Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Taming of the Drones

Gadget ShowThe French have lately been plagued by drone aircraft flying over nuclear energy facilities – and a plague it is, too, for a country that has suffered a traumatic terrorist attack recently. We’ll let the French deal with the issue with their usual je ne sais quoi, as we’re sure they will.

But the various stories did make me wonder about the American response – not to the French situation, but to the prospect of drones buzzing American facilities. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened – and I think we would know – but it’s fair to say that it would make people very nervous, just as it has done in France.

Still, what one can do is maintain a little perspective. I was struck in this regard by comments by British engineer John Large because of its maximalist idiocy:

According to Large, of consulting engineers Large & Associates, based in London, who was commissioned by Greenpeace France to evaluate and report on the spate of flyovers, the “unacceptable” risk posed by a terrorist drone attack means that many of Europe’s nuclear power stations – including the majority of those in France – should be shut down.

But this is due to one factor only: drones have been seen there (well, and Greenpeace is a potent second factor). If drones were seen around gasworks, near trains carrying liquefied natural gas through small towns, or at any switchyard, would we stop all such activity? There are YouTube videos of a drone with machine gun mounts and a plastic explosive payload blowing up a car. Do we ban driving?

To be honest, the damage a drone could do to a nuclear facility would be to the physical plant rather then hardened structures such as the containment chamber or backup generator building, but just doing that much carries a decided fear factor. Still, that’s all. One can imagine far more wreckage – and a frightening toll in human life – from other potential targets.

Drone fly-overs cross from an industrial concern to a government and military issue. No industrial facility is itself a military installation, but an attack on one will bring a response from the military. Terrorists have the same status as foreign combatants and become a federal and military issue.* And then there’s the government.

The Federal Aviation Administration calls drones unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. The operator would still need to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision (except for glasses). The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.

The FAA wants to allow maximum flexibility in drone use, which is reflected here, but includes this, too:

Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

Domestic, or should I say domesticated, drones are used for all kinds of helpful purposes. Nuclear facilities use them to help with maintenance, for example, and delivery companies such as Federal Express have looked into their potential. 

So laying down markers for the legitimate use of drones is important. The FAA’s proposed rules also provide ways to prosecute illegitimate uses of drones. Even if drones have no means to do anything truly dire at a nuclear energy plant, they could still make a mess and inflame the public. That has to be taken seriously – and it is.

* I believe a similar approach is what the French are now considering. French nuclear plants are already government operations, so there are differences in their operation that I can’t speak to.

NEI’s Director – Security Dave Kline helped considerably with this post.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Aywa in Egypt, Nein in Germany

One of the tasks nuclear energy plants could easily do is desalination. Desalination, the process of removing salt from water to make it drinkable (potable, that is), is especially important in more arid lands – say, for example, California:

The massive project, in Carlsbad, teems with nearly 500 workers in yellow hard hats. When it’s done next year, it will take in more than 100 million gallons of Pacific Ocean water daily and produce 54 million gallons of fresh, drinkable water. While this adds up to just 10 percent of the county’s [San Diego]water delivery needs, it will, crucially, be reliable and drought-proof—a hedge against potentially worse times ahead.

In this case, the Carlsbad facility is co-located with the Encina natural gas plant, which will supply it with power. There are some 16,000 desalination facilities around the world, many of them co-located with gas and coal plants. The Technology Review article linked above provides a lot of useful data on the subject if you’re interested.

Some countries have experimented with nuclear-based desalination – notably Kazakhstan, India and Japan, but no one has really proceeded with it commercially.

So this news is exciting:

Egypt and Russia have signed an agreement for the development of a design for a nuclear power plant with a desalination facility, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom said.

Rosatom did not release details of the agreement, but said it believes a desalination facility at a large capacity nuclear power plant with Russian-supplied VVER pressurized water reactors has “significant potential” in foreign markets.

Such a facility would be able to produce up to 170,000 cubic meters of fresh water a day from one nuclear power unit, Rosatom said.

Though Rosatom is apparently using a full scale reactor for this project, desalination practically calls for small reactors. (Many agree. The NucNet article says: “Argentina, China and South Korea have developed small nuclear reactor designs specifically to generate both electricity and fresh water. Small reactor technology may be key to expanding clean, nuclear energy-based desalination, the IAEA said.”) Obviously, as carbon dioxide emissions reduction becomes more important to energy policy, a move away from fossil fuels for at least some of these plants will gain currency (I haven’t read this, but I suspect the relative importance of desalination will allow many facilities to grandfather their way into any emission reduction plan.)

In any event, and given the issues that come from dealing with the lumbering bear, this is a great development. The Americans need to get cracking on this.

NEI has a page on desalination. It’s a subject that tends to fly low and quiet, but where it’s needed, it’s the most important thing there is.

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From the New York Times:

The European Union will fail to meet an ambitious goal of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 unless it takes more aggressive measures to limit the use of fossil fuels and adopts new environmental policies, according to a report scheduled for release on Tuesday.

And why might this be? Ah, Germany, how we want to love you.

According to the report, Germany, whose economy is the best in Europe, was the only country not on track to meet its emissions reductions for 2020, or cut its energy consumption. According to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, the country saw an increase of 20 million tons of carbon emissions between 2012 and 2013, instead of a reduction.

In order to meet its goals, Germany must reduce emissions annually by 3.5 percent over the next six years, a feat that will result in substantial increases in energy costs, and generate political pressure to block measures that could hurt the economy.

And why might that be?

The race to shutter the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, for example, has resulted in many power providers using brown coal, or lignite, the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fuels to keep the power flowing to customers. This, in turn, has led to an increase in carbon emissions.

Lieber Gott! Sie den ganzen Artikel lesen.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Value of Energy, Nuclear and Non-, in Illinois

lincoln-watertowerThey write letters:

Clinton Mayor Carolyn Peters joined the mayors of Morris, Oregon, East Moline, Braceville and Marseilles in letters sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner and top legislators like House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, stressing the importance of the plants to their cities and towns.

So this would be – the Northwest? (Oregon) France? (Marseilles). No , it’s the apparently broadly settled section of Illinois that hosts nuclear power plants, notably the Clinton station. And Clinton’s mayor isn’t mincing words:

“Illinois nuclear facilities provide thousands of good jobs; the kind of jobs you can support a family on...,” the mayors say in a letter dated Feb. 4. “Part of the upcoming debate in Springfield should focus on what these plants mean to their host communities. From our firsthand perspective, we can tell you that Illinois' nuclear facilities are essential to helping our communities thrive.”

Exelon, which runs all 12 Illinois reactors at 6 sites, has been quite frank that the economics of energy in its market have been a financial strain and could lead to plants closing:

Power-producing giant Exelon Corp. rounded out a phalanx of Illinois lawmakers and business leaders who said Thursday that three nuclear power plants could close unless consumers chip in to reward them for producing environmentally-friendly electricity.

We’ll come back to that phalanx of Illinois lawmakers, but first, let’s note that this is the coarsest possible way of saying that the Illinois legislature wants to ensure that its energy supply supports its goals, notably as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan limiting carbon dioxide emissions comes barreling down the chute. Exelon isn’t exaggerating when it says it could close plants. Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee have already shuttered because their markets failed to recognize their value.

So that phalanx has decided that nuclear energy does indeed have value –but not solely and not at the expense of other energy sources.

The bills introduced in both the state Senate and House over the past week would enact the Illinois Low Carbon Portfolio Standard, helping to reduce carbon emissions, increase renewable energy and maintain a stable and secure electricity supply in the state.

Under the proposed legislation, utilities will be required to purchase low-carbon energy credits equivalent to 70% of the utility's annual retail sales to customers within the state. Qualified sources include energy from solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, tidal, wave and clean coal.

That doesn’t sound like nuclear special pleading to me, but an extension of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy policy. Anything that can pull off the emissions reduction trick is welcome. 

The Chicago Sun-Times explains that this plan isn’t emerging from a vacuum. The state legislature has looked at what the loss of nuclear energy would mean to the state, much as Mayor Peters has done, but with a wider perspective. It’s not pretty:

Specifically, the report found that the closure of Illinois’ at-risk nuclear plants would lead to significant losses, including $1.8 billion annually in lost economic activity, nearly 8,000 jobs lost, decreased reliability, and substantial environmental costs of up to $18 billion stemming from increased carbon emissions. It also concluded that maintaining low and stable electric prices in Illinois was dependent on the continued operation of all existing nuclear generating stations.

The Sun-Times notes that the legislature recommended market-based solutions and that appears to have guided this new legislation. It doesn’t favor nuclear over its renewable or fossil cousins, but the inclusion gives it its due and recognizes that renewable energy sources alone will not get Illinois where it needs to go. After all, virtually all of Illinois’ electricity is made by nuclear (48 percent) and coal (47 percent), so finding a way to leverage them is to its benefit – and, of course, to the benefit of its citizens  as well. Plus, as Mayor Peters points out, it makes a lot of economic sense.

This is very early days for the Illinois legislation. The opening salvos in newspapers have been mixed, but early days for that, too. Including nuclear energy in an energy policy that aims to contain carbon dioxide emissions seems so obvious, yet Illinois may be the first state to codify it. This is a fascinating development and deserves close and continued attention.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rep. Shimkus: Stop Kowtowing to Sen. Reid on Yucca Mountain

Rep. John Shimkus
In an editorial in today's edition of the Lacrosse Tribune, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), renewed his call for the federal government to fulfill its commitments under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and open a permanent geologic depository at Yucca Mountain:
It’s not just coal that suffers under the Clean Power Plan though. Energy consumers in states such as Illinois will get no credit toward meeting the EPA’s standards from existing carbon-free nuclear power.

For those fixated on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but honest enough to admit the threat drastic cuts pose to baseload capacity, nuclear is a no-brainer. Here again, however, the president’s energy policies are at odds with the majority of America’s elected representatives. By kowtowing to Sen. Harry Reid’s, D-Nev., fear-mongering opposition to a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, the administration denies nuclear power suppliers the certainty they need to continue producing emission-free, baseload electricity.
Rep. Shimkus is one of the most passionate supporters of the Yucca Mountain project, frequently taking to the floor of the House of Representatives to defend it. Here's a clip from March 2013 where the congressman laid out his case for the repository:


Bravo. For more on the safe storage of used nuclear fuel, please visit our website.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thorium, The Betamax of Nuclear Technologies

Thorium Itself.
Worthly has up a review of different technologies that are “world-changing” and “just over the horizon.” Some seem pretty close by: self-driving cars, for example. Others are new to me, others I’ve heard of, still, the real worth of such round ups is that they allow us to dream of the future as a utopia. That’s why it’s a dream not a nightmare, which could sum up a fair number of people’s view of the present. Once the future becomes the present, the first two self-driving cars in Ohio will crash into each other and all will be normal again.

But one of the featured technologies caught our eye:
Nuclear power can easily solve all of our energy problems, and liquid fluoride thorium reactors could be one of the most promising energy sources that mankind has ever created. These reactors use thorium which is safer, more abundant, and more efficient than current nuclear fuel options. You can fit a lifetimes supply of thorium fuel in your hand, that’s how efficient these reactors are. When we get the technology up to speed, we can realistically create these nuclear power plants on a large scale. People need to get over their fear of nuclear energy, as it is really one of the most important achievements that mankind has ever made. It’s difficult to explain all the details of liquid fluoride thorium reactors, but this video does a pretty great job at hitting all the major details and it will also make you wonder why we aren’t pouring money to fund this.
You can find the video at the link. A fascinating watch.

This is basically a molten salt reactor – which delivers uranium and thorium fuel using molten salt as the medium (thorium needs uranium to start a reaction) – and has been around since the 50s. Granted, the technology hasn’t stood still, but what was known about thorium then is still true now. We even know that the thorium fuel cycle scales up to industrial levels, a key issue with technologies of its kind. But – that’s not the way the industry went.

Thorium became the Betamax of nuclear technology – perhaps superior to the uranium fuel cycle in some ways and with a devoted fan base in the relevant community, but still not the way forward when standardization entered the mix.

Still, as someone who has frequently been a zealot for losing technologies – Betamax, OS/2, HD-DVD - it’s a shame to lose what they offer, even if not officially the “winner.” Sometimes, "losing" technologies prevail, sort of. Look at turntables. And who knows? This is about the future, where potential is limitless.

As always, the hub of the thorium community is the excellent Energy from Thorium blog – or former blog, as it has lately morphed into a foundation dedicated to the element and its limitless potential. If thorium fascinates you, that’s your web destination.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What FERC Does–and What It Can Do For Nuclear Energy

We haven’t written much about FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, because, though it is important to energy markets and electricity transmission, it’s work, by and large, is not specific to any specific source. What it does impacts all energy generators – well, perhaps not equally, as we’ll see, but let’s say so for convenience. Let’s say it’s generator-neutral, at least when it comes to transmission.

Here’s the commission’s description of itself:
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. FERC also reviews proposals to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and interstate natural gas pipelines as well as licensing hydropower projects. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave FERC additional responsibilities as outlined and updated Strategic Plan
There’s a lot more at the link – FERC’s mandate is pretty broad - and I guess you could say it has a special, NRC-like interest in hydroelectric plants. One of the things FERC does not do: “Regulation of nuclear power plants … .”

But where FERC’s oversight of energy markets intersects with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, it intersects with nuclear energy. In fact, in this realm, FERC is key:
FERC will play as important a role as EPA in achieving the objectives of the Clean Power Plan—reducing carbon emissions from the electric sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. That goal will be much more difficult to the extent that additional nuclear power plants are closed prematurely due to economic stress caused, in part, by flawed market design.
This is not special pleading. All energy policy – all policy  - is determined by balancing competing and sometimes conflicting goals. If FERC wants to ensure energy diversity and an ample electricity supply, then fine, but it must also account for what the nation wants to do in terms of carbon emission reduction. As it happens, nuclear energy answers to diversity, ample supply and emission reduction – it’s a trifecta of energy policy goals.
There were several reasons for the shutdowns that have occurred—including low natural gas prices, and low growth (or no growth) in electricity demand for several years as the U.S. economy emerges from recession. But these plants’ economic situation was also stressed by out-of-market revenues made possible by federal and/or state mandates, by price suppression that occurs in the energy markets, and by capacity markets that do not fully value the attributes the nuclear plants provide.
FERC last week held the first in a series of technical conferences on the Clean Power Plan, so it’s taking the issue seriously and could effect reforms to ensure that low emissions generators are properly valued. How?
Through its oversight of market design and market policies and practices in the nation’s organized markets, and with appropriate changes to capacity markets and energy markets, FERC could help avert additional [nuclear facility] shutdowns, beyond those that have already occurred. In so doing, FERC would also prevent potential degradation in reliability of electricity service.
These quotes come from a letter sent by NEI to FERC in response to that first meeting. You can read the whole letter here (smallish pdf). Do read the whole thing to get a fuller understanding of the issue. But this is, for many of us, the key bit:
EPA’s proposal is designed to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and that goal cannot be achieved without preserving the nuclear power plants that provide approximately 20 percent of America’s electricity, and 63 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity.
Maybe if FERC and its stakeholders could figure out something different, that would be one thing. But there is no other thing - the financial stress put on nuclear plants has the clear potential of precipitating a ruinous outcome. FERC doesn’t – can’t – want that. It’s not just a nuclear energy issue; it’s an existential issue.

NEI has a press release up about this. It’s called “FERC Has Important Role in Achieving EPA’s Clean Power Plan”. Boy, does it ever.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cold, Sure, but Nuclear a Reliable Tonic

You’ve probably heard enough from us about last year’s polar vortex (brutal) and the nuclear performance during it (great), so we’ll keep this brief – or at least let others do do the talking. Here’s TVA:
The Tennessee Valley Authority broke an all-time February power demand record Thursday morning with an estimated 32,109 megawatts at 7 a.m. EST, when the average temperature across the region hovered at 7 degrees.
In its 82-year history, this is TVA’s highest ever demand for the month of February. The previous record was 31,045 megawatts set on Feb. 5, 2009, when the Valley-wide temperature was 15 degrees. TVA’s all-time power demand record is 33,482 megawatts on Aug. 16, 2007.
All of TVA’s reactors operated at 100 percent over the last couple of days. The current situation doesn’t have the same quality of the polar vortex – that was fast and cruel while what the country has experienced over the last couple of weeks has been weather writ large – not slow and kind, to be sure, but easier to anticipate its impacts.

To an extent, anyway. Coming from the south, I can attest that that region of the country is never ready for cold weather much less snow and ice. So TVA’s performance is especially noteworthy.
What about the perpetually shivery northeast?
This is corroborated by nuclear’s excellent performance this winter.  On January 8th, in the midst of frigid arctic temperatures in the Northern U.S., nuclear facilities provided 27 percent of the early afternoon electricity demand for the PJM Interconnection wholesale electricity market spanning the mid-Atlantic region and much of the Midwest.  All but one of the 33 plants in this region operated at full capacity.  In the New York and New England independent service operator (ISO) markets, nuclear operated at a 100 percent capacity factor during this time.  No other energy source even comes close to this level of reliability.
As always, we’ll let other energy generators do their own humblebrag thing – I’m sure there are good stories to tell there, too.
Despite nuclear energy’s incredible resilience during extreme weather and these many benefits, some nuclear plants across the country are in danger of shutting down, or already have shut down due to a confluence of economic factors that are working against them.  These premature closures have a variety of negative impacts for the communities and regions they serve.
This is really the point. We could take this from the diversity, reliability or emissions perspectives, but the idea is the same: without nuclear energy, winter is a little colder and a little more polluted. It needs to be valued for what it offers.