Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Restoring U.S.-Russia Nuclear Cooperation: A Practical Guide for Policymakers

U.S.-Russia relations have been increasingly strained in recent years over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and the allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. An unfortunate casualty of these tensions has been U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation. Despite shared critical interests that range from nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation to research and development in civil nuclear energy, bilateral cooperation has all but ceased.

President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise – welcomed by President Vladimir Putin – to improve bilateral ties. But a closer relationship between the presidents will not be sufficient to overcome disagreements. What is required is a road map for incremental progress, based on mutual national interests. For the critical area of nuclear cooperation, such a road map has just been published.

Developed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in partnership with Russia’s Center for Energy and Security Studies, and with contributions from the Nuclear Energy Institute, “Pathways to Cooperation” offers a “menu of potential U.S.-Russian cooperative projects in the nuclear sphere.” The report identifies common principles and lists more than 50 projects in the following five areas of bilateral cooperation:

  1. On nuclear science, expanding research on the effects of radiation, developing advanced radiation detection equipment, and using the two countries’ state-of-the-art research facilities to develop new materials for nuclear applications.
  2. On nuclear energy, jointly developing innovative reactor designs, collaborating across the fuel cycle, and promoting safety and security in nuclear newcomer countries, including through education and training programs.
  3. On nuclear safety, collaborating to standardize reactor designs, to harmonize reactor licensing approaches, to improve regulator-to-regulator cooperation, to strengthen international safety incident response and management, and to ensure the safety of next-generation nuclear technologies.
  4. On nuclear security, developing joint projects to secure potentially dangerous radioactive sources and nuclear materials in Central Asia, to prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials, to improve nuclear security education and training resources, and to expand nuclear security technical cooperation with other countries.
  5. On nuclear environmental remediation, advancing cooperative approaches – such as decommissioning nuclear facilities, including those in third countries – and innovative research and development (R&D) on technologies and processes to remediate contaminated soil and groundwater.
As former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman and CEO of NTI, writes in his forward to the report, revitalized U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation provides benefits to the United States, Russia and the world, while helping our leaders “to rebuild the trust critical to putting bilateral relations back on track.”

The above is a guest post from Ted Jones, director of supplier programs at NEI. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

How States Are Taking the Lead to Save Nuclear Energy

A big part of my job is working with members of state legislatures and their staffs. One the most important working relationships I have is with the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). State legislators from all over the country look to NCSL for policy analysis, leadership opportunities, state benchmarks and, most importantly, facts and information to help them shape policies on the issues that they face. 

NCSL’s new report, “State Options for Keeping Nuclear in the Energy Mix,” has all the history, facts and figures to explain why state policies and the electricity markets have created unintended consequences for nuclear power. By introducing price competition and Renewable Portfolio Standards, which are meant to encourage new technologies, policymakers have inadvertently created a math problem that ends up subtracting nuclear. 


It is hardly sensible to subsidize one form of zero-emissions energy in a way that pushes another form of zero-emissions energy out of the market.

In response to the alarming trend in nuclear plant closures, state policymakers have course corrected by starting their own trend: enacting new policies that will fully value the benefits that nuclear brings. The actions taken by Illinois and New York to preserve nuclear plants are explained in the NCSL report. Both states chose to take control of their energy infrastructure planning. Making electricity without emissions has always had a cost, but we have never had to pay separately for it. It’s kind of like how we always took for granted carry-on luggage space on airplanes until we were charged for it. Was it ever really free?  

Although the NCSL report focuses on the preservation of today’s reactor fleet, other states are warming up to new nuclear energy projects. Wisconsin last year repealed a 33-year moratorium on new reactors. In 2016 in Kentucky, the State Senate voted to do the same, and the legislature will take up the question again this year. With almost a dozen other states with the same moratoriums, which state will be next? 

There are many states that would like to be the leader of the pack and create incentives for advanced nuclear technologies. Take for instance New Mexico, which has commissioned a study on the feasibility of small modular reactors. 

We have never had this amount of chatter around nuclear energy at the state level. This is thanks to the states that are taking the lead to keep nuclear energy in the mix for the benefit of their constituents. We look forward to the continued trend of state policies properly valuing nuclear power for providing emission-free, 24/7 electricity to tens of millions of households and businesses.

The above is a guest post from Christine Csizmadia, director of state governmental affairs and advocacy at NEI. Follow Christine on Twitter at @CCsizmadia.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Story NEI’s Maria Korsnick Will Tell Wall Street

There’s a lot going on in our world, and this Thursday at 8:30 a.m. EST, the Nuclear Energy Institute will be making its annual presentation to dozens of Wall Street analysts.

NEI's 2017 Wall Street Briefing

The United States continues to operate the world’s largest fleet of reactors, and is the technology leader. Maria G. Korsnick, our president and chief executive, will talk about how we plan to embrace that leadership role, and how we are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Nuclear power is increasingly recognized at the state level as providing tremendous value, not all of it compensated in the markets. The reactors provide diversity to the system, always-on, 24/7 power, with no air emissions. They are impervious to pipeline glitches, frozen coal piles, droughts and other interruptions. New reactors marching toward completion in South Carolina and Georgia will be part of those states’ energy backbone for a long time, probably the remainder of the century.

We are also moving towards second license renewal, which will allow today’s plants to run beyond 60 years.

We’ve got a start-up with an exciting new concept, a reactor with tremendous safety enhancements. The company, NuScale Power, just filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have its design approved. It’s a small modular reactor that can be built in a factory and trucked to where it’s needed. Because of its geometry, it’s got much lower demands on the operator – in fact, none at all for the first 30 days it’s online. It opens up new markets to nuclear power.

We’ve got a mature industrial base but we’ve also got a lot of smart, innovative engineers with lots of ideas. Capital is flowing into nuclear start-ups right now.

And the fleet continues to run with extremely high reliability. In addition, its costs are falling.

Ms. Korsnick will give the presentation in New York, with one eye on Washington. We are about to see major turnover at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and we are hopeful about a new determination in Washington to achieve efficient, good-sense regulation.

Catch us live on NEI’s Facebook page or (if you’re over 35 years old) YouTube.

The above is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Monday, February 06, 2017

With Nuclear Plants Closing, Fears Grow for Stability of New England’s Electric Grid

We can’t really say it snuck up on us, but New England’s electricity infrastructure is already prone to supply interruptions and price spikes, and getting more so. And so far the steps to counter the problem have been very limited.

There’s a new warning from the non-profit company that operates the six-state grid, the Independent System Operator – New England (ISO-NE). One easy work-around – building gas plants that can run on oil in a pinch – is getting harder to use, because of air pollution rules, according to the head of the organization, Gordon van Welie, president and chief executive. His warning came in ISO-NE’s annual update on the state of the region’s electric grid.

The result is a loss of energy diversity that threatens the stability of supply and price, according to van Welie, who spoke to reporters on Jan. 30. Among the elements in this unhealthy trend are the premature closings of two nuclear reactors, Vermont Yankee, in December, 2014, and Pilgrim, in Plymouth, Mass., which is scheduled to close in 2019.

Combined with the closing of some coal-fired plants, the system is tilting more and more heavily towards gas, which has already caused major price spikes in periods of cold weather, when the gas is used for heating homes and businesses. According to van Welie, “Inadequate fuel infrastructure, particularly natural gas infrastructure to serve New England’s growing fleet of natural gas-fired power plants, is a current, and growing, reliability risk.’’

Millstone Power Station
In this context, the future of the Millstone Power Station takes on new significance. Generators don’t get paid for contributing to the healthy diversity of the system, but the New England system is more likely to run into trouble because of its reduced diversity, and part of Millstone’s value is that it doesn’t need pipelines or coal trains. In fact, at any moment it’s got months of fuel already on site.

According to the Independent System Operator, diversity protects against “controlled power outages.” These happen if gas generators are sidelined by fuel shortages, if pipelines are congested and oil and LNG deliveries are interrupted by weather or other factors, the region will face “controlled power outages.”

The Independent System Operator says it doesn’t favor any technology over any other, and it doesn’t have financial ties to any particular form of generation. It doesn’t own any generating stations or transmission lines, and can’t order anybody to build either one of those. All it can do is point to emerging problems. And in the electric business, you have to point early, because it takes a while to bring anything new on line.

The ISO market has benefits. Prices are down, because of competition, and because of very low natural gas prices. But the market structure doesn’t consider diversity.

It may be time for some new policy guidance, this time by the legislature in Hartford, where pending legislation would allow Millstone to compete to reduce retail electric rates. If the legislation is passed, Connecticut will reduce retail electric rates and will have the benefits of all of Millstone’s attributes – carbon-free generation, around-the-clock production, and fuel diversity.

The above is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why Buy A Shutdown Nuclear Plant? The Answer Might Surprise You

Today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a public meeting to consider the latest development in what has become a growing trend in the nuclear power industry – accelerating decommissioning by transferring licenses to third parties after a plant shuts down. The topic of today’s NRC meeting was to provide an overview of Entergy’s plan to sell and transfer the NRC licenses for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station – which permanently ceased operations at the end of 2014 – to NorthStar Group Services, Inc., a company that specializes in nuclear decommissioning and environmental remediation. This meeting began the process by which the companies seek NRC approval of the transaction.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station
Why would anyone want to buy a nuclear plant? Because they can decommission it faster, with more certainty in schedule and costs,that’s why. In the nuclear decommissioning business, time is literally money. NRC regulations allow up to 60 years for completion of decommissioning, and waiting is a prudent and safe practice that often becomes necessary when plants shut down early. Plant owners are required to set aside money in a nuclear decommissioning trust fund while the plant is operating and to assure the NRC that this fund will be sufficient to decommission the plant. For early shutdowns like Vermont Yankee, additional time may be needed for the decommissioning trust fund to grow through the accumulation of investment interest before the more significant work can begin. What decommissioning companies are saying, though, is that their experience enables them to provide more certainty to efficiently and safely dismantle the plants without having to wait.

It is not surprising that much has been learned about nuclear plant decommissioning. The process has already been completed at 11 U.S. power reactors and dozens of additional facilities around the world, where radioactive systems and structures have been decontaminated and dismantled, with any remaining low-level radioactive waste shipped off to disposal sites. High-level radioactive waste, in the form of used nuclear fuel, is transferred to robust concrete and steel dry cask storage systems that are typically located at the site until a permanent disposal facility is developed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Existing Vermont Yankee ISFSI pad and the cleared site for the second ISFSI
Recently, this experience was put to the test at the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois. Shut down in 1998, Zion was in a holding pattern until 2010, when Exelon transferred the license to a subsidiary of decommissioning company Energy Solutions (now known as Zion Solutions). The project is now on track for completion well ahead of its 2020 deadline – more than a dozen years earlier than originally planned. A similar approach is now also being applied to the decommissioning of a reactor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin which ceased operations in 1987.

Although every plant is different, the Vermont Yankee, Zion and LaCrosse transactions have much in common when it comes to creating win-win business propositions. And the real winners in these transactions are the people who live around the plant. Under the agreement discussed today, Vermont Yankee decommissioning and site restoration will be scheduled for completion decades earlier, with cost certainty and additional financial assurances. This arrangement also will begin generating economic activity at the site during the active decommissioning phase many years sooner than originally planned, with benefits for the local and regional economy. 

While improved business models are making a huge difference, there are two additional obstacles that, if overcome, would further improve the process: 1) regulatory uncertainties that exist during the transition from operations to decommissioning (Vermont Yankee is past that phase) and, 2) the shipment of used fuel off the site to a federal facility (as required by law) so all land associated with the plant can be released. On the first issue, in November 2015, the NRC proposed a rulemaking that has the potential to make the transition more efficient. And regarding for the used fuel, just last week former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been nominated to be Secretary of Energy, promised in his confirmation hearing that, "The time of kicking the can down the road — those days are over.”   

The above is a guest post from Rod McCullum, senior director of fuel and decommissioning at NEI.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a variety of techniques. One simple one is replacing some metal parts every few years.

But materials scientists at the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research, at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, are working on a variety of “radiation-tolerant” materials that are self-healing. These would improve the durability of the metal parts, which would be helpful for the current fleet and more important for advanced reactors still in the design phase. Fuel elements in existing reactors are replaced after a few years, but some of the new designs would leave metal parts in place for far longer. And better materials can improve the reliability of any industry.

The researchers are working with the fact that a different class of materials, called “amorphous materials,” do not suffer damage when bombarded with neutrons. Amorphous materials, which are already in common use, do not suffer the same kind of damage. The atoms in an amorphous material are not arranged in a repeated pattern. Polymers and gels are two kinds of amorphous solids.

What the Nebraska researchers have discovered, in work partly funded by the Nebraska Public Power District and the Department of Energy's office of Nuclear Energy, is that if crystalline materials are sandwiched with amorphous materials, the flaws in the crystalline materials --- both the voids and the areas with extra density --- migrate toward the border of the two. And when they meet, they annihilate each other.

The researchers use a particle accelerator rather than a reactor, to create the damage, and then study it with powerful microscopes. They work with layers a few microns thick.

Bai Cui, an assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, said that at the boundary, the two flaws neutralize each other quickly. The atoms are vibrating at a rate of about 130 trillion times per second (ten to the 13th), and the flaws locate each other in about 100 cycles – that is, on the order of a trillionth of a second.

Jian Wang, an associate professor at the center, pointed out that some advanced reactor designs would have operating temperatures of over 200 degrees C and would use corrosive coolants, like molten salt or supercritical water, and are intended to run for 80 years or more. Micro-layers of amorphous materials could work well in that environment, he said.
The center is also working on nano-materials that can be mixed into steel to attract and neutralize flaws. The material can be used in a weld, and is then mixed in using “laser peening.” Generally, peening means shooting particles at a target at high velocity, often to strip off the top layer of the target. But in laser peening, the pressure of light distributes the nano-materials within the steel.

The center is directed by Dr. Michael Nastasi, a research scientist formerly at the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. The cutting-edge nuclear research here is not its only focus; this being Nebraska, it also conducts research on wind turbines, biofuels, crop irrigation and other areas.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Next Big Thing in Nuclear Power: Think Smaller & Safer

Dr. Everett Redmond
The following is a guest post by Dr. Everett Redmond, NEI's Senior Director, Policy Development.

There’s a lot to like about the small modular reactor design that NuScale Power submitted yesterday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Most often people talk about the ability to build such reactors in a factory and ship them by truck or rail, in nearly-finished form, to where they are needed, and to add generating capacity to a plant in modest increments, as demand grows. But it’s easy to overlook another strength of the NuScale design: one of its intrinsic features is a simple way to enhance the safety of the reactor fuel.

There’s a fancy name for this feature: a high surface-to-volume ratio. In plain English, as a container gets smaller, its surface area gets larger relative to its volume, a phenomenon obvious to anyone who cooks. Take a hardboiled egg out of the pot of boiling water and put it into a bowl of cold water, and the egg cools very quickly. It does that because the water draws away the heat much faster than air could, and the area of the egg shell is relatively large compared to volume of the egg. Contrast this with a boiled potato that would take longer to cool because its surface area is smaller in comparison to its volume.
Cooling the NuScale SMR is like chilling a hard boiled egg.*
The NuScale module’s core is about one-twentieth the size of a standard large unit. The NuScale cores each sit in their own containment, a vessel a little like a thermos bottle. The containments are submerged in a huge pool of water. Like a thermos, the NuScale design uses a vacuum between the inner wall and the outer wall of its containment vessel, so the reactor can produce steam without heating up the surrounding water.

If there’s a problem, valves will break the vacuum and the steam from the reactor will flow into that vacuum space, and condense into water. So that space, which used to be a vacuum, and insulating layer, will become filled with water which will conduct heat away from the core. The heat will naturally travel through that water and to the outer wall of the module, and from there into the pool. The heat will bleed away fast enough so that the core can’t heat up to the point of damaging the fuel.

That principle leads to other advantages. The design is intended to be “walk-away safe,” with no short-term actions required by the operators. And existing reactors keep safety-grade backup diesel generators on site, but NuScale does not need these, because it doesn’t need the electricity to pump water or run mechanical systems to draw away heat. In fact this simple design does not use pumps when running normally to move the useful heat out of the core so it can be turned into electricity; that happens through natural convection.

Of course, an inherently safe design is always a good idea. But there’s another advantage here. The NRC has yet to evaluate NuScale’s application, but NuScale’s engineering shows that the emergency planning zone for its plant should extend only as far as the plant fence. The reactor can be located close to where electricity is needed the most.

That will make the NuScale reactor a good candidate for replacement power at old fossil-fueled sites in the United States, and in fast-growing cities around the world that do not have adequate electric local generation or a strong power grid to carry in power from distant places.

*Photo by Andrea Nguyen, provided under a Creative Commons license.