Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Northwest Passage to Nuclear Energy

Interesting doings in Washington state:

The bills by Republican Sen. Sharon Brown go to a public hearing before the Senate Environment, Energy & Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday. Four committee members also belong to a House-Senate task force studying whether nuclear power should be expanded in Washington.

Not only are there four members of the committee but three bills under consideration.

One of Brown's bills calls for providing a sales tax exemption for small modular reactors that some Tri-Cities interests hope to eventually build and ship elsewhere. Another of Brown's bills would add nuclear power to the list of alternative power sources that certain utilities are required to use to meet state targets for having "green" energy sources as part of their electrical-generation mix. Brown's third bill would create a nuclear energy education program that would include classroom sessions and science teachers' workshops on teaching nuclear science to eighth through 12th graders.

The tri-cities refers to Kennewick, Pasco and Richland in the southeastern part of the state. The last is the interesting one, as it is closest to Washington’s nuclear facility, the Columbia Generating Station, and I assume Sen. Brown has in mind for the area the kind of nuclear hub that North Carolina has developed. And Brown definitely wants to encourage small reactor development at the Hanford site, also in sight of the tri-cities.

However, the ultimate goal of Tri-City economic leaders is to become a site to assemble small modular reactors for shipment around the world, including to Asia.

“Is Washington going to be a leader or a follower when it comes to supporting emerging technologies?” Brown asked. “We have the resources available to us right here in our state. However, other states are quickly working to develop their assets.”

One of those states is neighboring Oregon.

The task force met twice in Olympia and also traveled to Pasco for a hearing and toured NuScale Power in Corvallis, Ore., this year. NuScale is developing a 50-megawatt nuclear reactor that that could be transported and set up for operation at sites where one or more are needed.

There’s no hint that the idea here is to attract NuScale to Washington; the potential of small reactors, well represented by NuScale, is an attraction in itself, and Brown clearly does not want her state to be out of the running.

I have no idea how Brown’s bills will fare in the Washington legislature – the one about education is certainly intriguing and the other ones seem judicious. Nuclear energy certainly should be part of any green portfolio and encouraging small reactors is smart economic development. They would put Washington in an interesting position by leveraging nuclear energy to the state’s benefit. We can’t wait to see how this goes.

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We know that the Northwest Passage is considerably north of Washington, but it is an irresistible title. Let’s consider it a northwest passage, not the Northwest Passage.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cold Winds May Howl, Nuclear Energy Abides

blizzardThe uptick in public interest in the weather would seem to focus attention on the potential impacts of climate change – if you think outlandishly big storms are a symptom of it, that is – but what remains of primary importance is that people keep the heat and lights on.

Obviously, the big Nor’easter now bearing down on New York, Boston and all the way to Philadelphia is the news of the day, so we thought we’d check in on the 24 reactors that cover the region. The news is good – 23 are operating at 100 percent capacity and the 24th is at 88 percent. Let’s let the coal and natural gas folks tout their own capacity factor, but I’ll wager this tops them by a margin. Bragging rights doesn’t trump the need for people to keep safe, of course, but a reliable system of power generators enhances that effort considerably.

We’ll check in tomorrow and see how things are going as
(and if) the storm really wallops the region.

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Tropical storms and hurricanes are named by the World Meteorological Organization because “appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness.” Winter storms are named by the Weather Channel if there is a commercial value to the Weather Channel:

The process of evaluating the potential to name a storm is a continual process that includes a daily hemispheric map briefing among the Global Forecast Center’s team of meteorologists at The Weather Channel.

During the map briefing, candidate weather systems are identified as potential winter storms up to a week out. As the certainty for an impactful storm increases, a storm naming committee schedules a conference call to discuss the potential named storm.

In other words, not every winter storm is named, just the ones that are likely to fill considerable air time. That makes its use patchy at best. Perhaps the Weather Channel can consider having the WMO do this naming if it can be determined that the value is the same as for tropical storms – there’s certainly an argument for it.

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From the annals of science:

Researchers lament the fact that the U.S. hasn't articulated a date for when it hopes to have fusion go online, while China and South Korea have set timetables to put fusion online in the 2040s.

This is from a story about the state of fusion in the Huffington Post. It’s interesting in itself, but this bit stuck out. if researchers really think setting a date certain for the launch of fusion is a desirable thing, they haven’t been involved in the world of fusion for very long. We’ll check back in 2040 and see how China is doing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The State of the Union: What Nuclear Wonks Will Be Looking For

Alex Flint
The following post was submitted by Alex Flint, NEI's Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs.

It’s an age-old parlor game in Washington, hoping for a shout-out in the State of the Union and then acting all nonchalant if you get one, or like the State of the Union doesn't matter if you don’t.

President Obama has devoted some nice lines to nuclear energy in previous States of the Union. The best line (from my point of view, of course) was in 2010 when he said:
But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.
I’m delighted to report that five nuclear reactors are under construction today. Peak employment at each of those during construction will be about 3,500 people and, when they are completed (the first one is scheduled to come on line later this year), each will provide 400-700 permanent jobs.

Of course, it would be wonderful to get another shout-out this year. Fingers crossed, here’s what we might hear:
  • Today, about 15,000 Americans are building five new nuclear reactors to produce clean, reliable electricity, and unemployment has fallen to the lowest level since I've been in office.
But, more seriously, how about:
  • We are going to build a 21st century electricity system that is resilient, brings clean-energy to consumers across our country, and utilizes advanced clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy.
  • We are transitioning to a new transportation system that will feature electric vehicles at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago. To meet that increased demand for electricity, we will lead a major expansion of clean electricity sources including wind, solar and nuclear.
The White House knows, because the U.S. Commerce Department told it, that the overseas market for nuclear products and services is valued at nearly $750 billion over the next decade. As such, we are even hoping to hear something about trade and overseas markets. Maybe something like:
  • The market for clean energy technologies around the world is expanding rapidly, and we want U.S. wind, solar, and nuclear companies to lead the way in those markets. More overseas trade results in more jobs here at home in engineering, manufacturing and consulting.
Statements like these would help reinforce a continuing commitment to develop the full portfolio of clean energy technologies this country needs.

But there’s no way of telling what will happen until we hear the speech.

So, I’ll be tuning in Tuesday night to listen, to parse and to react just like everyone else. And I will be hoping, just maybe, to hear a little something positive about nuclear energy along the way. At the very least, it could give me something to talk about—nonchalantly or not—Wednesday morning.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Join Us For a Twitter Chat on Blackhat and Nuclear Energy January 16 at 3:15 P.M.

A pensive Hemsworth.
Last week we first took note of the television ad blitz around Blackhat, the new cyber crime thriller directed starring Chris Hemsworth that premieres tomorrow all around the USA.

Obviously, the timing for the movie could hardly be better, coming off the recent hacking of the Twitter feed for U.S. Central Command and word that cyber security will be front and center in next Tuesday's State of the Union.

Why are we interested? As we mentioned last week, there's an early plot point that involves the hacking of control systems at a nuclear power plant - an eventuality that the industry has taken safeguards against.

Thanks to bad timing, we weren't able to get a seat to a press screening on Tuesday night (props to NBC Universal for making a good faith effort to get us inside, we appreciate it), but we'll be paying for a ticket and seeing the film tomorrow afternoon at a theater in Washington a few blocks from the White House. Bill Gross, NEI's cyber security expert, will be part of our delegation. After watching the film, we'll return to the office to host a Twitter chat with Bill on the movie and how cyber security is conducted at U.S. nuclear facilities. Please join us at 3:15 p.m. for the chat. In the meantime, please submit your questions to us using #aboutblackhat.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Blue Crabs, Exelon, and the Chesapeake Bay

bcrabjuly08 From the department of unintentional irony:

Chestertown resident Hope Clark said Exelon has a history of being against clean energy generation and policies. She cited the company’s use of nuclear power as an example.

This is from a Bay Times (Maryland) story about a public meeting concerning the proposed merger of Exelon and Maryland’s Pepco electric utility, specifically in this gathering Pepco’s Delmarva subsidiary. (Exelon’s Calvert Cliffs facility roosts on the western shore of the Chesapeake and might be what Ms. Clark is concerned about locally.)

As you may know, everything in Maryland has always been (and will always be) about the Chesapeake Bay if the bay is in any way involved in an issue. Partisan politics has no role here and is non-functional – the bay must be kept as pristine as possible by any human being that interacts with it. There is no higher purpose than that. It would be cynical to call this absolutism a blue crab thing, but even if it were, so what? The outcome is the same as far as the bay is concerned and that’s an unalloyed good. Would that such determined environmental stewardship were copied wherever it would be useful.

Local attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod, representing the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said the coalition intervened because of its concern with Exelon’s environmental track record and what that means for the Conowingo Dam.

He said the dam is the largest source of renewable energy in Maryland and needs to be properly taken care of. He said the counties involved in the coalition are worried about the future of the Chesapeake Bay if the merger were to go through, because Exelon seems not to care about maintaining the Conowingo Pond, the reservoir above the dam that is nearly filled to capacity.

“Environmental stewardship is important to consider and the coalition thinks Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay,” MacLeod said.

This line - “Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay” - would be said by someone in a group like this if Exelon were the World Wildlife Foundation. Still, this is where you express these concerns and that’s fine. This is how it goes in Maryland. May it always be thus.

In a conference call Wednesday, Jan. 7, Exelon’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy Chris Gould said the company is committed to sustainability in an environmental, social and economic sense. He said anyone can find a report about the company’s success with that commitment online.

The Bay Times doesn’t tell you where to find that. We will.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

More of The Nuclear Year 2014

Father-Time-and-Baby-Time-Shaking-HandsIndustries are dynamic entities that are always in process. That means they don’t lend themselves to top 10 lists, which work better for finished objects such as movies and books. We may say that Godzilla was the best 2014 movie to feature Yucca Mountain (built not for used fuel but to imprison a malevolent insect), but that’s a different kind of judgment. Some of the items we’ll include here started earlier than 2014 or started in 2014 but will not reach a milestone until 2015 or beyond. That’s how it goes.

With that in mind, let’s look at 2014:

From a financial  viewpoint, two items stand out: the President’s  request to revive the Decommissioning and Decontamination tax on nuclear plants was turned back in the appropriations bill that passed for 2015. The industry has no problem paying that tax – in fact, it’s paid the full amount two times over. It just was not eager for a third go-round – and Congress agreed.

Similarly, the court-ordered end of the Nuclear Waste Fee, which was intended to fund the construction and operation of the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository. Until the government meets its obligation to devise a used fuel strategy that can include a budget, the industry should not have to pay for that lack of strategy. Now, when we say the industry does not have to pay these fees, we really mean that you the ratepayer does not have to pay them, either. That’s approximately a billion dollars (just in 2015!) that won’t be diverted into government coffers waiting for a purpose.

The appropriations process was altogether pretty positive for the nuclear industry. Notably, the federal government will continue to partner with industry on small and next generation reactors. These projects promote goals the government has given a high priority, carbon dioxide emissions and energy diversity among them.

For a subject that is way too fluid to limit to a single year, consider trade. The nuclear energy aspect of trade has a special twist, the so-called 123 agreements. These are signed by State Department officials from two countries to allow trade in nuclear technologies. These date back to the original Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (123 is the section of the act dealing with these agreements) and root in the desire by the United States to tightly hold nuclear technology. That notion didn’t make it past the 50s, but 123 agreements remain useful to ensure that bad actors stay out of the nuclear business and that the rights of American companies are respected overseas. In general, these have not proven to be a large issue – a 123 agreement with Vietnam took force last year, for example. This year, agreements will be signed with China and South Korea. The latter should be noncontroversial, but the China agreement could be subject to greater scrutiny – but more because China is China than anything nuclear-related. A great many American vendors work with the Chinese nuclear industry, so it’s worth keeping an eye on it. 

Or consider another ongoing trade issue, the Export-Import bank. This depression-era entity became controversial to some members of Congress as a symbol of crony capitalism. Whatever the merits of that view, the bank has become such a factor in the global marketplace that virtually every first-world country has an equivalent entity. The existence of the U.S. Ex-Im Bank sends a message that America takes trade seriously, so it is equally important to companies that use the bank’s service and those that don’t.

The Ex-Im Bank provides credit to both American and foreign companies that engage in trade. NEI took the nuclear angle on the drive to reauthorize the bank’s charter, but this obviously is not a nuclear-specific issue. Many commerce and manufacturing organizations share NEI’s view (cool infographic – collect the set!). In 2014, the bank was reauthorized, but only for a few months. It needs a reauthorization with a reasonable lending authority. This is a big issue, especially with so much nuclear activity happening around the world.

These are some of the key issues that define the nuclear scene as 2014 blends seamlessly into 2015, but there are plenty of others. For example, Congress will probably take a closer look at used nuclear fuel options in 2015 and has already announced that energy policy will be a large topic in the new session.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Blackhat, Nuclear Energy and Cyber Security

While many of us were home for the holidays we couldn't escape the movie trailer for Blackhat, a cyber crime thriller directed by Michael Mann starring Chris Hemsworth. Set to premiere in the U.S. on January 16, the trailer includes a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant in China.



We've dealt with the issue of cyber security with some frequency here at NEI Nuclear Notes. I'd refer our readers back to a post written by NEI's Bill Gross almost two years ago that outlined industry actions in this area to mitigate against the possibility of a cyber attack (emphasis mine).
By December 31, 2012, each U.S. nuclear power plant has:
  • Isolated key control systems using either air-gaps or robust hardware based isolation devices. As a result, the key safety, security, and power generation equipment at the plants are protected from any network based cyber attacks originating outside the plant.
  • Enhanced and implemented robust controls over the use of portable media and equipment. Where devices like thumb drives, CD’s, and laptops are used to interface with plant equipment, measures are in place to minimize the cyber threat. These measures include such actions as: minimizing the use of devices that are not maintained at the plant; virus scanning devices both before and after being connected to plant equipment; and, implementing additional measures where the source of the data or device originates outside the plant. As a result, the plants are well protected from attacks like Stuxnet, that propagated through the use of portable media.
  • Enhanced defenses against the insider threat. Training and insider mitigation programs have been enhanced to include cyber attributes. Individuals who work with digital plant equipment are subject to increased security screening, cyber security training, and behavioral observation.
  • Implemented cyber security controls to protect equipment deemed most essential for the protection of the public health and safety. While full implementation of cyber security controls for all digital equipment requiring protection will take some time, plants have prioritized the implementation to cover the assets most essential to the public health and safety.
  • Implemented measures to maintain the effectiveness of the implemented portions of the program. These measures include maintaining the equipment described above in the plant configuration management program, ensuring changes to the equipment are performed in a controlled way. A cyber security impact analysis is performed before making changes to the equipment. The effectiveness of implemented cyber security controls is periodically assessed, and enhancements made where necessary. Vulnerability assessments are performed to ensure the cyber security posture of the equipment is maintained.
Despite these procedures, continued vigilance is key, something that's equally true for both cyber and physical security. In the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye on this film and screening it when it comes to theaters in the U.S. next week.