Monday, December 22, 2014

Vogtle First to Implement New Voluntary Rule Allowing Improved Safety Focus

The following guest post comes from Victoria Anderson, senior project manager for risk assessment at NEI.

Since the NRC published the Probabilistic Risk Assessment Policy Statement in 1995, both the industry and NRC have worked to use risk information to better focus implementation of regulations at our country’s nuclear reactors. Risk information has helped advance maintenance efforts, routine inspections and testing procedures to ensure that licensees direct resources to the equipment and practices that are most important to safe, reliable operation of their plants.

In one such effort, in 2004, the NRC published a voluntary rule – 10 CFR 50.69, Risk-informed categorization and treatment of structures, systems and components for nuclear power reactors – that would allow licensees to refocus their equipment special treatment requirements on the structures, systems and components that are the most important to protecting the plant. Specifically, licensees implementing this voluntary rule are able to improve safety focus on important equipment identified in evaluations, while gaining operational flexibility by moving some equipment with very low safety impact to commercial treatment, rather than enhanced treatment.

Vogtle Electric Generating Plant
Last Wednesday marked a major advancement in risk informed regulation, as Plant Vogtle in Burke County, GA received an NRC safety evaluation report allowing them to implement 10 CFR 50.69 at its site. As the pilot plant for this effort, Southern will be the first utility to use the provisions of this rule to ensure that key plant programs are structured to focus plant attention on equipment most important to safe operations.

In particular, Vogtle will be able to take a graded approach to treatment of its equipment in various programs, including equipment qualification, testing and procurement, such that requirements for these programs are commensurate with the safety significance of the equipment. The personnel involved in these aspects of plant operations have been working through program development and training for over two years, and are well-positioned to support an efficient roll-out of the 10 CFR 50.69 program at Vogtle.

Thanks to Southern’s hard work on the pilot effort, facilitated by support from the NRC, the nuclear energy industry expects that several additional plants will follow Southern’s lead and use the insights and lessons learned from the pilot to pursue implementation of 10 CFR 50.69. This is just one of the many ways that utilities continually integrate the latest information and practices to operate our fleet more and more efficiently while maintaining safe operations.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chief Nuclear Officer, Passionate Communicator

I have the fortune of being able to meet and work with plenty of exceptional people in this industry. Randy Edington is one of them. As the executive vice president and chief nuclear officer for the largest nuclear energy facility in America, Edington travels domestically and internationally sharing his passion for our technology. He welcomes the opportunity to convince plant neighbors and nuclear opponents that Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is a safe, clean and reliable source of power—not to mention the nation's largest source of power.

Edington knows well the importance of communicating nuclear after logging 33 years in the commercial nuclear energy industry and serving in the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program prior to that. Last week, he shared a career's worth of lessons learned with the communications team at NEI. His presentation is truly remarkable and something to behold in person. I'll do my best to convey the highlights below.

  • Shared Responsibility: We are all communicators. Each and every one of us represents the company we work for and the nuclear industry as a whole, whether we are on the clock or not. Edington believes that communications is everybody's job in the workforce. He told us to think about each plant as holding advocates who have the power to get the word out about the benefits of nuclear to our consumers.
  • Passionate Communicators Are Indispensable: Edington admitted that he may not have all the trappings of a professional communicator. However, he gave a simple reason for why he's so good at it: "I care about what I'm talking about." It is a key ingredient that I’ve found to be true as well. I communicate more clearly and persuasively when I am passionate about the topic. Hence why you find me convincing others of the glory that is Breaking Bad or that Ellen was at her finest as a CGI-animated fish. It is why the communicators in our industry are so good at what they do—they care deeply about a clean, reliable energy source that can power us well into the future.
  • Lynne Prodoehl, Randy Edington and Walter Hill.
    Randy Edington talks with NEI's Lynne Prodoehl and Walter Hill.
  • We Are Electricity Generators: This observation changed my mindset about what I do. Edington told all of us in the room—from writers to designers to web managers—that our jobs are to SAFELY and efficiently generate electricity for the long term. (Emphasis is his.) He believes that all in the nuclear workforce are electricity generators. This is our core business, no matter if you are in human resources or a reactor operator. Edington reminded us that we take electricity for granted, but 1.6 billion people around the world live without it. Electricity drives modern society, and how we generate it (cleanly, affordably and reliably, in nuclear's case) is just as important as generating it in the first place. 
  • It's Not What You Say, It's What They Hear: This is one of Edington's key lessons. We must always remain cognizant of the audience we are speaking to. He encouraged us to look at issues from the perspective of others. It doesn't matter how brilliant we perceive our messaging to be, it matters what is heard. This is Relationship-Building 101, though swapping perspectives often gets sacrificed in the daily grind. It's quicker and easier to just broadcast messages we already believe to be true. What is more difficult, but more effective, is to engage in an open dialogue with those that are not yet on our side. Until we trade ideas and understand how our opponents are hearing and interpreting our messages, we cannot convince them of our position.
Randy Edington's key lessons about communication.
One of Edington's key lessons.
Those are just the highlights from an impressive presentation and discussion. I don't know if Edington was conscious of using Aristotle's three modes of persuasion to win the crowd over. Regardless of intention, he used all three to great effect. He used logos, or persuasion with facts, to back up the claim that Palo Verde is an asset to Arizona, including the fact that it has an economic impact of $1.8 billion per year. Pathos, or persuasion with emotion, made an appearance when he spoke of winning over a local woman or a group of anti-nukes by stopping to engage in an open dialogue with them. Ethos, or persuasion with credibility, was employed as Edington referenced his long, distinguished career. He is the ultimate credible spokesperson for nuclear.
Scott Peterson, Randy Edington, Tracy Mason with Bob B. Safe doll
Proudly displaying Bob B. Safe with NEI's Scott Peterson and Tracy Mason.
As an electricity generator, I am grateful to have Edington out there convincing others that nuclear energy is a force of good in this world. As a communicator, I am in awe of this CNO's natural gift for communication and evangelism. My many thanks to him for sharing his wisdom and for understanding the power of communication. I am eager to see what lessons he brings us in the future.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What Do Amazon's Drones and Advanced Nuclear Reactors Have in Common?

Dr. Leslie Dewan
Later this morning, the House Science Committee will hold a hearing on the "Future of Nuclear Energy". Click here to watch the hearing live on UStream at 10:00 a.m.

Featured on the witness list is a name that our readers will be familiar with - Dr .Leslie Dewan of Transatomic Power. She was kind enough to pass along a copy of her testimony so we could preview it for you right now.

We've gotten to know Dr. Dewan very well over the past year thanks to her role in NEI's Future of Energy campaign. Transatomic is developing a new reactor that's designed to burn used nuclear fuel. It's an incredibly promising new technology, but one that Dr. Dewan is concerned won't come to market first in the U.S. because of regulatory hurdles. It was just those sort of challenges that led the Bill Gates nuclear startup Terrapower to decide to build their first prototype in China:
The commercial nuclear regulatory structure in the United States is currently set up only for light water reactors, 100 of which are operating in this country. The regulatory system works well for light water reactors, but it needs to be broadened to successfully encompass advanced reactors as well, so that the U.S. can start taking advantage of the benefits of these new designs. Right now, there is no viable pathway for bringing advanced nuclear reactor designs beyond laboratory-scale development.

Informal estimates discussed at a recent advanced reactor meeting in Washington, D.C. suggest that it would take approximately 20 years – at a minimum – before such a regulatory pathway would be available in the United States. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of uncertainty in how much regulatory approval will cost the company commercializing the design. Estimates for licensing just a prototype facility through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission range from $200 million to $500 million. A commercial license would cost significantly more, and there are no good estimates for what the commercial licensing cost would be for an advanced reactor.

This high cost and long timeline – and furthermore, the uncertainty in the estimates of cost and timeline – effectively blocks large-scale private investment in new nuclear reactor designs. Investors of course won’t put their money into a project without good numbers for how long it will take and how much it will cost.

[...]

Developing a better regulatory pathway for advanced nuclear reactor is vital for this country. The United States currently has the best nuclear technology in the world, but I worry that will not always be the case, especially if the most advanced reactor technology is forced to go overseas to be prototyped, licensed, and commercialized. A regulatory pathway for advanced reactors, coupled with the ability to more readily demonstrate reactor prototypes at national laboratories, will enable greater private investment in the suite of new nuclear reactor design currently being developed in this country, and allow the US to retain the extraordinary benefits of this new nuclear technology.
These are not uncommon regulatory challenges. Earlier this month, Amazon sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration concerning its development of drone technology. While Amazon wants to begin testing a drone delivery service, but FAA regulations currently ban it. If that testing ban remains in place, Amazon has said that it will move its research and development efforts overseas.

While we have nothing against Amazon's potential drone delivery service, failure to address regulatory uncertainty around advanced reactors today could have real world consequences for the nation's electric grid tomorrow. We know that concerns another member of the today's panel, Michael McGough of NuScale Power. That company, winner of the second round of the Department of Energy's Small Modular Reactor Program, is trying to commercialize a 50MWe design in the face of customer skepticism that NRC can complete the licensing review process on time.

Dan Lipman, NEI's Executive Director of Policy Development, another member of the panel, will put it this way:
For decades, nuclear and coal-based technologies have been the bedrock of the U.S. electric supply system. The coal-based options are narrowing, which creates a compelling need to ensure that the nation has available a robust, diverse suite of nuclear technologies. Failure to do so would condemn the nation to large and larger dependence on one fuel – natural gas – for electricity production.

As America’s existing generating capacity, including some portion of its nuclear generating capacity, approaches the end of its useful life, the nation must take steps to establish the portfolio of technologies necessary to produce clean, reliable baseload electricity for the 2030s and beyond. To be operational in the 2030s, this generating capacity must be under construction in the 2020s. To be under construction in the 2020s, federal and state governments and industry must address – in the balance of this decade – the financing and regulatory challenges facing these advanced nuclear generating technologies, both SMRs and Gen IV reactors.

Tackling these challenges successfully will require innovative, creative approaches to ensure availability of capital and the regulatory certainty and closure required. Business as usual will not get the job done.
Don't forget to click here to watch at 10:00 a.m.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Cyber Security and Defending What’s Important

We read all the time about various data breaches that cause – potentially, anyway – a good deal of pain. Probably the best known example recently was the theft of over 40 million credit card numbers from Target last year, which has led to a lawsuit from the companies that had to replace all those cards and a class action suit from disgruntled customers.

We’ve no brief on Target’s cyber security strategy, except that we expect it to get a full review. But it certainly suggests the value of a good cyber security program:  defending what must be defended to ensure the public good.

Cyber security at nuclear energy plants – and all essential infrastructure - is extremely important because the potential for malicious mischief is very high – not from thieves as much as terrorists and others who want to cripple the electricity grid or cause a radioactive release. Stealing credit cards can be discomforting, but attacking a nuclear facility could have grave impacts.

For these and other reasons, nuclear facilities have been working on cyber security for about as long as digital items have filtered into them – most essential parts of a plant are analog in nature – and developed approaches to handling them even before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission became involved in the issue.

The NRC’s rulemaking on the issue are, for the most part, judicious and on-point, but they are also very broad in nature. The nuclear industry wants primary attention on cyber security threats that involve public safety and plant integrity – obvious enough, but in guarding against such threats, one must identify what is and is not essential.

Consequently, NEI submitted a petition to the NRC last June to reconsider the scope of the cyber security rule. (Comments on the petition are due today.) But if public safety is the issue, shouldn’t everything be coequal?

Nobody should doubt that the health and safety of the public is a paramount motivation for the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Unsafe nuclear plants – or any large industrial operation – carry no benefits for operators or customers.

But both the industry and the NRC recognize that rules must be properly “scoped;” that is, they have to take in those elements that the rule is meant to cover and nothing more. If the rule is too broadly scoped, then the facility runs the risk of wasting resources  while creating no true value.

That can seem a little abstract, so let’s get concrete. As written, the cyber security rule covers items such as fax machines, hand-held calibration devices, radios and pagers, and calculators used by emergency preparedness personnel. These don’t have any potential to impact human safety nor could their misuse damage essential systems. They are basic business tools that an Information Technology department knows how to protect. The same is true of the computers that have no connection to the plant’s processes but are used for things like word processing or creating dull slide shows. If the NRC has to hear about a fax machine going down, it wastes time at both the plant and the agency.

Not wasting time and effort on the inessential also facilitates defense-in-depth. This just means protecting the same item in multiple ways. For example, cars keep their passengers alive in a crash through crash-resistant bumpers, crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, anti-lock breaking systems and even proximity sensors! Ideally, these work in tandem so that one tool does not interfere with any other tool and render it ineffective.

In a cyber security program, defense-in-depth includes implementing systems to prevent attacks, to detect an attack in progress and  to respond to an attack. These methods are intended to recover a system quickly and minimize any impact from the attack. They are also integrated, as in an automobile, to allow multiple methods to prevent, detect and recover from an attack.

So what NEI is asking is that the rule covers what the rule must cover to ensure public safety and the reliability of the facility, but not everything that has the slightest digital footprint. This is how physical design basis threats are handled in rulemaking. Cyber threats are also considered design basis threats, which means their damage impacts essential plant components. Bringing the cyber security rule into line with the other design basis threat rules creates a cleaner, more effective set of regulations. It ensures that what is protected is fully protected and that time is not wasted on trying to defend a fax machine.

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We’ve written several posts on cyber security. It’s an important but somewhat under appreciated topic. Look here for more Nuclear Notes coverage.

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Sometimes, under covered would be preferable to bad coverage, which is what ABC News supplied in a an exceptionally alarmist story in November:

A destructive “Trojan Horse” malware program has penetrated the software that runs much of the nation’s critical infrastructure and is poised to cause an economic catastrophe, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

National Security sources told ABC News there is evidence that the malware was inserted by hackers believed to be sponsored by the Russian government, and is a very serious threat.

The hacked software is used to control complex industrial operations like oil and gas pipelines, power transmission grids, water distribution and filtration systems, wind turbines and even some nuclear plants. Shutting down or damaging any of these vital public utilities could severely impact hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But none of the components at a nuclear power plant interact with external networks and cannot be impacted by malware of this kind. Additionally, the industry was aware of this threat because the Department of Homeland Security briefed it. ABC could have found this out by calling NEI or any nuclear facility (or any energy-related industrial outlet, I expect, though I can’t speak for them), but why wreck a good story with a drive to get at the truth? NEI let ABC know the salient information on Twitter, but no change to the story.

Bill Gross, NEI’s senior project manager, engineering, nuclear generation, contributed substantially to this post.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Reading the Morning Nuclear News

From Fox News (which can be intensely partisan, but this is by former Senators Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire). They have a plan, which I’ve extracted here (read the story for the rest of it):

Before we close more nuclear power plants, we need a national conversation

What might be done to ensure that existing nuclear energy plants are preserved? … [W]e have laid out a framework of possible solutions that might be considered by policymakers.

First, markets should appropriately value existing nuclear energy plants for their reliability… 

Second, electric transmission lines could better link nuclear energy plants to the markets that need their power…

Finally, nuclear energy plants could be recognized for the fact that they emit no carbon… 

The whole thing is worth a read.

From the Business Standard:

China launches nuclear power expansion scheme

Scheme? Let the evil laughter and overwrought rubbing of hands commence.

They write letters, this one to the Morris County N.J. Daily Record:

Don’t underestimate nuclear power

… So, it’s absurd that EPA’s clean power plant rule assigns scarcely any value to nuclear power’s key role in reducing carbon emissions. The rule as it is currently written is rigged against nuclear power. It counts only 6 percent of a nuclear plant’s generation toward a state’s carbon intensity goal, instead of the plant’s full production of zero-carbon energy.

Well, rigged is a little strong, but it’s pretty right-on. We wrote about nuclear value earlier this week; If Daily Record reader James McGovern dropped by (or read Bayh and Gregg’s editorial), great. If not, still great. Keep writing letters to your local newspaper.

One more headline, from ABC (not the American network):

Business groups want Government to 'get out of the way' of nuclear power

This isn’t from the United States, but I’ll give you a hint: every kangaroo there hates nuclear energy, though they waltz Matilda over the country’s considerable uranium exports.

The peak business group in South Australia, Business SA, is pushing for a debate to be held on the merits of building a nuclear power reactor in the state.

The organization's chief executive, Nigel McBride, has welcomed the comments from senior figures within the Federal Government.

"I do welcome what is, to me, a very important sign from the Prime Minister that this Government is not closed to what could be a significant game-changer in our fight for affordable energy," he said.

We’ve noted Australia’s intense nuclear distaste over several years, so let’s not get our hopes up. But it really is getting stuck with a terrible carbon dioxide emission profile that it can’t seem to find a way to improve. We can think of a way – so has Nigel McBride.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

NEI's Pietrangelo to Testify Today Before Senate EPW Committee

Tony Pietrangelo
Later today, Tony Pietrangelo, NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer, will testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee concerning "NRC’s Implementation of the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force Recommendations and other Actions to Enhance and Maintain Nuclear Safety (click 'Live Hearing' at link beginning at 9:00 a.m. U.S. EST to watch webcast).” 

The first panel will be comprised of the five current members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including outgoing Chairman Allison Macfarlane. Pietrangelo will appear in the second panel in the afternoon, along with Daniel Hirsch of UC-Santa Cruz and Sam Blakeslee, a former California state senator who was once a member of the state's Seismic Safety Commission. A preview of Pietrangelo's oral testimony follows.

America’s 100 nuclear power plants provide approximately 20 percent of our electricity and nearly two-thirds of our carbon-free electricity.

They produce that electricity 24 hours/day and are not dependent upon wind or sun, or fuel delivered by trucks, barges, rail lines or pipelines to do so.

They produce electricity at low, stable prices and are base-load facilities that are essential to controlling voltage and frequency for the entire electric grid.

The nuclear energy industry employs over 100,000 workers, provides a significant fraction of the tax base at the state and local level, and represents hundreds of millions of dollars in both direct and indirect economic benefits to each state in which the plant operates.

Finally, nuclear power plants provide vital clean air compliance value. In any system that limits emissions – of the so-called “criteria” pollutants or carbon dioxide – the emissions prevented by nuclear energy reduce the compliance burden that would otherwise fall on emitting generating capacity.

Other sources of electricity have some of these attributes, but nuclear energy is unique in this value proposition.

With that said, some electricity markets in portions of the country are creating serious challenges for base-load generation including nuclear energy.

Since a number of states restructured their electricity markets in the late 1990s, the business of producing and transmitting electricity has evolved into two distinctly different enterprises.

In those states still using traditional cost-of-service regulation, companies and regulatory commissions use the process of integrated resource planning to evaluate resource options on a long-term basis, analyze project economics over a 40-year or 60-year time horizon, and assign value to “public goods,” such as fuel and technology diversity and forward price stability in the electric sector.

States with competitive electricity markets have not yet developed mechanisms to value these “public goods” and internalize them in their decision-making.

As a result, regulated states have been able to create the conditions under which companies can undertake long-term, capital-intensive projects and preserve fuel and technology diversity. In the South and Southeast, state legislatures and regulatory commissions provide the assurance of prudent cost recovery necessary for capital-intensive projects. This is why the Vogtle and Summer nuclear energy projects are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina.

One of the key questions first raised in the late 1990s – can restructured markets develop mechanisms to preserve fuel and technology diversity and support investment in a diverse portfolio of generating assets? – remains unanswered. Absent significant market redesign or creation of new market mechanisms, it is not clear how merchant markets will ever stimulate investment in anything but the lowest-cost, short-term option. Given today’s conditions, this will be natural gas-fired generation, thanks to the relatively low initial capital outlay for a gas-fired combined cycle plant.

This and other factors have led to sustained economic stress on some existing generating capacity, particularly base-load capacity. At a time when the surplus of generating capacity in the eastern United States is decreasing, as existing generating capacity retires, effective and efficient market design and operating practices in the capacity and energy markets are more critical than ever.

At the same time the electric industry is dealing with challenging market conditions, it is also dealing with the cumulative impact of regulations produced by the NRC.

The NRC currently has more than 50 rulemakings underway in various stages. Almost all of them, if implemented, would require modifications to plant systems and operations, yet the NRC does not appear to be prioritizing or even coordinating many of its rulemakings.

Last year, Senator Vitter and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Upton requested that the Government Accountability Office review the NRC’s use of cost-benefit analysis, and we look forward to the results of that analysis. For our part, we have numerous examples in which the actual cost of meeting new NRC requirements was 5 to 20 times the NRC’s estimated cost. We believe that if the NRC more accurately estimated the costs of its regulatory requirements, it would find that many of its requirements do not pass a simple cost-benefit test. As a result, resources are being spent complying with requirements that have little or no safety benefit. Let me be clear: The industry will implement requirements that have a direct safety benefit. However, regulatory requirements with little or no nexus to safety result in a diversion of resources from both the industry and the NRC to higher safety-significant requirements and operational priorities – the sorts of things that keep our plants reliably producing the electricity for which they are intended.

I want to take a moment to quickly summarize the state of post-Fukushima preparedness.

After Fukushima, the industry took immediate steps to strengthen our strategies to protect our nuclear energy facilities from severe natural events like earthquakes and floods. We didn’t wait for NRC requirements. Each company that operates nuclear power plants has added yet another layer of backup safety equipment to ensure that the facilities will have access to power and water that are necessary to keep reactors safe in the rare event of a severe natural event. Moreover, we developed national response centers in Memphis and Phoenix. Each of those centers is stocked with five sets of emergency equipment – backup generators, pumps, standardized couplings and connectors for hoses and cables – that are ready for delivery to any U.S. reactor in 24 hours.

The companies, using some of the nation’s best experts, also are reevaluating natural hazards – like earthquakes and floods – for their sites using the latest methods and data. The next step is to review the protective and mitigating measures put in place against the latest site-specific hazard information to determine if any refinements are necessary. We are in the process of conducting those evaluations and expect to have largely completed implementation by the end of 2016.

Finally, I would like to offer a perspective on seismic regulations, particularly at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.

Nuclear plants have several aspects of seismic protection, including safety factors applied to the reactor designs, conservative requirements in engineering codes and standards, and specific requirements for the strength of steel and concrete used to build the plants. These design and construction practices are above and beyond the protection needed to safely withstand significant ground motion. In addition, engineering and materials design, seismic study technologies and methodologies have evolved significantly over time, which allows for more certainty as to how a nuclear power plant’s structures, systems and components will react to a seismic event, and diminishes the reliance on overly conservative techniques and assumptions.

When Diablo Canyon was under construction, the nearby Hosgri fault was discovered. Because the ground motions from the Hosgri fault could exceed the double design earthquake postulated in the plant’s operating license, prior to commencing operations, the plant was retrofitted to withstand the ground motions from the Hosgri fault. In addition to these retrofits, a commitment also was made to constantly study the local geologic features and global seismic events to ensure seismic safety at Diablo Canyon, referred to as the Long Term Seismic Program (LTSP) through an open-ended licensing agreement. Diablo Canyon is, therefore, a unique facility in the industry, in that it is licensed for three earthquake designs: the Design Earthquake, Double Design Earthquake (equivalent to the Safe Shutdown Earthquake), and the Hosgri Earthquake, and has continually studied the geologic features surrounding the plant through the LTSP.

It is through the Long Term Seismic Program that the Shoreline fault was discovered, in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Service, in 2008. The Shoreline fault, like the San Luis Bay and Los Osos faults, are below the Hosgri ground motion levels for which the plant was retrofitted in the 1970s, prior to commencing operation. As a result, the plant is able to withstand the largest ground motions that could be expected to be generated from any of the nearby faults, because none exceed the plant’s robust Hosgri Earthquake design, which was also confirmed again as a result of recently completed advanced seismic studies using state of the art two and three dimensional imaging.

I realize this issue is even more complex because some staff at the NRC filed a differing professional opinion on issues related to Diablo Canyon and the Shoreline fault. Differing professional opinions do occur among the 4,000 staff at the NRC, and the NRC has a process for addressing them. In this case, the conclusion was that, “there is not now nor has there ever been an immediate safety concern” with this issue at Diablo Canyon. In addition, the panel concluded that older analytical techniques were overly conservative and no longer technically justified since the license at Diablo Canyon allows for newer technologies to be used.

UPDATE: For the latest research regarding Diablo Canyon and earthquake risk, click here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

To Jupiter and Beyond with Nuclear Energy

Sometimes, irony abounds:

When it comes to space travel, plutonium-238 is the perfect fuel: long-lasting and, as I'll explain later, relatively safe. Without it, we have no hope of going much further than Mars, after which it simply becomes too dark to rely on solar panels, the most common alternative power source in space. But the world is rapidly running out of plutonium-238.

Where’s the irony? Plutonium-238 is a byproduct of producing plutonium-239, which was used in nuclear weaponry. With the end of the cold war, and the dismantling of much of the nuclear arsenal, there’s no call for plutonium-239. It a case of undoubted progress blocking further progress.

Happily, that’s not the end of the story. The government is looking into another way of making plutonium-238. Sarah Zhang at Gizmodo explains the process:

The production plan, for now, involves hopping between no fewer than three DOE labs all over the country.

  • Idaho National Laboratory: The precursor material, neptunium-237, is extracted from nuclear reactor fuel.
  • Oak Ridge in Tennessee: A reactor irradiates neptunium-237 to make plutonium-238. The plutonium-238 and any remaining neptunium-237 are extracted to be used as fuel and recycled, respectively.
  • Los Alamos in New Mexico: Plutonium-238 is pressed into pellets and stored.

This is rather pleasing – no plutonium-239, so no undue proliferation concerns, further work in nuclear technology, another step en route to dilithium crystals for future starship usage. Sometimes, progress just can’t be stopped. Good story.