Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks
Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency and streamline many of our processes and practices. Vogtle Unit 3 will be the first fully digital nuclear unit in the country. That affords many innovative approaches to how we operate and maintain the plant. One thing that will never change is that the nuclear industry will always hold paramount the health and safety of the community we serve.

When I was a shift supervisor at Plant Farley, I was often asked exactly what it is that I do every day. My favorite response: "I make clouds for a living." This would generally result in a look of confusion on the face of the person I was talking to, but it would give me an opportunity to explain how a nuclear power plant works. It brings me joy to watch expressions soften as I explain the tremendous amount of electricity that we produce, how we produce it, and that the only impact to the environment is the release of water vapor clouds from the cooling towers.

As I transition to my new role in the Work Management organization, one of my responsibilities will be the implementation of a process to allow our work activities to be carried out completely electronically. Paperless work management is a common practice in other industries and will be a huge step forward in improving efficiency in nuclear power.

Delivering The Nuclear Promise to me means taking a very hard look at the way we do business in this industry and challenging ourselves to think outside the box. The industry has previously been stagnant in the area of leveraging new technology to improve processes. It can be easy to become complacent and settle for "how we've always done it," but for our industry to remain viable, we must evolve. The paperless work management process is a perfect example of this principle in action. Eliminating paper will allow work to be completed more efficiently with less potential for error and fewer resources needed for filing and archiving documents.

The above post was written by Southern Nuclear’s Donell Banks for the Powered by Our People promotion, which aims to showcase the best and the brightest in the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

Share this nuclear ingenuity story with your network or to learn more, go to nei.org/whynuclear.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Germany Gets Realistic about Renewables

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

The German parliament voted on July 8 to slow the growth of renewable energy, by ending lavish subsidies intended to develop as much wind, sun and biomass as quickly as possible. Instead, the government will pick and choose which energy projects make sense for the system based on reliability, cost, and other criteria.

The German electric system is suffering a more extreme version of some of the same problems seen in in the U.S.

In Germany, the burden of aggressive renewable subsidies falls on households, because the government exempted major industrial consumers, to avoid damaging their international competitiveness. Per kilowatt-hour, households pay 29.5 European cents (about 32.6 U.S. cents, roughly triple the average price in the U.S.) The price is 30 percent higher than the European average, according to European Union statistics.

And in Germany, a lot of this energy, especially wind, comes at times of low demand, and is produced in areas far distant from load centers, so it is not useful. We have the same problem here; surplus energy pushes prices to zero or even below, but subsidies make developers profitable anyway.

And subsidized renewables are not always the best way to reduce carbon emissions. The National Academy of Sciences recently found that the cost of Federal subsidies for renewables, for each ton of carbon saved, is a stunning $250. Some states provide added subsidies, or force electricity customers to subsidize renewable energy by setting quotas for utilities, called renewable portfolio standards. Renewable sources of electricity displace electricity from fossil-fired plants, saving fuel and carbon emissions. But they also threaten to displace nuclear generators, which are highly reliable (operating over 90% of the time), and are also emissions free. (Also, U.S. nuclear plants get no compensation for being carbon-free.)

Policies insisting on a high proportion of renewable energy, rather than on simply non-emitting generation, create distorted market conditions that are forcing premature retirement of non-emitting, highly reliable nuclear reactors that are generating electricity at very low costs. Such policies have the unintended consequence of increasing emissions (due to the use of natural gas for replacement power) rather than cutting them.

While the United States hasn’t yet reached the same situation as Germany, the Federal government and the states could avoid some of the same missteps.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What to Watch for in Nuclear Energy Policy at the 2016 Conventions

The 2016 Republican National Convention got underway in Cleveland last night, kicking off a two-week period of non-stop political coverage that typically keeps "inside the Beltway" types like us glued to the television (we will be similarly riveted when the Democrats meet next week in Philadelphia).

Just as is the case with the annual State of the Union address, we pay close attention just in case our industry gets mentioned. So what are we keeping an eye out for? To give you a hand, we've developed the following checklist when it comes to what matters to the nuclear energy industry.

Thanks to Donkey Hotey for the Creative Commons license image.
Feel free to play along at home.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Diablo Canyon Closure

Diablo Canyon
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. made national news when it announced last week that it will operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant through its original license period and then retire the facility in the mid-2020s. Some parties are suggesting—wrongly—that the agreement is a blueprint for nuclear plant retirements in other states.

Don't buy that argument. To be clear: The convergence of policies and events that drove the Diablo Canyon agreement is not desirable and should not be replicated. California residents now confront a risky experiment based on an unbalanced energy future. As NEI's Revis James wrote yesterday at Real Clear Energy:
The anti-nuclear lobby says that a future primarily powered by renewable sources of energy is upon us. We’ve done the math, and the equation doesn’t balance. Rather, this seems more like a flawed experiment that will put greater pressure on consumers through higher electricity prices while increasing, not decreasing, CO2 emissions. It’s not a gamble that others should try.
Some proponents of the agreement wrongly believe they can replace one carbon-free source of electricity with another instead of working to maximize carbon reduction by seeing all zero-emissions sources work together. But there is no guarantee that the anticipated increase in renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage will fully replace Diablo Canyon—which provides 24 percent of the state's carbon-free electricity—by 2025.

In Wisconsin, greenhouse gas emissions jumped more than 15 percent after the premature closure of the Kewaunee nuclear facility. In 2015, New England's emissions jumped by 7 percent because of the shutdown of Vermont Yankee the year before. Emissions will climb even higher when the Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts closes in 2019.

A study by IHS Energy found nuclear energy's inclusion in a balanced energy portfolio lowers the cost of generating electricity by more than $93 billion per year compared to an energy portfolio limited to renewables and natural gas.

With that in mind, it's better to think of California as an anomaly rather than template for future energy policy.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Introducing “Generation Swipe”: Nuclear’s Newest Interns

The following is a guest post by Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, senior manager of strategic workforce planning. 

Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides
Interns this summer will deliver more to the office than their energetic personalities, they will be bringing a new generation into the workforce. This year’s crop of interns includes the first wave of new post-Millennials who were born between the late 1990s through the 2010s. As we will see, these college students have grown up with a significant amount of their socialization being online and in a world where their schools are not always safe. It is now time for companies to understand what this new group of employees will bring to the table.

This generation after the Millennials has yet to be named, but I like to think of them as Generation Swipe. From an early age, these young adults were able to “swipe a finger” and create Minecraft worlds. They swipe to watch videos and they swipe to chat with grandma.

We know less about this new generation than we do about Millennials, but we know enough to have an idea of what Generation Swipe may be like in the workplace. First, let’s consider that technology is even more important to Generation Swipe that it was for Generation X and the Millennials. Generation Swipe grew up with the Internet available to everyone, everywhere. Wifi-enabled devices became common and these students literally grew-up with instant messaging in their cribs.

With Internet readily available, Generation Swipe had access to games, digital arts and education apps designed to give them complete creative control of their worlds. This accessibility will provide two likely outcomes. Generation Swipe may be the most creative generation the world has ever seen, but they are also going to want the most control. Nuclear companies should engage these new employees with cutting edge technology and allow them creative control to solve problems.

I promised I would explain the impact of school violence. Attracting Generation Swipe to nuclear careers will be different from what attracted Millennials and Generation X. School shootings have increased during Generation Swipe’s lifetime. These incidents have led to heightened physical security as a priority.

Generation Swipe has unprecedented cyber-literacy meaning they understand what hacking is and what harm it can cause. We can attract students with opportunities that will resonate with their interest like solving cyber and physical security issues. Nuclear Energy’s considerable focus on physical and cyber security rivals any other industry and is something companies should highlight as part of their recruitment strategies.

What do employers need from Generation Swipe? Eventually, leadership. On the leadership front, Generation Swipe might encounter a learning curve when they come to the office. Some of these challenges will take time and effort, but the industry is already preparing with the extensive work currently underway to address teamwork and leadership attributes.

Generation Swipe has more access to technology than any previous generation and specifically has had more screen time than any previous generation. All of that cyber literacy might have come with a cost as Generation Swipe has less experience with face to face conversations. Generation Swipe’s lack of human interaction may translate into this generation being challenged when transitioning into management. Companies can address this by including leadership training and development opportunities to the youngest of employees.

Change is not new for the nuclear industry. Generation Swipe will bring creativity and innovation to our industry. We should not worry when these bright-eyed teenagers arrive in our offices this summer. Instead, we should remember that every generation is different and the nuclear sector has always been able to adapt. Let’s work together to make this transition as smooth and beneficial as possible.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Why Nuclear Cooperation with “Non-Nuclear” Norway is Important for U.S. Industry

Ted Jones
The following is a guest post by Ted Jones, Director of International Supplier Relations for NEI.

This week, the U.S. Congress received for review a renewal agreement for nuclear energy cooperation with Norway. When the pact comes into force, it will restore nuclear cooperation that lapsed when the original agreement expired in July 2014. Commonly known as a Section 123 agreement after the part of the Atomic Energy Act that governs international nuclear energy cooperation, a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement secures nonproliferation guarantees and provides a framework for nuclear energy commerce.

Given that Norway has no plans to operate a commercial nuclear power plant, some may ask, “What is the importance of Norway to the U.S. nuclear industry?”

The answer lies 75 miles southeast of Oslo in the town of Halden, where the United States helped to build a 20 megawatt test reactor in 1958. Now supported by 19 member countries and partly financed by the OECD, the Halden Reactor Project performs a wide variety of unique tests that are important to nuclear power plant safety and reliability. Currently it hosts 30 test rigs in its core. The users of the Halden Reactor Project span the range of the nuclear community, from licensing and regulatory bodies to suppliers, utility industry and research organizations.

For the U.S. nuclear industry, the Halden Reactor Project is a critical asset. As examples:
  • A joint U.S. DOE program with Westinghouse, GE Hitachi and AREVA to research, develop and test accident tolerant fuel (ATF) relies on access to Halden. The program aims to significantly increase the reaction time for a commercial nuclear reactor operator to deal with beyond-design-basis events such as occurred at Three Mile Island and at Fukushima. The ATF program will send test rodlets manufactured in the United States by General Atomics and Argonne National Laboratory to Halden for testing after the program’s first phase ends in September of this year.
  • Virginia-based Lightbridge plans to use the Halden Reactor Project for irradiation testing of advanced metallic nuclear fuel samples. The Lightbridge fuel design aims to provide greater safety and power while lengthening the fuel cycle duration. "These irradiation tests will generate quantifiable data needed to support licensing of Lightbridge fuel by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ultimate deployment by nuclear utilities in commercial reactors around the world,” said Lightbridge CEO Seth Grae.
  • The Halden facility is favored not just for fuel safety testing. Of special value to the U.S. operating fleet, it offers flexible capabilities for testing the aging and degradation of reactor components. Aging issues under study at Halden include irradiation-assisted stress corrosion cracking, irradiation-enhanced creep and stress relaxation, and pressure vessel integrity.
Without a U.S.-Norway Section 123 agreement in force, U.S. access to testing at Halden is severely limited. That is because items such as fuel assemblies for testing can be exported from the United States only with a Part 110 license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And a Section 123 agreement is a prerequisite for a Part 110 license.

The Halden Reactor Project underscores the importance of broad international collaboration to U.S. industry competitiveness in an increasingly global market. With congressional approval, the U.S.-Norway Section 123 agreement will preserve this important advantage for the whole U.S. nuclear community.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The ROP, Clear Thinking & All Things Nuclear

"Be the change that you wish to see in the world."  Mahatma Gandhi

Change has come fast and hard to the nuclear industry, indeed to the entire energy sector.  We are in a race to adapt to new realities: abundant, cheap natural gas; little or no growth in electricity demand; mixed signals about the importance of controlling carbon emissions; and market rules tied to the old world order that inadequately reward 24-7 reliability, fuel supply diversity, and carbon-free baseload generation.  In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, the U.S. nuclear industry is pursuing a thoughtful and ambitious program to simplify how we work together to ensure safety and reliability remain the clear and constant focus of our efforts.  It is inspiring to see how teams of experts from across the industry are, through the Delivering the Nuclear Promise initiative, sharing experience, good ideas and best practices to identify better ways to accomplish the myriad tasks required to maintain the outstanding performance of the U.S. nuclear fleet.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also racing to adapt to new realities:  a mature industry facing the premature closure of several nuclear plants due to economic conditions; pressure from the Congress and public for greater transparency and accountability in management of budget and fees collected from industry; loss of corporate memory as senior staff retire and are replaced by less experienced personnel; higher expectations for timely and efficient decision making.  The NRC's Project AIM is but the latest and most significant effort to rethink how the agency works and address the changing pressures the agency faces from stakeholders on all sides.

In the tumult of such a dynamic environment, it is hard to know when to resist change and when to "go with the flow".  We're dealing with this very question in one of my areas of responsibility at NEI - the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP). 

Sixteen years ago, in a remarkable collaboration brought on by similarly strong forces of change, the NRC, industry and public stakeholders came together to transform the way in which NRC determined where to focus its attention within the operating fleet.  This collaboration enabled NRC to move from a subjective and inscrutable process known, now ironically, as the Systematic Assessment of Licensee Performance (SALP) process to the more rational and balanced ROP we have today.  In simplest terms, the ROP uses both NRC inspection results and industry-generated performance indicators to gauge the status of plant performance.  By contrast, the SALP process depended largely on a consensus judgment of NRC regional and headquarters management.  The basis for such judgments was difficult to quantify or reproduce, leading to great dissatisfaction among those affected by the results.

Today, the challenge is a continuing effort by the NRC to modify the ROP with, at times, little or no objective evidence of a specific problem that needs fixing.  Experience in our nuclear power plants tells us that in all things nuclear, every change in procedures and programs should be carefully thought out.  To us that means we should begin every change project with a clear problem statement.  That problem statement must be supported by hard data and analysis.  A concise project plan with a strategy, milestones, deliverables and schedule is needed in order for us to know how likely we are to succeed and how we will measure the outcome of our project once it is complete.

The NRC is working on two major changes to the ROP right now.  One is streamlining the so-called Significance Determination Process (SDP).  This project intends to improve NRC management of inspection results, so that the agency can complete its "safety grading" of results more quickly.  Our concern has always been that the agency might sacrifice accuracy of grading for speed.  Our concern is shared by Commissioners of the NRC, as well as members of Congress and public stakeholders. 

The other major change involves a procedure for inspecting the industry's corrective action programs.  Our plants rely on the so-called CAP process to capture, analyze and fix problems before they have a chance to grow larger or recur.  The NRC inspects this important process through samples taken in the course of several routine inspections, and then in a deep dive into the program taken through a biennial inspection known as their Problem Identification and Resolution (PI&R) inspection.  In our discussions with the staff about their plans to change the PI&R inspection, we have heard many ideas that sound like solutions in search of a problem.  We don't doubt for a moment the NRC staff's sincerity in this effort.  However, we approach this project with the same mindset with which we approach projects in our power plants - what is the specific problem this effort is meant to solve?  So far, we have not heard that clear and compelling problem statement that we need in order to explain to our stakeholders why this project is essential to advance safety.

As we and the NRC strive to adapt to our changing environment, we want to ensure that NRC's resources and ours remain focused on safety as our highest priority.  Projects undertaken without the basis of a clear problem statement, linked by objective evidence to a compelling safety issue, risk distracting both industry and NRC from our primary obligation as stewards of nuclear power - to embrace change thoughtfully and with due consideration, but to resist change for change's sake in order to preserve what works.