Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant Freed of Enhanced NRC Oversight

Here’s a bit of good news, more than a bit for Nebraskans:

In a letter Monday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission informed the Omaha Public Power District that Fort Calhoun can return to routine oversight as of Wednesday, joining the 98 other U.S. plants that operate under a normal inspection regimen.

Fort Calhoun was impacted by a flood in 2011. That was also the year of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, so, although Fort Calhoun was never in any danger, the flood around it received a lot of media attention (great video footage of the flooding helped) and a visit from then-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to reassure everyone. Still, OPPD had already been under increased NRC scrutiny and that just accelerated:

After a switchgear fire and the discovery of numerous safety violations, the NRC brought together an oversight committee and presented OPPD with hundreds of corrective items to work through.

It was an expensive, lengthy process, and the district floundered at times. As the process dragged on, internal reviews exposed significant management problems at the plant.

OPPD brought in Exelon to help whip the plant into shape.

Fort Calhoun was allowed to restart in December 2013, but the plant remained under increased oversight — until this week.

And that’s where we are now. This story, very well told by the Omaha World-Herald’s Cody Winchester – when he’s not firing off his rootin’ tootin’ six-shooters (seriously, great name) – demonstrates the strength of the nuclear energy industry and its regulator to ensure that nuclear plants are safe. If OPPD hadn’t found solutions to its problems, Fort Calhoun would have closed – and that would have been very unfortunate however necessary.

Mark Salerno, president of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 1483, which represents about one-quarter of OPPD’s workforce, praised the dedication of Fort Calhoun employees.

“A lot of our people have committed a lot of hours, put in a lot of hours, to get that plant back online,” he said.

Just so.

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Sometimes, you can’t win for losing:

"The NRC permitted Edison to design, construct, install and operate defective steam generators, and NRC only came to recognize that there was a problem after there had been an accident involving the release of radiation," Damon Moglen, a senior adviser to the group, wrote in a letter to the agency.

"Such willful ignorance of serious safety risks is an indictment of both the agency and the utility. Neither the NRC nor Edison is absolved by the closure of the reactors," he wrote.

You can read about what happened at San Onofre here. Friends of the Earth, which isn’t happy with nuclear energy whatever the circumstance, doesn’t just make hay when the sun shines (which isn’t all that often for them), it tries to do so where there is no grass. No there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Thinking and Rethinking Nuclear Energy in Utah

In St. George Utah:

City staff recommended that the City Council hold off on committing to a project by NuScale Power. Based out of Oregon, NuScale proposes to build compact nuclear reactors that would be housed in a power plant built near Idaho Falls, Idaho. The compact reactors are designed to produce 40-50 megawatts of power.

St. George nestles in the southern part of the state and is one of its fastest growing areas. The town has about 75,000 people, but it is that “fastest growing” aspect that might have motivated interest in small reactors.

Let’s not call the decision to slow walk the commitment an excess of caution, at least initially, just caution.

Though St. George is one of UAMPS biggest utilities, city staff have recommended against committing to any binding agreements, saying they want the city to maintain flexibility over where it gets its power. The cost of being involved could run into the millions of dollars, said Laurie Mangum, the city’s energy services director.

“Not knowing what’s going to happen in the next nine years, do we want to tie ourselves down to that particular resource right now?” City Manager Gary Esplin said. “I guess we’re just having second thoughts about getting involved with the costs …. Do we want to limit our flexibility by committing early?”

UAMPS is the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which wants to encourage use of small reactors.

This does seem an excess of caution:

Even though the city is looking to step back from a nuclear power option for now, it may get involved down the road as the project develops.

The city will continue to look at the probability of the NuScale Power project, possibly “up to the last minute,” Mangum said. If it looks like a viable option, the city may buy into it.

People do like to plan, after all. All this said, St. George does seem to have the right idea, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hedge one’s bets, especially with municipal money. Still, we hope this goes NuScale’s way and not at the last minute, either.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Illinois and the Nuclear Low Carbon Portfolio

PrintWashington state, as we’ve seen, is moving full speed ahead with legislation to explore the possibility of nuclear energy in that state, especially the revenue-raising, job-creating possibility of manufacturing small reactors there. This is heartening, of course, not to mention a good move by the state.

Generally, nuclear energy measures in the states have come and gone and often come around again. State legislatures have shorter sessions (in general) than their federal brethren, so a lot of promising sounding bills hit the wall of sometimes very short meeting schedules – this is true of everything that is not directly budget-related. Some bills, such as repealing the moratorium on uranium exploration in Virginia*, get really close to passing, then the session ends. Of course, some bills just don’t pass muster and get voted down. It happens.

But the Washington legislation points to new possibilities for nuclear energy action in the states, even if, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a spring. How about two?

The Illinois Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee today passed Senate Bill 1585, legislation to establish a Low Carbon Portfolio Standard that would bolster Illinois’ clean energy leadership, support the state’s nuclear energy facilities and protect jobs, consumers and a reliable electricity supply, according to a press release.

Well, that’s now really nuclear per se, is it? But wait:

The LCPS would require ComEd and Ameren to purchase low carbon energy credits to match 70 percent of the electricity used on the distribution system. It is a technology-neutral solution, which means it would allow all low carbon energy sources – including wind, solar, hydro, clean coal and nuclear – to compete on equal footing.

There we go. This is actually significant because it points to an assessment – a realistic assessment, we’d say – that a “low carbon” standard has a much better chance of getting a state to its goals in reducing carbon dioxide emission that the more common “renewable” standard that many states have instituted. A renewable energy standard certainly sounds good – and the intention is certainly good – but renewable energy is still too limited in output and reliability to get you where you want to go. Including nuclear energy in the standard does not throw wind and solar under the bus of practicality, but it recognizes that all of them have a place.

That’s important: even if you think the nuclear energy industry has glommed onto its emission-free properties to propagate itself  so what? It does do that and it is worth propagating to fulfill a supremely important policy goal. With all the current technologies lined up, it’s really the only one that can. (Hydro is also effective, of course, but environmental concerns make it very difficult to build new dams.) One doesn’t have to be a cynic to get that – nuclear energy may not have been introduced to produce carbon emission-free energy, but it has always done so.

Still, this is a committee vote – this legislation could still get caught short further along the line. We’ll see.

So, Illinois. Even two birds are worth one in the bush – or something. It will be interesting to see if other states follow its lead and introduce “low carbon” standards that nudge nuclear energy into the carbon emission reduction tent. It’d be smart policy, that’s for sure.

* We should also mention the role of governors. Virginia’s former Gov. Bob McDonnell favored lifting the ban, current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, well:

One of the attendees asked the governor about Uranium mining, hoping he'd flip and support the idea. McAuliffe said much what he said during the 2013 gubernatorial campaign: The risk is too high. Show me some science that says our water will absolutely be protected, and I'll consider it.

Win some, lose some.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What Huffington Post Gets Wrong About Nuclear Energy & Water Use

We regularly return to the issue of water use and nuclear power plants because anti-nuclear activists can't help but manipulate or obscure the facts when it comes to explaining how much water is used to cool an operating reactor. The latest example comes from the Huffington Post where Kyle Rabin of the Grace Communications Foundation writes that thermoelectric power plants account for 45% of water withdrawals in the U.S.

Which is where NEI's Bill Skaff comes into the picture. Here's his comment that you can find in the string below the article (emphasis mine):
The discussion of electricity generation water use contains some misleading statements that mask the truth. Power plant water use consists of consumption, when water is evaporated and thus lost, and withdrawal, where water is removed from a water body but can be returned, totally or partially. The “outdated cooling technology” mentioned is a once-through cooling system, which cools by the coldness of the withdrawn water and returns 99 percent of that water back to the water body. The so-called up-to-date cooling system, cooling towers, cools by evaporation and thus consumes twice as much water as the once-through cooling system.

It is not surprising, then, that the Electric Power Research Institute, in a 2002 study, found that 98 percent of water withdrawn by the electric power sector in total is returned to the source water bodies.
This is just the sort of sleight of hand that anti-nukes regularly fall back on when presenting their arguments to a general audience. Please keep it in mind the next time you see a claim like Rabin's. Now, back to Bill with some additional facts to think about:
Here are some other facts to consider that provide some needed context that the news coverage this week has omitted. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1995, the last USGS study to consider water consumption nationwide:
  • Electric power sector water consumption represents only 3.3 percent of the nation's water consumption. 
  • Residential water consumption, at 6.7 percent, is more than twice power sector consumption. 
  • Agricultural water consumption is 81.3 percent, 17 percent of which is water lost during conveyance that never reaches the crops it is intended to irrigate.
The electric power industry, in partnership with businesses, universities, and the National Science Foundation, is supporting over a dozen research projects to develop power plant cooling technologies designed to reduce water consumption in the future.
For more on nuclear power plants and water use, see our website. 

Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography. Photo used under Creative Commons License.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Getting Ready for Nuclear Energy in Africa

When developing countries consider nuclear energy, it can give one pause. Not because such countries are inherently incapable of grasping and implementing the technology but because the technology could be beyond their current developmental level. If a country has barely met its electricity needs up to now, it would not seem to have the infrastructure necessary to introduce thousands of megawatts onto its grid. That’s an uncomfortable statement, but also an uncomfortable feeling, and it’s worth testing – and it is getting tested.

This year, the IAEA will, for the first time, conduct Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review missions to Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco - three countries which are considering introducing nuclear power.

These are review missions by international experts who help countries assess the status of their national nuclear infrastructure. They are part of the comprehensive package of assistance which the IAEA provides to help ensure that even the most challenging issues in introducing nuclear power can be successfully dealt with, Amano said.

Yukiya Amano is the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In fact, Amano makes it clear that developing countries may benefit by entering the arena now rather than earlier:

"The IAEA, with 163 Member States, brings together countries with advanced nuclear power programs and what we call 'newcomers'. This sharing of knowledge and experience means newcomers are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of pioneers," he said. "They can benefit sooner from the shorter construction times, more profitable performance, and higher safety levels of today's best plants. There may be potential for smaller countries to cooperate regionally on nuclear power projects which might be too expensive for any one of them on its own."

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I was curious about this topic because South Africa is calling attention to its 50th anniversary of nuclear energy, and Amano’s comments about it struck me as especially on-point.

“Access to electricity is essential for development," he said. "The number of countries interested in nuclear power continues to grow, despite the Fukushima accident. ... Many countries see nuclear power as a stable and clean source of energy that can help mitigate the impact of climate change.”

One always sees the second two points – “stable and clean” – but not the first – at least not enough – and it’s especially important especially in Africa, though not only in Africa – “Access to electricity is essential for development.” That’s an absolute truth in the modern world and not owned by the nuclear energy industry – it applies to all generators.

Though neither of these articles mention it, developing countries are caught in a tough position, wanting to build out their electricity infrastructure but under pressure not to add to the world’s carbon dioxide output. We’ve seen this play out at various COP conferences, where countries have butted heads over the seemingly incompatible issues of carbon emissions and economic development. That’s where nuclear energy (and renewable energy, too) comes in.

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South Africa’s history with nuclear energy is as mixed as its history is in every other respect – the story of South Africa is very disturbing until fairly recently – but this detail struck me:

Nuclear medicine produced at South Africa's Pelindaba research site — generated by the SAFARI-1, water-cooled research reactor — is used in about 10 million medical procedures in more than 60 countries every year, saving millions of lives.

That’s true and has been for years – Pelindaba has been key to the development of nuclear medicine on the continent and remains an important producer of molybdenum-99, which is used in many medical procedures. And, we should mention, South Africa has had two reactors steadily putting out electricity for the last 30 years.

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With South Africa having led the way, I think Amano’s position on nuclear energy is unassailable. “Access to electricity is essential for development.” And Africa is finding its way to nuclear energy.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nuclear Energy and the Fear-Respect Nexus



They write letters:
A reader, whom I assume is opposed to nuclear generation, has recently written listing various incidents that have occurred at nuclear sites, some more than 60 years ago in experimental facilities. The writer described these incidents in highly dramatic fashion.
This is a letter by James Lindsay to the Kawartha Lakes (Ontario)This Week. Most of it refutes the earlier letter, which I did not look up. But this struck me:
If nuclear energy is respected, there is no need for fear.
I’m going to guess, based on the letter, that Lindsay means that nuclear energy should be respected enough that people who are going to spout off against it should know something about it.
That works. Facts beat fear. I’m not sure I’d adopt “Respect, don’t fear” as a motto – it has an intimidating air for what is, after all, a tool for making electricity (among many other things, of course). But the thought behind it is solid.
John Grossenbacher from the Idaho National Labs makes much the same argument vis à vis used fuel in the Idaho Statesman:
Environmental risks created by past waste disposal and storage activities are being addressed by DOE. Very real progress is being made. The cleanup pace and effectiveness should be visible to and understood by the public. These are serious and complicated issues. This discourse is important and will continue for a long time to come.
To improve this vital public discussion about activities at the INL site, we have endeavored to make information available to anyone who is interested - online, in public meetings, through news media and via public tours. We challenge those interested in these issues to seriously consider the following suggestions.
You can read his suggestions at the link, but here’s the summary:  learn about the issues and let that inform commentary about them.
The issues surrounding INL and cleanup activities are not so complex that they can't be accurately explained by public officials, interest groups and media outlets who take the time to inform themselves.
That may seem naïve, but it’s really not. Especially with nuclear energy, which is often a victim of fear-based demagoguery, respecting it enough to learn something about it is well worthwhile.
Visit the Idaho National Labs for more. Grossenbacher isn’t kidding – there’s a lot of good information there.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Did and Did Not Happen in Fukushima

James Conca writes this in Forbes:

But the real health and environmental impacts from the Fukushima reactors are nothing compared to the tsunami. Contrary to all the hype and fear, Fukushima is basically a large Superfund site. No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.

It’s definitely true that the earthquake and tsunami, which killed 22,000 people, was a tremendous human disaster. But is Conca overstating the case on the nuclear accident?

This would seem to suggest so:

Unfortunately, a new monitoring system for thyroid cancer seemed to reveal an immediate and drastic effect. Hundreds of thousands of children in Fukushima prefecture underwent sensitive ultrasound scans after the accident. The results showed that 44 percent of them had thyroid cysts or nodules, which are possible warning signs of cancer.

This could have been caused by the radioactive iodine released by the facility – it’s a little tricky because Japan did a good job of sheltering people and giving out potassium iodide, which floods the thyroid and keeps radioactive iodine out.

It’s impossible to truly know whether the accident caused these thyroid abnormalities if there is no baseline, which is a very uncomfortable argument to make – unless you create a baseline. And the Japanese did create one:

That baseline study found that the frequency of thyroid nodules and cysts in that uncontaminated population was about 57 percent — somewhat higher than among Fukushima kids. The spike in Fukushima thyroid anomalies isn’t caused by fallout — because there is no spike.

Actually, that’s a little more than somewhat. It also makes an important if oblique point: thyroid abnormalities are actually quite common and do not lead invariably to cancer.

None of this is to downplay the seriousness of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and the fear it engendered. Still, what people most fear from such an accident is radiation exposure and the development of cancers. If you consider the sheer wreckage and suffering the area endured after the tsunami, that shouldn’t be an extra burden. And, thankfully, it’s not.