Thursday, October 16, 2014

Into the Fusion Breach with Lockheed Martin

lockheed-fusion It’s a short story in Scientific American that might make you say, Uh-oh, here we go:

Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready in a decade.

Now, Lockheed Martin is certainly a legitimate outfit – my father worked there for years - and likely wouldn’t make a statement of this sort unless it were serious. Still, there are some red flags:

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Words such as secretive don’t inspire confidence, especially for what would be a gigantic breakthrough. Four years also seems odd, given the much longer amounts of time that other fusion projects, such as ITER and the the National Ignition Facility, have been at it.

I looked around at other accounts to have my own suspicious nature (when it comes to fusion) quashed.

Wired:

The problem with that reactor? It doesn’t exist yet. “Some key parts of the prototype are theoretical and not yet proven,” says Nathan Gilliland, CEO of Canadian fusion company General Fusion.

Business Insider:

But most scientists and science communicators we talked to are skeptical of the claim.

Other accounts are more objective, though several note the issues with fusion – scalability, power consumption, etc. Climate Progress ties fusion into its own interests in an interesting way:

At this point, keeping the world under 2°C of global warming will require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that. Developed countries may very well need to peak by 2015 and then start dropping by 10 percent a year. So by Lockheed Martin’s own timeline, their first operational CFR won’t come online until after the peak deadline. To play any meaningful role in decarbonization — either here in America or abroad — they’d have to go from one operational CFR to mass production on a gargantuan scale, effectively overnight. More traditional forms of nuclear power face versions of the same problem.

This argument, which is head slappingly obtuse, comes with an agenda:

Demonstration projects, particularly in Europe, are already showing how proper coordination on the grid can stitch a renewable portfolio together in ways that smooth out the inherent intermittency of when solar and wind arrays actually produce power.

There you go. When you prefer one nascent solution over another, problems with your favored project evaporate in the, uh, wind while the other is just useless. I’d say: keep pursuing both.

The bottom line: fusion projects are, so far anyway, always five to 10 years from fruition. It’s almost an article of faith in the fusion community. Does that mean all such effort should stop? No, of course not: the potential benefits are enormous. But we reserve the right to take a believe-it-when-see-it stance. So all good fortune to Lockheed Martin – and the National Ignition Facility – and ITER – and General Fusion. Who makes this work will create the disruptive technology of the early-or mid-or late 21st century. Then it’s on to the flux capacitor and dilithium crystals.

Lockheed Martin has a page up about its fusion activities, though its press release on its breakthrough has disappeared. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Virginia, No Debate on Nuclear Energy

The physical presentation of the Virginia Senatorial debate this past weekend wasn’t all that polished – it didn’t really need to be - but Sen. Mark Warner (D) and his Republican challenger Ed Gillespie certainly were on their respective games. Both stayed on-point and came prepared with well-tuned arguments. And they represent starkly different worldviews, which makes voting for one or the other easier for voters.

However, if you’re a one-issue voter and that issue is nuclear energy, you’ve got a problem.

Here is Ed Gillespie from his campaign Web site:

Virginia is blessed with abundant energy resources, from coal and natural gas in the Southwest to offshore wind and deep sea oil and gas off our coast. We are home to a large number of employers in the nuclear industry and nearly 40 percent of the energy Virginians consume comes from the state’s safe, emission-free nuclear facilities. Energy companies and energy production create good, high-paying jobs across the professional spectrum, from engineering to computer programming. Electricity—and all that it allows—are critical to our nation’s prosperity.

and:

We need to encourage energy efficiency and the use of solar where it makes sense. We also need to do more to encourage the continued development of nuclear energy as a low-cost and low-emission energy source for the future.

Mark Warner, from his site:

Sen. Warner understands that it will take a combination of cleaner fossil fuels, solar, wind, bio-fuels, nuclear energy and next generation battery technologies to meet our future energy needs.

Warner also stressed his all-of-the-above support during the debate:

I think one of the great success stories of the last decade has been the explosive growth of America energy. … I support all-of-the-above energy sources, including coal, including natural gas, including renewables, including nuclear.

Start at about 29:00 for the energy portion.

There actually isn’t a lot of space between Warner and Gillespie on energy issues. We have no donkey or elephant in this race – that’s for the people of Virginia to decide – but it’s heartening to see nuclear energy so non-controversial that two candidates who differ on so much agree so heartily on this.

Virginia has four reactors, two each at Surrey and North Anna. Nuclear energy supplies about 38 percent of Virginia’s electricity, more than any other source. (Coal is second, with 27.7 percent.)

Coal mining is quite important in the southwest portion of the state. I won’t go into the coal portion of the debate – not my brief - but will note that both candidates mentioned visiting that part of the state and expressed concern about EPA’s draft climate change bill as holding the potential to harm the coal industry.

But that’s coal. If you needed proof that nuclear energy long ago ceased to be much of a partisan issue, here it is.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cascading Ironies and the Nuclear Green Option

trojans Kids today! From the Daily Trojan, the paper of the University of Southern California:

Nuclear power production has rapidly grown since the 1930s …

Indeed it has. They don’t reference President Roosevelt’s famous “We have nothing to fear but a nuclear-free future” speech, but otherwise, all systems go.

Joshing aside, the editorial is very favorable to nuclear energy:

Nevertheless, it’s time for opponents to realize that compared to other energy sources, including wind, solar and coal, nuclear energy is the best possible option.

They make what we could call “the green argument - ” not just for nuclear energy as a source carbon emission-free energy, but against renewable energy because it gobbles up land. I thought when reading this that it relates to a Los Angeleno sensitivity to overcrowding, but judge for yourself.

Proponents of other energy sources such as wind and solar argue that these energy sources also emit less carbon than coal. Wind farms and solar photovoltaic parks, however, occupy much more space than nuclear power plants. They can require anywhere between 50,000 and 180,000 acres, compared to an average of approximately 400 acres for a nuclear power plant.

In addition to using more space, solar and wind sources actually produce less energy than nuclear for each dollar spent on energy production. If one of these options became the United States’ primary energy source, we would be sacrificing vast amounts of space for a relatively small amount of energy.

One of these will not become a primary source of electricity anytime soon due to intermittency. Let’s add too that 180,000 acres put aside today will be better used as wind and solar technologies improve. Nuclear energy facilities, after all, have experienced higher output over the years through equipment upgrades and efficiency gains. Nothing is frozen in place.

But from a land conservationist’s point of view, there’s merit to the argument. The editorial also discusses perceived issues with nuclear energy, which you can read yourself. And the green argument against renewable energy? Not entirely fair, but we appreciate the cascading irony of it.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

U.S. Nuclear Technology: The Right Choice

The global nuclear energy sector will descend upon Paris next week for the World Nuclear Exhibition, at the home of the famed Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. Under the leadership of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council, NEI and other American companies (including AREVA, CB&I, Westinghouse, NuScale Power and GE Hitachi) will represent U.S. nuclear products and technology to an energy hungry world where nuclear energy will need to play a vital role.

In a forum such as this, it is particularly important that the U.S. turn up with our "A" game, if for no other reason than to reinforce the fact that U.S. nuclear technology is still the world leader. American ingenuity led the way in establishing the world’s largest and safest nuclear energy program. As we complete construction of five new reactors this decade and gear up for deployment of SMRs in the next, it is important to communicate to global suppliers that we are still going strong. That is exactly what NEI's Dan Lipman and Georgia Public Service Commission's Tim Echols will be doing when they speak during a special afternoon session on new generation U.S. technology on Wednesday, Oct. 15. Other industry experts we can expect to hear from are Bill Von Hoene (Exelon Corp.) and Bill Magwood (outgoing NRC commissioner and incoming Head of OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency).

The U.S. Department of Commerce values the global nuclear market at over $740 billion over the next decade and U.S. suppliers are determined to capture a significant portion of that business. Reinforcing our connection with today’s key civil nuclear market players, old and new, will be the path forward to seeing a 21st century nuclear renaissance at home and globally.

Beyond communicating the merits of American-made technology and best practices in regulation, NEI will be there to promote worldwide membership and best-in-class service to our members. Make sure to check in with us on Facebook and Twitter next week as we post live from the American Pavilion - C32, to the left of the hall entrance!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Energy Diversity

Matthew L. Wald
In an October 7, 2014 article, New York Times reporter Matthew Wald aptly describes the market forces, technological changes, and policy choices challenging electricity providers today. He artfully distinguishes two aspects of electric generation that are important to understand the value of diverse sources of electricity. One is the energy contributed by a generator, the other is the power it provides. Wind and solar contribute energy (i.e., electric current flowing when the wind blows or sun shines). Nuclear, coal, and gas-fired generators contribute both energy and dependable power (i.e., current flowing when and in the quantities needed by the grid). Mr. Wald's article nicely complements two recent posts on this blog by our NEI colleague Mark Flanagan on October 1 and September 29. It is also gratifying to note that Mr. Wald refers to nuclear power as "zero-carbon", a frequent subject of this blog. For a more quantitative look at market trends, we commend to you the periodic Energy Markets Report compiled by our NEI colleague David Bradish, available at NEI.org.

Outage Season Buttresses Nuclear Energy's Unmatched Reliability

Replacing the old steam generator at Unit 2.
Earlier today, Unit 1 at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station went offline after a record 644-day non-stop run. But in order to match that record or beat it next time, the 550-megawatt reactor will now head into a scheduled refueling outage to make sure the plant is ready to provide power during what is projected to be a harsh winter.

To get a better idea of what a refueling outage looks like, you might want to review a photo album we posted online earlier this year with a wide selection of photos from around the industry - including a shot from Prairie Island's Unit 2 when it replaced one of its steam generators. The album was part of a larger package on nuclear reliability that we originally posted over the summer. We also ought to point folks back to an interview we did last November with Curtis Wilson, who tweets under the moniker of the "Nuke Roadie." In the spring and fall, it's the efforts of outage workers like Wilson who make sure nuclear plants are running at or near 100% capacity when demand is highest in the summer and winter months.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Stripping Arizona’s Uranium Resources

clip_image001The U.S. District Court in Arizona sided with the Department of the Interior in its decision to withdraw one million acres of public land from new claims for uranium mining.

The tract of land, called the Arizona Strip, has supported uranium mining and the support structure that has grown up around it for many years. None of that is changed by the current decision, but no new mines can be opened up for the 20 years that the land is withdrawn.

The most interesting aspect of this decision is that judge ruled that the withdrawal could happen despite Interior’s recognition that it presents “a low risk of significant environmental harm.” But if mining there is not problematic, why ban additional claims? In addition, the Court was not bothered by the lack of Interior’s interest in relying on a full or even a reasonable set of facts in making its withdrawal decision.

The Court’s explanation is telling but not satisfying if you believe that the government should base its decisions on available or easily developed facts. Instead, the court seemed to elevate conservation over a common sense application of the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements for informed decision making.

“[T]he court can find no legal principle that prevents DOI from acting in the face of uncertainty. Nor can the court conclude that the Secretary abused his discretion or acted arbitrarily, capriciously or in violation of law when he chose to err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure - Grand Canyon National Park.

What is the point of informed decision making if the outcome is predetermined?

Importantly, the agency never attempted to disguise the uncertainty or the low probability of contamination from mining. It simply determined that even a low risk was too great given the strip’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. Never mind that all one million acres would not be in such close proximity. Some smaller tract could have been removed to accomplish that goal.

A study by the Interior Department itself found nothing to justify the land’s withdrawal.

The high-grade uranium resources in northern Arizona are found in compact formations that can be developed with minimal environmental impact. In its comments on the Interior Department’s draft environmental impact statement, the Arizona Land Department said: “[T]he DEIS [draft environmental impact statement] reveals nothing in the recent history of mining the breccia pipes in northern Arizona … that would appear to justify any withdrawal.

And the economic implications of withdrawing the land are grave.

According to members of Arizona and Utah’s congressional delegations, the action would wreak economic havoc on a depressed area, breach an agreement made years ago by the federal government, and do nothing to improve or protect the environment.

And:

“The Obama administration’s ban on uranium mining is a devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona, particularly in Mohave County,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “This decision is fueled by an emotional public relations campaign pitting the public’s love for the Grand Canyon against a modern form of low-impact mining that occurs many miles from the canyon walls and in no way impacts the quality of drinking water from the Colorado River.”

I don’t know whether The National Mining Association will appeal the decision.

The summary is simple. This is an unfortunate outcome that harms the economic profile of that area. Interior could have protected the environment in and around the Grand Canyon, which no one can dispute is extremely important, with a far less expansive withdrawal. You can read the whole decision here.

NEI’s Vice President and General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg contributed substantially to this post.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Economic Value of Nuclear Energy in Illinois

Exelon made its case – see post below – and now we get a chance to look more deeply into the economic impact of the company’s 11 nuclear reactors (not to mention its corporate headquarters) in Illinois. NEI has released a report containing an independent analysis using a nationally recognized model to estimate the facilities’ economic impacts on the Illinois economy.

Consider:

Thousands of high-skilled jobs. Exelon employs 5,900 people at its nuclear energy facilities in Illinois. This direct employment creates about 21,700 additional jobs in other industries in the state. A total of nearly 28,000 jobs in Illinois are a result of Exelon’s nuclear operations.

Economic stimulus. Exelon’s Illinois nuclear plants are estimated to generate $8.9 billion of total economic output annually, which contributes $6.0 billion to Illinois’ gross state product each year. This study finds that for every dollar of output from Exelon’s Illinois facilities, the state economy produces $1.65.

Tax impacts. Exelon’s nuclear facilities in Illinois are estimated to contribute about $290 million in state and local taxes, and nearly $1.1 billion in federal taxes each year.

But the report has a sobering message, too.

In 2016 alone, the early retirement of the Byron, Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear energy facilities would result in a loss of nearly $4 billion of direct and indirect economic output in Illinois. The losses would increase each year thereafter and reach almost $5 billion in direct and secondary output by 2030. The number of direct and secondary jobs lost increases over a five-year period, peaking in the fifth year after the plants close, to more than 13,000 jobs lost in Illinois.

And that’s just a taster. Exelon made an excellent case for the value its facilities provides Illinois as a producer of carbon-emission free electricity. In a way, this is the rest of the story. By all means, download and read the whole report.