Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Where Wind Outpaces Nuclear: Carbon Emissions

Forbes provides a pretty good primer on why the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan for limiting carbon emissions can make a nuclear advocate a little grumbly – maybe a lot:

The Clean Power Plan calls for a near 20% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions from 2012 baseline levels by 2030. But here’s how the Clean Power Plan works—or doesn’t work, in the case of nuclear power. The draft rule sets forth an emissions rate baseline of CO2 emitted per megawatt-hour of fossil fuel generation … The draft rule allows for a 100% credit for all existing wind, solar, and geothermal sources, but only a 6% credit for nuclear. There’s no room at the inn for the other 94% of nuclear.

Remember, these are proposals, so they will change. Still, the issue of relative valuation in the proposed rule is at the root of discussions about properly valuing nuclear energy. Natural gas is currently priced very low due to its ubiquity. The problem is that natural gas only works as a replacement for coal because it produces about half the black rock’s carbon emissions. That’s still a fair amount of carbon, though, and on its own won’t get the country where it wants to go.

And it could get worse: what if natural gas prices prove enough to drive a nuclear facility out of the marketplace? That’s a lot of emission free energy taken off the table that can’t be easily replaced.

Why not renewables? Forbes writer Michael Krancer explains that because wind and solar are intermittent in nature, they need baseload energy to back them up. That requires natural gas (or coal or nuclear) to backstop them. Nuclear isn’t the best choice because it runs full tilt virtually all the time and it’s tough to ramp it down to allow renewable energy onto the grid – the same is true of hydro, plus the difficulty of building new dams. Coal and natural gas are more natural partners in this scenario, but they produce carbon emissions. The result: renewable energy plus natural gas or coal produces far more emissions than nuclear energy alone.

So the virtues of nuclear energy – baseload, non-carbon-emitting – has a decided value that the EPA’s proposed rule barely acknowledges. It’s hard to say for sure – there are a lot of factors – but the rules as they stands have the capacity to do a lot more harm than good. They could roil energy markets such that more not fewer carbon emissions are produced.

Lots of “coulds” there, an invitation to overstating the case. There are potential market forces, but also plenty of unpredictable human agency. Krancer does offer examples to suggest the case cannot be overstated:

Bentek, a Colorado energy analytics firm, found that 1,327 such cycling events [that is, a natural gas plant ramping up and down to accommodate wind) happened in Colorado in 2009, which released up to 6.8 million pounds of extra sulfur dioxide (“SO2”), 3.1 million pounds of nitrogen oxide (“NOX”), and 147,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (“CO2”).

That’s – awful.

Krancer provides the bottom line on nuclear energy:

Nuclear power is the work-horse of power supply and of zero-carbon generation.  Nuclear plants operate around the clock in all weather, providing nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity supply and comprising about 63.3% of all clean (zero carbon emissions) energy, which is more than all other clean energy sources put together.

It’s a great article on a complex topic. Well worth a full read.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Diplomatic Differences Don’t Alter Shared Goals in International Nuclear Safety

Dale Klein
The following is a post by Dale Klein, former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at The University of Texas System.

All nations with nuclear energy programs share the same goals of protection of the public health and safety along with the efficient operation of their commercial reactors, implemented in accordance with their own policies, laws and regulations. Never more so than since the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi site three and a half years ago.

Recent reports from both Bloomberg News and Reuters have shed new light on differences in approaches to enhancing safety at nuclear power plants in the international community. With that in mind, I’d like to take a closer look at the post-Fukushima actions the U.S. industry has taken to make plants that are already safe even safer.

Each U.S. plant site is procuring additional equipment such as portable pumps and generators to perform key safety functions if off-site electrical supplies and several backup power sources for permanently installed safety systems are lost due to natural and/or manmade causes. Key actions also include improved training of plant personnel and off-site emergency plans to respond safely to extreme events. In the event that additional back-up equipment is needed, the U.S. industry has put in place two national response centers which can supply this equipment to any nuclear plant site in the U.S. within 24 hours.

The U.S. is also in the process of re-analyzing natural challenges to the plants, including earthquakes and flooding, and making provisions for safe responses to events greater in magnitude for which the plants were originally designed.

The U.S. plants most like those at Fukushima are also installing reliable containment vents that will maintain the integrity of the reactor containment even if the nuclear core is damaged. And, the industry is cooperating with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to determine the optimal vent filtration method using a performance-based approach that focuses the response to a severe accident on those actions best able to manage the accident and mitigate potential radiation releases.

There are multiple methods for ensuring safety. The U.S. is greatly enhancing its ability to handle challenges to the plants no matter what causes them. Despite diplomatic differences, the U.S. and European community share a common goal: protection of the public and the environment.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why DOE Shouldn’t Split Issue of Radioactive Waste Management

Dr. Everett Redmond
The following is a guest post by Dr. Everett Redmond, NEI's Senior Director, Policy Development.

Yesterday the Department of Energy released its “Assessment of Disposal Options for DOE-Managed High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel.” This report is in response to a recommendation made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). The BRC had recommended that the Administration conduct a review of the current policy to dispose of defense and commercial high level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in a single repository or repositories.

The DOE report states: “Specifically, this report recommends that the DOE begin implementation of a phased, adaptive, and consent-based strategy with development of a separate mined repository for some DOE-managed HLW and cooler DOE-managed SNF, potentially including some portion of the inventory of naval SNF. This report notes that, in addition to early development of a separate repository for cooler DOE-managed HLW and SNF, effective implementation of a strategy for management and disposal of all HLW and SNF would also include a focused research, development, and demonstration program addressing technologies relevant to deep borehole disposal of smaller DOE-managed waste forms and the disposal of large DOE-managed waste packages with high thermal loads in mined repositories.”

Yucca Mountain
NEI and the industry are committed to the development of a viable program for the long-term management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste from our nation’s defense program and commercial used nuclear fuel. The DOE must begin to meet its obligations to the commercial industry and the communities and states where DOE facilities are located. It is the industry position that the disposal pathways and the obligations for managing both DOE high-level waste and commercial used nuclear fuel should be addressed simultaneously, not sequentially as the recommendations in the report seem to suggest. On behalf of nuclear energy producers and suppliers we urge Congress to fund, and the Administration to continue, the review of the Yucca Mountain repository license application. It is in the best interest of this nation that the Federal Government begins to meet its legal obligations as soon as possible and to establish a viable program for the long-term management and disposal of commercial used nuclear fuel and DOE high-level radioactive waste.

Please follow Dr Redmond on his Twitter feed, @EverettRedmond.

NEI's Marv Fertel on Nuclear Science Week

With Nuclear Science Week in full swing, NEI's Marv Fertel passed along some thoughts:

NEI is proud to support Nuclear Science Week. Thanks to nuclear science, the world has enjoyed the benefits of clean air energy, explored the far reaches of space and expanded the boundaries of medicine. As teachers introduce a new generation of students to nuclear technologies this week, one wonders what incredible new innovations we will enjoy in the future thanks to their efforts.
For more on Nuclear Science Week, please follow our friends via their Twitter feed, @NuclearSciWeek, as well as NEI's Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The National in National Nuclear Science Week

nsw Nuclear Science Week (NSW – but very safe for work) is a national, broadly observed week-long celebration to focus local, regional and national interest on all aspects of nuclear science. Seattle is hosting NSW this year, bit let’s focus on the national aspect. In fact, plans in other locales are – well, pretty darn awesome.

I’ll zero in on South Carolina:

The Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness (CNTA) will hold their 23rd Annual Edward Teller Lecture and Banquet on Monday, October 20, 2014.  The lecture is a community event attended by community leaders, CNTA members, local and national business and corporate interests, government and Savannah River Site officials, and elected officials from Georgia and South Carolina.

Guest Lecturer – Robert Stone (Director – Pandora’s Promise and Oscar-Nominated & Emmy-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker)

This is especially impressive. One would imagine that, two years after making Pandora’s Promise, Stone would have moved on to his next project. I’m sure he has – IMDB doesn’t list one, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one – yet Stone is still clearly engaged with nuclear energy.

The Savannah River Site is also sponsoring a speech contest:

The SRS Leadership Association sponsors an annual speech contest open to any student from the CSRA, in grades 9th – 12th. It requires a student to personally prepare a speech of between four and six minute duration relating to leadership.

I used to participate in these in high school – I won a small scholarship for a civics speech - so it’s nice to see it’s still a thing. This is all the information given on the page, so I don’t know if there’s a prize offered.

Also touted: tours of the Savannah River site and the V.C. Summer construction site. A pretty impressive showing altogether. SCANA and Georgia Power are among the major sponsors.

South Carolina clearly benefits by having a number of nuclear properties clustered together – makes organizing something like this easier – and Savannah River and Summer have really pulled out the stops. If you have a nuclear-interested kid and live in that area, it’s going to be an atomic Disneyland.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Valuing Nuclear Assets in A National Energy Review

nuclear-power-plant President Obama in January directed the heads of nearly two dozen federal agencies to create an integrated review of U.S. energy policy “in the context of economic, environmental, occupational, security, and health and safety priorities.”

The task force is charged with developing “integrated guidance to strengthen U.S. energy policy,” building on the administration’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future and Climate Action Plan. The first of the quadrennial energy reviews is due this coming January. It will be updated every four years thereafter, if future administrations continue with it.

Quadrennial might sound like a old European dance (that’s a quadrille), but it’s a kind of roadmap timed to occur near the mid-point of an administration’s term. Even if the review is based on administration priorities that the next president does not follow, it will encourage continuity and transparency in energy policy.

Public comments were due October 10. NEI submitted a few, focusing on several points, including the review’s focus.

[T]his first-ever review will focus on energy infrastructure and will identify the threats, risks, and opportunities for U.S. energy and climate security, enabling the federal government to translate policy goals into a set of integrated actions.

And NEI’s response:

Although DOE has indicated that the first edition of the QER focuses on infrastructure, NEI does not believe it is possible or prudent to separate delivery from supply and production, particularly in the electric sector. It is not possible to examine transmission of electricity or natural gas in isolation without also examining, for example, the number and locations of the power plants that might need natural gas.

Of course, NEI is most interested in the role of nuclear energy in the electricity market, but not considering energy generators impacts them all, denying them the value they bring to the marketplace. An energy review that ignores this risks being of limited use.

Sound competitive market design should follow basic economic principles and begin with a systematic inventory of the attributes of the various forms of electric generating capacity that have value to the grid. Then the competitive markets should develop mechanisms to provide compensation for those attributes. Unless and until these attributes are recognized and priced, markets run the risk that they will gradually disappear.

Some of those attributes are obvious for nuclear energy: carbon-emission free, non-stop baseload energy that can be very inexpensive to run. NEI’s response expands on several of these qualities, notably how nuclear energy fulfills the energy review’s specific concerns:

Affordable, clean, and secure energy and energy services are essential for improving U.S. economic productivity, enhancing our quality of life, protecting our environment, and ensuring our Nation's security.

With a tweak here and there, this could be the mission statement of the nuclear energy industry. We’ll see how the final report goes when it emerges in January.

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.