless as any other kind of plant if other components of the energy infrastructure, such as substations and transmission wires, are damaged. This can seem at least a little more intractable, so the goal is to beef up the resilience of the system. (FLEX contributes considerably here, too.)

Here is Avidan again on ways in which resilience can be enhanced:

We also use a lot - all the vast amount of information, for example. Geographic information systems which not only give you detailed maps of an area, but you can use them to simulate if there is this kind of increase in sea water level and this kind of an extreme weather effect, like a hurricane or a tsunami.

How would you protect those systems so we can design for that? And we can use the information to prepare for the disaster, to avoid it if we can, and during the - when there's an extreme weather event, people tend to use this kind of information, social media and others to react much faster to it. As you know, resiliency means recovering quickly from events that you couldn't stop.

I’m sure this has been true since the first telegraph wire was strung. Still, sometimes, the old ways are good ways, especially enhanced in the ways Avidan describes.

Avidan did speak a little about the accident in Japan. Frankly, it would have been interesting to hear more from his perspective, but the discussion clearly wanted to stay away from specific applications of sustainability and resilience to focus on these issues generally. The benefit of this approach is that it makes you fill in the energy-specific blanks yourself, as I’ve been doing in showing how the ideas discussed might apply to nuclear energy. Even if the nuclear pickup at this event was light, the topic is one in which the nuclear industry is fully engaged.

The forum was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of DC’s more even-handed policy shops. You can watch the 90-minute presentation here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Yucca Mountain: “What if the answer were ‘maybe?’”

YUCCAThe ongoing discussion on used nuclear fuel has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, with interest in consolidated storage facilities growing – and Waste Control Specialists in Texas offering to provide such a facility – and and a permanent repository, such as was the purpose behind the Yucca Mountain project. It’s not an either/or proposition – the first collects used fuel from military and domestic sites – where it is safe as is – and the second will be its final resting place. Consolidation is the right word for the goal – it reduces the number of sites holding used fuel, over time, from many to some to one. It’s been a vexing issue, but not impossible.

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain holds a special place in the conversation because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act specifies it as the permanent repository and because the project was progressing apace until President Barack Obama closed it down soon after his first election. This fulfilled a campaign promise he made during a Nevada primary debate in 2008, but ending the project has always met resistance in Congress. One rarely listens to a Congressional hearing on used fuel – or any hearing about nuclear energy - without at least a mention of Yucca Mountain.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed the safety evaluation on Yucca Mountain earlier this year - under court order - it concluded that the repository will be capable of safely isolating used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste for the million-year period specified in the regulations. So interest in Yucca Mountain rose even higher.

Now, Nevada’s congressional delegation has always been resolute that Yucca Mountain should never open. Might that be wavering? Here is Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nevada) in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

When was the last time someone from the Department of Energy or the White House asked the most basic of questions: Is there a scenario in which Nevadans would actually welcome nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas?

The answer to that question may, of course, be that no such scenario exists. In that case, perhaps another state would like to be considered, and I will be the first in line to fight for the will of my constituents.

But what if the answer were “maybe”? What if a permanent investment were made in Nevada schools — the kind of investment that could take us from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent?

Hardy is being exceptionally careful here, but you can’t blame him. Opposing Yucca Mountain has been almost an article of faith for Nevada politicians of all stripes. Hardy’s district includes Yucca Mountain.

The paper’s editorial board answered Hardy’s ideas directly – and is open to them, a big change:

First, Nevada leaders can stop the alarmism. Decades of politically expedient doomsday predictions have served no productive purpose and instead risked becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Nuclear waste is not a hypothetical material. It not only exists, it’s being stored safely in all kinds of environments. And Nevada’s nuclear proving grounds are isolated, unfit for productive use and secure.

Then federal officials can stop pretending that science has any meaningful role in determining whether a site is suitable for nuclear waste storage. This is a political calculation, and nothing more.

The second paragraph shows the hurt that Yucca Mountain has caused – and I mean emotional hurt. It’s also wrong: the science surrounding Yucca Mountain is key and essentially settled – but if you’re hurting, that can be hard to accept. Even with all that, the paper recognizes that Nevada stands to benefit. It might be in a highly sarcastic tone – and very, very bitter - but there it is.

To be fair, here’s an article in the Las Vegas Sun, also responding to Hardy’s op-ed, on the state of play in Nevada. Just a taste:

Nevada's Democratic leaders and ardent Yucca opponents responded predictably.

Taste enough?

The nuclear industry has interest in this debate to the extent that the federal government live up to its obligation to develop a solution for used nuclear fuel. That’s what the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is all about and that’s what the industry has poured billions of dollars into the Nuclear Waste Fund to achieve.  It’s very interesting that Nevada might be ever so slightly open to reactivating the Yucca Mountain project, but, really, any solution that is safe will do. Interesting days ahead.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Missing the Nuclear Target by a Populist Mile

Daily_CameraThe Boulder Daily Camera offers what can only be called the economic populist’s objection to nuclear energy:

On the economic side, we have this Darwinian capitalism that emphasizes profit at all costs. Nothing can ever be done without everybody slurping at the trough, somewhat of an unstated mandate to always put the risk on the other guy and not pay for it ourselves, and the disastrous need for short-term profits. This would force the operators and owners to cut corners on maintenance and safety, use low-cost unqualified labor, try to circumvent the rules, and pull the profit out in terms of money early in the endeavor so as not to put the profits at risk.

You can see where this argument, if valid, could go in the nuclear energy sphere. Movies such as The China Syndrome and even the more sophisticated Cloud Atlas showed capitalistic greed trumping good sense in nuclear energy (actually, Cloud Atlas made the villains the coal industry out to crush a nuclear plant).

But this argument, and these movies, are, at best, populism gone berserk. In order to develop his angle, writer Glenn Bennett wears blinkers that are alarmingly thorough in blocking reality:

What we need for nuclear power is to have strong regulations, a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers that would be adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.

Why, yes, we would need that, wouldn’t we? Why don’t we?

The prevailing economic thought does not handle risks to society as it should. The main culprit is this idea that the "purpose of business is to make money." What should scare everyone upon hearing that is what the adage omits. There is nothing there about risk or hurting other people and society.

Nuclear energy has operated in the United States since the mid-50s and the number of people it has harmed is zero. There have been industrial accidents at nuclear plants, but even those are very few and are industrial not nuclear, the kinds of mishaps that could happen at a wind farm (well, more like a coal plant).

None of this is dumb luck. It comes from “a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers [who are] adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.”

Sometimes, what seems idealistic can be deeply cynical. The nuclear energy industry may be, to a large extent, a commercial operation – albeit one with exceptional federal, state and local government entwinement. Pretending that safety and a “true concern for people and society” is incompatible with a capitalist enterprise is popular in some quarters but does not stand up to the least scrutiny. Everything is subject to criticism, but not all criticism hits the target. Some criticism gets nowhere near the target.

Friday, April 03, 2015

CNN Botches Uranium Enrichment Numbers

CNN logoEarlier today, the CNN network crawler put out incorrect information about Iran’s uranium enrichment.

The crawler stated that 3.67% is "roughly halfway to weapons grade." That is off by several magnitudes. The cited figure is actually well within the range of reactor grade, magnitudes away from weapons grade. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to at least 85%-90% U235, the fissile element.

Quoting the Smithsonian, "U-235, however, is fissile; it can start a nuclear reaction and sustain it. The 0.7% in naturally occurring uranium is not enough to make a bomb or even a nuclear reactor for a power plant. A power plant requires uranium with 3-4% U-235 (this is known as low-enriched or reactor-grade uranium).

Most importantly, a nuclear bomb needs uranium with a whopping 90% U-235 (highly enriched uranium)."

Here are our tweets reacting to this major error:








Indeed, facts matter.

UPDATE: NEI's Tom Kauffman just reached out with this additional comment:

It is physically impossible for a U.S. commercial reactor to explode like a nuclear weapon. The concentration of uranium-235 within the reactor fuel (3% to 5%) is far too low to be explosive and all U.S. commercial reactors are self-limiting. During power operations, when the temperature within the reactor reaches a predetermined level, the fission process is naturally suppressed so the power level cannot spike under any circumstances. And, by design, no one could intentionally or unintentionally alter a commercial nuclear reactor, its controls or its fuel to make it explode like a nuclear weapon.

A good reminder.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

An Obvious Nuclear Role in U.N. Climate Change Goals

UN LogoNot specifically about nuclear energy – or is it?

The White House on Tuesday introduced President Obama’s blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by nearly a third over the next decade.

Mr. Obama’s plan, part of a formal written submission to the United Nations ahead of efforts to forge a global climate change accord in Paris in December, detailed the United States’ part of an ambitious joint pledge made by Mr. Obama and President Xi Jinping of China in November.

And how to cut greenhouse gases?

Mr. Obama’s new blueprint brings together several domestic initiatives that were already in the works, including freezing construction of new coal-fired power plants, increasing the fuel economy of vehicles and plugging methane leaks from oil and gas production. It is meant to describe how the United States will lead by example and meet its pledge for cutting emissions.

These are all fine, but this is the bit where nuclear energy enters the picture:

At the heart of the plan are ambitious but politically contentious Environmental Protection Agency regulations meant to drastically cut planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s cars and coal-fired power plants.

And how do you do that without nuclear energy? You don’t because you can’t.

Obviously, all of this is highly contentious and none of it is settled policy. What the executive branch wants to do is not necessarily what the legislative or judicial branches will accept. It wouldn’t even be fair to say that the nuclear industry is fully comfortable with it – most energy companies are not nuclear pure plays and many have holdings that would be sorely impacted.

But looking at this just as a plan on its own – and endorsed by the President – then yes, this plan must find a major role for nuclear energy if it is to have any chance of success. Even swimming the waves of compromise that are likely to form in the months ahead, nuclear energy will be necessary to fulfill this policy goal. It’s as obvious as obvious gets.

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The rise of nuclear energy as a potential energy source has really taken off around the world – these stories don’t reference the U.N. plan, but it may well be lurking as a motivation. The other day, we looked at some moves being made in Africa – specifically, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco – and this week, well, consider:

Argentina, Bolivia sign agreement to develop nuclear energy – Argentina has a nuclear reactor, Bolivia does not.
To Meet Growing Demand, Jordan Turns to Nuclear Energy – This would be a first reactor. Russia is involved here.

This falls a bit outside our brief, but this is a thing that’s happening. Suggests a certain – momentum, doesn’t it?