Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The State of the Union: What Nuclear Wonks Will Be Looking For

Alex Flint
The following post was submitted by Alex Flint, NEI's Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs.

It’s an age-old parlor game in Washington, hoping for a shout-out in the State of the Union and then acting all nonchalant if you get one, or like the State of the Union doesn't matter if you don’t.

President Obama has devoted some nice lines to nuclear energy in previous States of the Union. The best line (from my point of view, of course) was in 2010 when he said:
But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.
I’m delighted to report that five nuclear reactors are under construction today. Peak employment at each of those during construction will be about 3,500 people and, when they are completed (the first one is scheduled to come on line later this year), each will provide 400-700 permanent jobs.

Of course, it would be wonderful to get another shout-out this year. Fingers crossed, here’s what we might hear:
  • Today, about 15,000 Americans are building five new nuclear reactors to produce clean, reliable electricity, and unemployment has fallen to the lowest level since I've been in office.
But, more seriously, how about:
  • We are going to build a 21st century electricity system that is resilient, brings clean-energy to consumers across our country, and utilizes advanced clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy.
  • We are transitioning to a new transportation system that will feature electric vehicles at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago. To meet that increased demand for electricity, we will lead a major expansion of clean electricity sources including wind, solar and nuclear.
The White House knows, because the U.S. Commerce Department told it, that the overseas market for nuclear products and services is valued at nearly $750 billion over the next decade. As such, we are even hoping to hear something about trade and overseas markets. Maybe something like:
  • The market for clean energy technologies around the world is expanding rapidly, and we want U.S. wind, solar, and nuclear companies to lead the way in those markets. More overseas trade results in more jobs here at home in engineering, manufacturing and consulting.
Statements like these would help reinforce a continuing commitment to develop the full portfolio of clean energy technologies this country needs.

But there’s no way of telling what will happen until we hear the speech.

So, I’ll be tuning in Tuesday night to listen, to parse and to react just like everyone else. And I will be hoping, just maybe, to hear a little something positive about nuclear energy along the way. At the very least, it could give me something to talk about—nonchalantly or not—Wednesday morning.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Join Us For a Twitter Chat on Blackhat and Nuclear Energy January 16 at 3:15 P.M.

A pensive Hemsworth.
Last week we first took note of the television ad blitz around Blackhat, the new cyber crime thriller directed starring Chris Hemsworth that premieres tomorrow all around the USA.

Obviously, the timing for the movie could hardly be better, coming off the recent hacking of the Twitter feed for U.S. Central Command and word that cyber security will be front and center in next Tuesday's State of the Union.

Why are we interested? As we mentioned last week, there's an early plot point that involves the hacking of control systems at a nuclear power plant - an eventuality that the industry has taken safeguards against.

Thanks to bad timing, we weren't able to get a seat to a press screening on Tuesday night (props to NBC Universal for making a good faith effort to get us inside, we appreciate it), but we'll be paying for a ticket and seeing the film tomorrow afternoon at a theater in Washington a few blocks from the White House. Bill Gross, NEI's cyber security expert, will be part of our delegation. After watching the film, we'll return to the office to host a Twitter chat with Bill on the movie and how cyber security is conducted at U.S. nuclear facilities. Please join us at 3:15 p.m. for the chat. In the meantime, please submit your questions to us using #aboutblackhat.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Blue Crabs, Exelon, and the Chesapeake Bay

bcrabjuly08 From the department of unintentional irony:

Chestertown resident Hope Clark said Exelon has a history of being against clean energy generation and policies. She cited the company’s use of nuclear power as an example.

This is from a Bay Times (Maryland) story about a public meeting concerning the proposed merger of Exelon and Maryland’s Pepco electric utility, specifically in this gathering Pepco’s Delmarva subsidiary. (Exelon’s Calvert Cliffs facility roosts on the western shore of the Chesapeake and might be what Ms. Clark is concerned about locally.)

As you may know, everything in Maryland has always been (and will always be) about the Chesapeake Bay if the bay is in any way involved in an issue. Partisan politics has no role here and is non-functional – the bay must be kept as pristine as possible by any human being that interacts with it. There is no higher purpose than that. It would be cynical to call this absolutism a blue crab thing, but even if it were, so what? The outcome is the same as far as the bay is concerned and that’s an unalloyed good. Would that such determined environmental stewardship were copied wherever it would be useful.

Local attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod, representing the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said the coalition intervened because of its concern with Exelon’s environmental track record and what that means for the Conowingo Dam.

He said the dam is the largest source of renewable energy in Maryland and needs to be properly taken care of. He said the counties involved in the coalition are worried about the future of the Chesapeake Bay if the merger were to go through, because Exelon seems not to care about maintaining the Conowingo Pond, the reservoir above the dam that is nearly filled to capacity.

“Environmental stewardship is important to consider and the coalition thinks Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay,” MacLeod said.

This line - “Exelon has not done what it could to help the Bay” - would be said by someone in a group like this if Exelon were the World Wildlife Foundation. Still, this is where you express these concerns and that’s fine. This is how it goes in Maryland. May it always be thus.

In a conference call Wednesday, Jan. 7, Exelon’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy Chris Gould said the company is committed to sustainability in an environmental, social and economic sense. He said anyone can find a report about the company’s success with that commitment online.

The Bay Times doesn’t tell you where to find that. We will.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

More of The Nuclear Year 2014

Father-Time-and-Baby-Time-Shaking-HandsIndustries are dynamic entities that are always in process. That means they don’t lend themselves to top 10 lists, which work better for finished objects such as movies and books. We may say that Godzilla was the best 2014 movie to feature Yucca Mountain (built not for used fuel but to imprison a malevolent insect), but that’s a different kind of judgment. Some of the items we’ll include here started earlier than 2014 or started in 2014 but will not reach a milestone until 2015 or beyond. That’s how it goes.

With that in mind, let’s look at 2014:

From a financial  viewpoint, two items stand out: the President’s  request to revive the Decommissioning and Decontamination tax on nuclear plants was turned back in the appropriations bill that passed for 2015. The industry has no problem paying that tax – in fact, it’s paid the full amount two times over. It just was not eager for a third go-round – and Congress agreed.

Similarly, the court-ordered end of the Nuclear Waste Fee, which was intended to fund the construction and operation of the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository. Until the government meets its obligation to devise a used fuel strategy that can include a budget, the industry should not have to pay for that lack of strategy. Now, when we say the industry does not have to pay these fees, we really mean that you the ratepayer does not have to pay them, either. That’s approximately a billion dollars (just in 2015!) that won’t be diverted into government coffers waiting for a purpose.

The appropriations process was altogether pretty positive for the nuclear industry. Notably, the federal government will continue to partner with industry on small and next generation reactors. These projects promote goals the government has given a high priority, carbon dioxide emissions and energy diversity among them.

For a subject that is way too fluid to limit to a single year, consider trade. The nuclear energy aspect of trade has a special twist, the so-called 123 agreements. These are signed by State Department officials from two countries to allow trade in nuclear technologies. These date back to the original Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (123 is the section of the act dealing with these agreements) and root in the desire by the United States to tightly hold nuclear technology. That notion didn’t make it past the 50s, but 123 agreements remain useful to ensure that bad actors stay out of the nuclear business and that the rights of American companies are respected overseas. In general, these have not proven to be a large issue – a 123 agreement with Vietnam took force last year, for example. This year, agreements will be signed with China and South Korea. The latter should be noncontroversial, but the China agreement could be subject to greater scrutiny – but more because China is China than anything nuclear-related. A great many American vendors work with the Chinese nuclear industry, so it’s worth keeping an eye on it. 

Or consider another ongoing trade issue, the Export-Import bank. This depression-era entity became controversial to some members of Congress as a symbol of crony capitalism. Whatever the merits of that view, the bank has become such a factor in the global marketplace that virtually every first-world country has an equivalent entity. The existence of the U.S. Ex-Im Bank sends a message that America takes trade seriously, so it is equally important to companies that use the bank’s service and those that don’t.

The Ex-Im Bank provides credit to both American and foreign companies that engage in trade. NEI took the nuclear angle on the drive to reauthorize the bank’s charter, but this obviously is not a nuclear-specific issue. Many commerce and manufacturing organizations share NEI’s view (cool infographic – collect the set!). In 2014, the bank was reauthorized, but only for a few months. It needs a reauthorization with a reasonable lending authority. This is a big issue, especially with so much nuclear activity happening around the world.

These are some of the key issues that define the nuclear scene as 2014 blends seamlessly into 2015, but there are plenty of others. For example, Congress will probably take a closer look at used nuclear fuel options in 2015 and has already announced that energy policy will be a large topic in the new session.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Blackhat, Nuclear Energy and Cyber Security

While many of us were home for the holidays we couldn't escape the movie trailer for Blackhat, a cyber crime thriller directed by Michael Mann starring Chris Hemsworth. Set to premiere in the U.S. on January 16, the trailer includes a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant in China.



We've dealt with the issue of cyber security with some frequency here at NEI Nuclear Notes. I'd refer our readers back to a post written by NEI's Bill Gross almost two years ago that outlined industry actions in this area to mitigate against the possibility of a cyber attack (emphasis mine).
By December 31, 2012, each U.S. nuclear power plant has:
  • Isolated key control systems using either air-gaps or robust hardware based isolation devices. As a result, the key safety, security, and power generation equipment at the plants are protected from any network based cyber attacks originating outside the plant.
  • Enhanced and implemented robust controls over the use of portable media and equipment. Where devices like thumb drives, CD’s, and laptops are used to interface with plant equipment, measures are in place to minimize the cyber threat. These measures include such actions as: minimizing the use of devices that are not maintained at the plant; virus scanning devices both before and after being connected to plant equipment; and, implementing additional measures where the source of the data or device originates outside the plant. As a result, the plants are well protected from attacks like Stuxnet, that propagated through the use of portable media.
  • Enhanced defenses against the insider threat. Training and insider mitigation programs have been enhanced to include cyber attributes. Individuals who work with digital plant equipment are subject to increased security screening, cyber security training, and behavioral observation.
  • Implemented cyber security controls to protect equipment deemed most essential for the protection of the public health and safety. While full implementation of cyber security controls for all digital equipment requiring protection will take some time, plants have prioritized the implementation to cover the assets most essential to the public health and safety.
  • Implemented measures to maintain the effectiveness of the implemented portions of the program. These measures include maintaining the equipment described above in the plant configuration management program, ensuring changes to the equipment are performed in a controlled way. A cyber security impact analysis is performed before making changes to the equipment. The effectiveness of implemented cyber security controls is periodically assessed, and enhancements made where necessary. Vulnerability assessments are performed to ensure the cyber security posture of the equipment is maintained.
Despite these procedures, continued vigilance is key, something that's equally true for both cyber and physical security. In the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye on this film and screening it when it comes to theaters in the U.S. next week.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Nuclear Year 2014

babytime Years end, as everything finds an ending. Vermont Yankee is ending its 42-year run. Nuclear energy, which generated 70 percent of Vermont’s electricity, is ending in the Green Mountain state – as the year ends – as everything finds an ending.

But you don’t need to see the old feller of 2014 shuffling off as the 2015 babe supplants him to know that endings portend beginnings. Vermont Yankee is closing because it is not making enough money, not because it has ceased to be an effective supplier of clean energy. Under the proposed EPA rules regulating  carbon dioxide  from electricity generators, Vermont is the only state that did not have to reduce emissions at all – in large part due to Vermont Yankee (hydro supplies most of the remaining 30 percent, so Vermont had a particularly good emissions profile).

So now Vermont will turn to its neighbors New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Quebec to fill the gaps in its energy portfolio – some of that may be nuclear, but a lot of it likely will not be. Wouldn’t it have been better if Vermont Yankee worth included its emission-free quality? Shouldn’t the energy market reflect that since it will be so important in 2015 and beyond?

If anything defines the nuclear year in review, it is these two issues: nuclear energy plants became (or threaten to become) financially untenable; and nuclear energy is even more valuable now than it has ever been, specifically because it can reliably produce 70 percent of a state’s electricity emissions-free. Whatever your view on the existential peril of climate change, nuclear energy is the only solution we now have that can supply tremendous amounts of electricity – with a relatively small footprint – 24/7 - and with no harmful emissions.

This isn’t just a U.S. issue. Installed nuclear energy capacity worldwide could nearly triple from today’s 375 gigawatts to as much as 1,092 gigawatts by 2050 if nations recognize it as the best and least expensive means to address the threat of climate change.

This statistic comes from an International Atomic Energy Agency report, “Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2014.” The report “indicates that nuclear power represents the largest single mitigation potential at the lowest average costs.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is not focused on nuclear energy as the IAEA is, notes that raising the percentage of global nuclear energy capacity from 16 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2030 could avoid 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalence per year.

The IAEA and IPCC are both United Nations organizations. One feature of 2014 is a surprising unanimity among energy policy reports, governmental and otherwise, nuclear-centered and not, that nuclear energy should be expanded – rapidly, starting now. No one has given up on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, but if one believes time is running out, as the IPCC certainly does, then one defaults to the mature technology. That’s nuclear energy.

In many countries, this isn’t an issue at all. China, Russia, India and many other countries with nuclear industries are accelerating their construction plans. Countries such as Vietnam, UAE and Turkey are preparing to open first reactors. And many other countries – including in Africa and South America – are looking at partnerships and deals to get a productive chain reaction going.

The U.S. is hampered somewhat by its appreciation for low-cost natural gas and its continuing romance with renewable energy. Neither of these are bad things, though they cause a loss of valuation for nuclear energy. It’s the energy market that needs reforming.

This is becoming more broadly recognized, as much because of nuclear energy’s reliability as its emissions profile. PJM Interconnection, one of the nation’s largest regional transmission operators, is seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to implement a “capacity performance initiative” aimed at improving reliability of the regional electricity system. What FERC does is going to be a major story in 2015.

Consider: under current market rules, nuclear energy facilities are not compensated for their secure fuel supply, while generators that run short of fuel are not penalized.This became notable during last year’s polar vortex, when gas and coal froze up but nuclear energy facilities continued unabated. PJM doesn’t cite this (as far as I can tell). You can read more about this here.

And did we mention that a new U.S. reactor is opening in 2015? Goodbye Father Vermont Yankee, hello Baby Watts Bar. Endings portend beginnings.

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NEI’s comments on Vermont Yankee can be found here. Entergy explains its decision to close the plant here.

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Is that all there is to say about 2014? Oh, no. We’ll round up some of the interesting events of an eventful year next week.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Winter Fury, Meet Nuclear Reliability

Unless you live in Siberia, you probably don’t care much about when it snows there. But some meteorologists care, because it may act as a bellwether for how things will go in the rest of the northern hemisphere. And things are looking a little rough this season:

About 14.1 million square kilometers of snow blanketed Siberia at the end of October, the second most in records going back to 1967, according to Rutgers University’s Global Snow Lab.

Global Snow Lab? And their logo isn’t a snow globe!? Anyway, what does the snow in Siberia mean for us?

Taken together they signal greater chances for frigid air to spill out of the Arctic into more temperate regions of North America, Europe and Asia, said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, Massachusetts, who developed the theory linking Siberian snow with winter weather.

There’s been a tendency lately to pay more attention to the weather, likely because the polar vortex last year proved to be such a boon for the media. The weather is now click bait. Cohen’s ideas about Siberian snow and its impact are interesting – and maybe genuinely predictive – but a lot of people find themselves content with the Farmers Almanac (which isn’t too far off from Cohen, come to think of it).

What does this have to do with nuclear energy? Everything.

But peak electricity prices could exceed 100¢/kWh like they did last year during the polar vortex (Forbes).

Not sure why New Englanders are so surprised. It was their choice to throw all-in for natural gas and renewables in a land of harsh winters. But they’ve refused to build new gas pipelines. And they’re shutting a nuclear plant that has 20 years of cheap reliable cold-resistant energy left on it.

And natural gas froze in the pipes during the vortex last year, with nuclear energy picking up the slack. Uranium might or might not freeze if it were stacked in piles like coal, but it’s not in piles – it’s in the reactor, making heat.

This reliability was literally a life saver last year. And it still gets notices. From the New York Times, today:

To people in the American nuclear industry, reactors do not get the respect they deserve for being both virtually emissions-free and a source of around-the-clock electricity for the grid. Experts point to the spell of extreme cold weather across much of the country last January, when nuclear plants kept working while many gas and coal plants had to shut down as the cold affected equipment and fuel supplies.

NEI did a package on nuclear energy’s reliability a bit ago, but it’s worth taking another look at as we approach the upcoming, um, Siberian winter. We of course hope for sunshine and beach temperatures – as who doesn’t – but it’s nice to know that when the weather doesn’t cooperate, nuclear energy does.