Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Ford Nucleon, Electric Cars and the Swiss Thought Experiment

Here’s something I did not know existed, even as far as it did exist:

In the 1950s, perhaps the height of the so-called Atomic Age, Ford developed a concept car called the Ford Nucleon. This nuclear-powered automobile was designed, according to Ford, based on the assumption that future nuclear reactors would be smaller, safer, lighter and more portable. The design called for a power capsule located in the rear of the car, charging stations replacing gas stations and 5,000 miles of driving before recharging or replacing the fuel. As is the case with many concept cars, Ford never built the Nucleon-only a model car half the size of a normal car.

Obviously, the most famous nuclear car is the DeLorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies. The nucleon could not be powered because the technology to do it wasn’t plausible at that time – still, pretty neat, even if we are waiting for a flux capacitor.

In the meantime, where nuclear energy and cars can find common cause is with electric cars. These do not have the science fiction twang of nuclear cars, even if they have not yet found much traction with potential customers and remain for many a futuristic notion.

In an interesting thought experiment – in the form of a college thesis – fellow named Cihan Cavdarli looked at electricity demand if all cars (in his native Switzerland) went electric. I suppose some countries might consider mandating this over time, though none have to date. What Cavdarli found is that electricity use would rise 19 to 24 percent. How to power all these cars?

Anticipating the country's phasing out of nuclear power, Cihan looked at two scenarios. One assumes a high carbon footprint, with nuclear energy replaced by gas. The other boasts a low carbon footprint, with renewable energies stepping into the nuclear breach. "This latter scenario is the best fit for electric cars," added Cihan.

Cavdarli’s being realistic here, but what he is saying is clear enough. If Switzerland kept its nuclear plants open – it has five reactors in four facilities – then the country could power the cars without damaging the environment. But Switzerland, which is closing its plants as they reach 60 years old, will need to replace the plants – which will likely be with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

With the nuclear reactors, Switzerland is almost completely emission free (from power plants, anyway), as nuclear covers 36 percent and hydro 58 percent. And it is all base load energy. That’s very attractive for covering the needs of electric cars, something wind and solar cannot match. This seems a tough circle to square practically – and it’s distressing that it does not need to be squared. Switzerland is in a good spot already, if only they do it.

Anyway, that is, if electric cars become widespread, if Switzerland really closes its nuclear plants and if climate change begins melting the Alps. Lots of ifs – as we said, a thought experiment – with a lot to think about.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From the Navy to the Commercial Nuclear Industry

Blain Highland is on a temporary rotation as a Chemistry and Radiation Protection Instructor at Diablo Canyon 1 and 2. He has worked at Diablo Canyon for more than four years, choosing to make a career in the industry after serving his country in the U.S. Navy.

Blain Highland
Blain Highland
How long have you been in the nuclear industry? 

I got my start in nuclear power in 2000 when I joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. I worked as an Engineering Laboratory Technician on a submarine and as a Radiological Controls Technician for the shipyard. I entered the commercial nuclear industry in 2010 as a contract Radiation Protection Technician for the decommissioning of Fermi 1. Nine months later I had the opportunity to join the Diablo Canyon team as a permanent Chemistry and Radiation Protection Technician. I’ve been a Pacific Gas and Electric employee here since January 2011.

What is your job and why do you enjoy doing it? 

Currently, I am a Chemistry and Radiation Protection Technician on a temporary rotation as an Instructor. The rotation in training is proving to be very enjoyable. Being able to see when something clicks in someone’s head is a rewarding experience. I’ve also found it’s true that in order to truly learn something, you should teach it. 

At the technician level, I enjoy my job because I am actively helping ensure that radioactive materials from the plant are properly controlled and I can personally assure people that their health and safety are our priority.

Why do you think nuclear energy is important to America’s energy future? 

Nuclear energy provides a stable baseload for the country to build on. With newer designs and increased safety capabilities, I see nuclear facilities continuing to provide economical and clean energy. For its level of reliability and amount of base generation, nuclear energy should be a mainstay for all portfolios. 

How are you bringing innovation into the nuclear industry? 

In several instances, I alleviated paperwork burdens and reduced errors by automating tasks. I also partnered with a colleague at the plant to roll out an orientation program designed to engage our employees in the plant’s mission. 

How does working in the nuclear industry affect your personal life?

Working in the nuclear industry allows me to provide for my family while also knowing I am helping provide the community safe, affordable and reliable energy when they need it. If I didn’t know what I was doing was safe, I would not be doing it. The commercial nuclear power industry has given my family peace of mind. There is no fear that something will happen to me like there was in the military. Everyone knows that daddy is coming home to play at the end of every workday.

The above post was sent to us by PG&E for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. It aims to showcase the best and the brightest in the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

For more on this promotion, follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Going Nuclear in Washington City, Utah, Pop. 22,000

washington_cityWe’ve sometimes taken a look at nuclear energy support – nascent or realized – in several states. Communities have occasionally weighed in, as potential hosts for consolidated storage sites, for instance. The folks of Lea and Eddy Counties in Nevada have consistently voiced support for Yucca Mountain.

Washington City, with a population of about 22,000, has gone a little further.

During a meeting Wednesday night, the City Council approved an agreement with the “Carbon Free Power Project” that will provide funds toward identifying potential sites for a nuclear power plant.

On first glance, this is a bit puzzling, as the city would seem unlikely to set up and run a nuclear facility without state and industrial cooperation – at least, not by itself. Indeed, this is true.

NuScale Power has proposed to build a power plant housing 12 of the compact reactors and produce an estimated 600 megawatts of power. The plant is slated to be built in the area of Idaho Falls, Idaho. If the project comes to fruition, the plant will be built and operational by 2024.

“We’re looking at approximately 11 megawatts, or 11,000 kilowatts (for the city) from this facility once it’s up and running.” Washington City Manager Roger Carter said.

That’s much more plausible, but then, what site are they looking for?

The agreement Washington City Council unanimously approved Wednesday devotes funds to a two-phase study related to identifying viable sites for the power plant, and then conducting an in-depth study into the location’s overall feasibility.

“This is the first of probably numerous agreements we’ll see,” Carter said. The project will progress in phases, with participating cities being given the option to sign or step back from the project if they no longer wish to pursue the project.

The story doesn’t quite explain this, but I think the idea is that the towns that sign on to the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) all do this. The latter is a project of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which describes itself as “a political subdivision of the State of Utah that provides comprehensive wholesale electric-energy, on a nonprofit basis, to community-owned power systems throughout the Intermountain West.” And it’s pretty specific about which carbon free power projects it has in mind:

The purpose and need of the CFPP is to provide for additional mid-sized baseload electrical generating capacity to meet the expected future needs of UAMPS' members. UAMPS has determined that new carbon free baseload capacity is necessary to replace the expected retirement of coal fired generating assets and that the UAMPS members need to have a carbon-free baseload generating asset as part of a balanced portfolio of generating assets. UAMPS SmartEnergy analysis concluded that small modular nuclear reactor technology is an important option for future consideration.

UAMPS has further determined that the proposed action will allow it to be responsive to EPA's Clean Power Plant Rule, which requires the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from coal fired power plants while recognizing the development of new nuclear generation as playing a vital role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the electric industry.

That ties it all together – and I imagine more cities through the UAMPS area will sign on as well. And why?

“Our concern of course is making sure that we have an adequate baseload come 2024, and power, especially with our growth,” [Washington City Manager Roger]Carter said. “What we’re finding is a lot of the baseload we’ve relied on in years past is fast disappearing.”

Indeed – the key words there are “adequate baseload.” And that nuclear energy can supply that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Funding New Nuclear Technology (and There’s A Lot of It)

Under the somewhat alarming title, How Startups Can Save Nuclear Tech, Fortune writer Katie Fehrenbacher offers a survey of, well, startups promoting nuclear technology.

logo-terra-powerFortune finds this interesting for reasons that have become obvious to anyone who has looked at recent energy policy:

But four years after the infamous accident [that is, Fukushima], environmentalists, nuclear advocates, and researchers are now looking at nuclear tech as an almost necessary way to generate power without carbon emissions that, if used correctly, could be crucial to help the world avoid the worst of global warming. And unlike with solar and wind, nuclear reactors generate power around the clock.

heleonThe article zeroes in on the investor community, which, even if your primary interest is new nuclear technology, drives that technology to market. It makes sense for Fortune to spin the nuclear diamond to this particular facet – it’s the magazine’s bailiwick – and provides a unique perspective.

Last month, beneath the high-vaulted ceilings of the sleek offices of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that backed Facebook, Airbnb and SpaceX, sits a small group of these passionate nuclear evangelists.

transatomicDoes nuclear energy fit the so-called sharing economy? Maybe not, but the SpaceX connection is interesting – it suggests a taste for counterintuitive thinking, in nuclear energy terms favoring alternatives to light water reactors and even fission.

Last Summer, Founders Fund invested a small $2 million seed round into an early stage nuclear startup calledTransatomic Power. Founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, Transatomic Power is working on a nuclear reactor that uses molten salt and nuclear waste as a power source. While molten salt nuclear reactor tech is decades old, Dewan and Massie are using new designs and materials.

A bit about the venture capitalist Ray Rothrock:

Some of Rothrock’s nuclear ambitions are poured into a stealthy startup, Tri Alpa Energy, that is working on nuclear fusion (nuclear fission is what’s used in today’s reactors). Years ago Venrock backed Tri Alpha Energy, and the company now also has the financial support of the Russian government (through the nanotech company Rusnano), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Goldman Sachs. Rothrock is Tri Alpa Energy’s chairman.

Tri Alp[h]a is new to me and I guess new in general – it doesn’t have a Web site yet – that must be the stealthy part.

nuscaleThere’s more, including Helion Energy (fusion), UPower (small reactors), TerraPower (used fuel as fuel) and NuScale (small reactors). The focus remains largely but not totally on investment. Well worth a read – both for a reminder of how lively the nuclear technology scene is and for this presumption that is driving (some of) the investment.

A recent disturbing report predicts that despite a colossal number of new solar panels and wind turbines over the next quarter century, the planet will still face dangerous rising temperatures. Basically even if these widely embraced clean energy technologies are put on overdrive, we’re still probably screwed.

Indeed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Nuclear Safety Is Top Priority at Idaho National Laboratory

To continue building nuclear energy as a viable U.S. energy source, safety must continue to be the utmost priority. Nuclear safety is certainly Anne McCartin’s number one goal.

As a nuclear safety analyst, she is responsible for creating and maintaining the nuclear facility safety basis for the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) Complex at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory. Anne's work ensures the appropriate controls are established to maintain safe operations that are in compliance with nuclear regulations and laws. She also provides independent reviews of safety basis documents, such as experiment safety analysis plans and core safety assurance packages.

Anne McCartin
Anne McCartin
Anne knows all too well how important nuclear energy is to the future of America’s energy industry. “Our nation’s energy needs will only continue to increase,” she explains. “Nuclear energy provides a safe, reliable, carbon-free energy source on a scale that can meet those demands.”

The work Anne does for the ATR ensures a safe and reliable platform for irradiating experiments, which support material testing for the next generation of nuclear power plants and DOE's Fuel Cycle Technology Program. Her team’s efforts also help provide additional research opportunities for universities and other national laboratories through the ATR National Scientific User Facility.

Anne is proud to contribute to national security by providing research support in nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy and in nonproliferation for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

Being a nuclear safety analyst is technically challenging and requires a high level of attention to detail, which suits Anne’s personality. She admits to enjoying the challenging nature of the work, and the complexity and variety of assignments provide her with ample opportunity to learn and grow.

“I also enjoy the people I work with,” says Anne. “The people at ATR understand and believe in the importance of our mission, so we share in our successes.”

Anne has dedicated 16 years to the nuclear energy industry. She is the technical lead for ATR Complex Facility Safety Engineering, and she’s a licensing member of the ATR Complex Independent Safety Review Committee.

The above post was sent to us by Idaho National Laboratory for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. It aims to showcase the best and the brightest in the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

For more on this promotion, follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Southern Exposure 2015: The Value of Emergency Preparedness Exercises

Sue Perkins-Grew
The following is a guest post by Sue Perkins-Grew, Senior Director, Emergency Preparedness and Risk Assessment at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Preparedness” is at the core of the nuclear energy industry culture, one reason why reactor operators have a half century of safe operations in the United States.

Part of the job of every licensed plant operator involves training to ensure they are prepared to address a spectrum of unlikely events that do not occur during normal operations. In fact, plant operators essentially work their entire careers without experiencing such events. Yet they still practice on simulators regularly, where they are tested with redundant failures of plant systems to gain proficiency in their response to various accident scenarios. This way, they are skilled in taking actions to control and correct any abnormal event. A qualified, multi-disciplined emergency response organization completes annual training and performance evaluations by participating in drills.

Such emergency preparedness training complements the layers of safety protection in nuclear plant operations. Commercial reactors located in 30 states are designed and built to withstand a wide array of extreme natural threats like hurricanes and flooding, security events and technical failures that may occur during electricity production.

And on a larger scale, every nuclear energy facility has plans in place engaging federal, state and local entities – as well as private and non-profit organizations that provide emergency services – to ensure all are prepared to respond to any event. In fact, nuclear energy facilities are required by federal law to have a federally approved emergency plan in place, and they must conduct integrated evaluated exercises alongside other principal responders. Typically, these same plans are activated by locales near nuclear plants for others uses, such as powerful storms or chemical spills.

H.B. Robinson, focal point of Southern Exposure.
This week, these principles of emergency preparedness will be demonstrated on a scale rarely experienced. A full-scale, integrated exercise called Southern Exposure 2015 at Duke Energy’s Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina will involve the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy and scores of other federal, state and local agencies. Others include the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, Interior, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“While we all hope we never have to respond to a real emergency of this type, it is important that we understand our individual roles and how they fit into the overall coordinated response,” said Victor McCree, who leads the NRC’s regional office in Atlanta.

The exercise begins on July 21 and continues on July 22, with additional discussion and review following the exercise. It will be a comprehensive demonstration of nuclear plant operators and responders from various organizations applying their capability and skills according to their plans and procedures. The scenario will include unrealistic failures of safety systems and other artificial constraints needed to drive the exercise and enable all organizations to demonstrate their capabilities.

In that sense, Southern Exposure can only strengthen the ability of industry, federal, state and local responders to effectively manage extreme events in a coordinated manner. And it promises to identify areas that need to be strengthened, while deepening understanding of the “whole community” approach to emergency response.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Amazon’s Windy Path to a Nuclear-driven Data Center

What becomes a data center most? Electricity – and lots of it.

[Mark] Mills [founder and CEO of the Digital Power Group] says the growth of information technology over the next two decades will “radically alter” the electric sector, reducing the use of electricity in many areas while consuming vast amounts itself. The big takeaway from this transformation, he says, is the paramount importance of reliable electricity supplies. […]

A few-thousand-square-foot [data center], Mills says, uses more electricity than a 100,000-square-foot shopping mall. He adds that there are tens of thousands of data centers around the country, “each consuming as much electricity as an entire town.”

Actual numbers for what data centers needs can be a little tough to pin down. But here’s a stab at it from someone who should know:

David Christian, the CEO at Dominion Generation, which operates Dominion Virginia Power’s four reactors at North Anna and Surry, agrees, noting that several new data centers have been built recently in the company’s Northern Virginia service region.

“Each of these centers can require some 40 megawatts or more of safe, dependable, high-quality electricity. Meeting that load reliably 24 hours a day, seven days a week requires a solid, diverse portfolio of electrical generation, and nuclear is an essential part of that mix,” Christian says.

We’ve noted a couple of times that big data centers – those run by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. – have been migrating east generally and to the southeast specifically. And while the southern states have coal and natural gas plants, they have a lot of nuclear plants, too, with more to come in the next few years.

Recently, NEI looked at the issue of companies migrating to the southeast in search of cheaper electricity. We didn’t expect anyone we spoke to to care particularly about the generating source of electricity, just that there was a lot of it at a reasonable price. And that’s what we found.

[Jesse] Smith [of Oak Ridge National Labs] told NEI that for such enterprises the cost of electricity is paramount and TVA’s ability to produce electricity cheaply has always given the region an advantage in attracting new business. Electricity reliability is “expected to be a given,” he says. “In the case of the 3-D printing of the car, any interruption in the flow of electricity would result in them having to restart the building process all over from the beginning.”

Smith is talking about a company named Local Motors.

One of those companies is Local Motors, a Phoenix-based independent motor vehicle manufacturing company. In collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the company earlier this year built the first example of its Strati, the world’s first 3-D-printed electric car. The company is building a 44,000-square-foot micro-factory and showroom in Knoxville.

That’s impressive. Obviously, other cost factors besides electricity motivate companies to move to a state – employment, regulation, etc. – but we found that reliable, plentiful, inexpensive electricity is a big one for companies that bet their businesses on it. The line connecting that need to nuclear energy is quite bright, whether or not a company is aware of the connection or cares about it. (Oak Ridge is, of course, very aware of it and cares a lot.)

The NEI story doesn’t talk much about data centers, but, as we’ve seen, they are among the most electricity-hungry operations out there. What’s true for Local Motors is definitely true for, say, Amazon.

This story, from a data center-centric publication, discusses Amazon’s Virginia data center and how the company is also building a wind farm in North Carolina. Interestingly, though, wind likely will not provide electricity to the data center. What will? Well, we’ll come to that.

The wind or solar farms usually don’t feed the data centers directly. Instead, the company continues to buy power for the data center from the grid, but sells the renewable energy on the wholesale market while keeping the renewable energy credits and applying them to the power consumed by the data center.

And that in turn, despite appreciating the wind farm and all, annoys the easily annoyed Greenpeace no end. And you’ve got to love the reason why.

“Will the power from this North Carolina wind farm be delivered to the utilities that provide electricity to Amazon’s data centers in Virginia?” Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz asked in a statement. “Without an answer, AWS customers cannot be certain that the wind energy is displacing the gas, coal, and nuclear energy powering those data centers.

“More information is needed especially because Amazon’s main utility provider in Virginia, Dominion, is pursuing expansions of gas and nuclear power plants, justified by the growth of data centers like Amazon’s.”

“Cannot be certain?” How about “Does not care?”

Let’s not question Amazon’s motivation here. It’s building a big wind farm and putting it on the grid. Good. Perhaps it feels it is performing a civic duty. Fine. Still, Amazon’s data center needs a lot of electricity it can rely on. We know it can depend on Surry and North Anna to supply some of it – maybe most of it. If the goal here is to run the data center as cleanly as possible, Amazon has the right idea – one if by wind, two if by nuclear. And Greenpeace is vexed. Win-Win, however you cut it.