Monday, February 16, 2015

Nuclear Power Plant Performance 2014:

Maintaining High Levels

One recent bright spot was the announcement by the Nuclear Energy Institute that the performance by the U.S. nuclear power industry in 2014 was the highest ever.  In particular, the average estimated capacity factor for 2014 was 91.9 percent – the highest capacity factor achieved by the U.S. nuclear industry in any year.

The second highest capacity factor in a year was 91.8 percent in 2007.  Now, one can argue that this isn't a statistically significant improvement.  However, what this does tell us is that U.S. nuclear power plants are continuing to operate at very high levels of performance, probably about the highest that can realistically be achieved.  And they are doing this in an environment where there are a lot of negative pressures, both economic and other, that are affecting operating nuclear power plants.

I therefore take the news as a positive indication.


More Acronyms:

Beyond Energy

I remain fascinated by the number of acronyms that pop up on my radar screen.  I've blogged about acronyms a couple of times over the years, first in one of my earlier blogs (in 2009) and again last year.  In between, I've written several pieces on different subjects in which I incorporated some of my own acronym creations.  Once again, these pieces ranged over several years, from 2010 to last year.

So perhaps it should not be too surprising that I am moved to write about acronyms once again.  This time, my work has been done for me, because Richard Ingham and Mariette Le Roux have compiled a whole list of acronyms and initialisms related to discussions of climate change that was posted on as well as on several other sites.

Since anyone who deals with nuclear energy issues these days is surely following the concerns about climate change, I thought others might find this list helpful.  The full list, of course, is at the link above, but here, I thought I'd highlight the acronyms (and a few initialisms) that I found most useful or most fun. 

Herewith, my favorites:

AOSIS: Association of Small Island States (i.e., those highly vulnerable to sea-level rise)

BASICs: Bloc comprising Brazil, South Africa, India, China (not to be confused with the previously popular BRICS:  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)

BINGOs: Business and industry non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and their counterparts:
•  ENGOs:  Environment NGOs
•  TUNGOs:  Trade union NGOs
•  YOUNGOs:  Youth NGOs

INDCs: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

LMDCs: Like-Minded Developing Countries

LULUCF: Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (a Kyoto Protocol provision to count trees as "sinks" which absorb carbon dioxide)

MOP: Meeting of Parties (under the Kyoto Protocol)

MRV: Measurement, reporting and verification

NAMAs and NAPAs: Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action and National Adaptation Programmes for Action

Read more at:
NAMAs: Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action, and the related
NAPAs:  National Adaptation Programs for Action

QUELRO: Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Obligation

REDD: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation

There are far more in the original article, but I left some of those off either because I thought they were generally familiar (for example, BAU for business as usual, CCS for carbon capture and storage, COP for conference of parties, GHG for greenhouse gases, LDCs for least developed countries, and KP for Kyoto Protocol--in this context!), or because I felt they weren't as interesting, or because they weren't really acronyms or initialisms. 

LULUCF: Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry. A KP provision to count trees as "sinks" which absorb carbon dioxide, a hugely vexatious issue.

Read more at:
BINGOs: Business and industry non-governmental organisations. ENGOs, TUNGOs and YOUNGOs are environment, trade union and youth NGOs

Read more at:
BINGOs: Business and industry non-governmental organisations. ENGOs, TUNGOs and YOUNGOs are environment, trade union and youth NGOs

Read more at:
BINGOs: Business and industry non-governmental organisations. ENGOs, TUNGOs and YOUNGOs are environment, trade union and youth NGOs

Read more at:
BINGOs: Business and industry non-governmental organisations. ENGOs, TUNGOs and YOUNGOs are environment, trade union and youth NGOs

Read more at:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--February:

Continuing the Story

A couple of months ago, I promised to provide a monthly list of nuclear anniversaries, drawing mainly from my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.

When I looked at the list for February, I almost had second thoughts.  It's not that the firsts in February were any less worthy than those in other months.  It's just that there are fewer of them.  In the end, I decided not to shortchange some significant firsts just because I only have a short story to tell this month. 
  • February 1950:  First zero-power light water reactor in the world (LITR, Oak Ridge)

  • February 8, 1961:  First reactor on the African continent (ETRR-1, a research reactor in Egypt)
  • February 8, 1963:  First time food irradiation was approved in the United States (Co60 to irradiate bacon)
Of these, only the first is a "true" first, in that it was the first time anywhere.  The other two firsts are firsts for a region or a country.  In fact, the U.S. was the third country to approve food irradiation, after the USSR and Canada.

LITR, which stands for Low-Intensity Test Reactor, was the first reactor to use light water for both moderating and cooling the reactor.  In this sense, it was a very early forerunner of the light water reactors that followed, even though it used a heterogeneous design that was very different than the pressurized water reactors or boiling water reactors operating today.  It was also one of several light water research reactor facilities that started up the same year.  The others were the Zero Power Reactor (ZPR-1) at Argonne and the Bulk Shielding Reactor (BSR) at Oak Ridge.  

For convenience, my past monthly blogs on anniversaries were:

December 2014 anniversaries
January 2015 anniversaries


Australia and Nuclear Power:

Does Change Lie Ahead?

One of the most striking news items in the last few days has been the announcement by Jay Weatherill, the Premier of South Australia, that South Australia should consider the use of nuclear power.

This announcement is notable because Australia has remained consistently against using nuclear power over the years.  They have kept this stance even though their heavy use of coal gives them the dubious status of having the highest carbon emissions per capita of any country in the world, and even though they have one of the highest amounts of uranium reserves.  They also, I should note, have a solid nuclear research program and have operated a research reactor for many years.

It is difficult to know where this initiative might lead.  Weatherill is the first to say this isn't a decision, it is the opening of an inquiry, and it is only right that the inquiry be conducted as broadly and openly as possible.

I wondered whether public opinion might be changing.  One article has a survey (still underway as of this writing) that looks like it is showing 2/3 of the respondents in favor of nuclear power, but that survey is not restricted to Australian citizens.

The reopening of the question of nuclear power may, in part, be sparked by the interest in small reactors.  Some of the articles have quoted Weatherill as saying that the economics may not be right for reactors in Australia, but then those statements seem to be qualified by other statements that developments such as small reactors could change the economics.

Other comments seem to indicate the Australians may want to look at other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including high-level waste disposal and developing an enrichment capability to "add value" to the ore they sell.  The articles so far have not addressed any issues or concerns about such options, including expected reactions of the local population, or concerns the U.S. and other countries have about the expansion of enrichment capabilities.

Therefore, on all fronts, the statements from South Australia leave a lot of unanswered questions--how seriously the government intends to explore this issue, what the public reaction is likely to be, and just what is on the table.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Nuclear Industry in Decline?:

New Article Raises Questions

Ed Kee, owner and principal consultant at Nuclear Economics Consulting Group (NECG) and an Affiliated Expert with NERA Economic Consulting, just published a pair of rather depressing forecasts about the future of nuclear power:  an article in Nuclear Engineering International entitled, "US Nuclear Industry in Decline," and a piece in the World Nuclear Association's World Nuclear News entitled, "Can nuclear succeed in liberalized power markets?"

In both, he lays out rather clearly and starkly what many of us have been seeing for a long time--just as nuclear power was beginning to make a comeback in a number of countries, it has been hit by a trend toward liberalizing electricity generation and distribution markets. 

While it looks good on paper to make electricity generation and distribution more market oriented, it has had a number of unexpected consequences.  Basically, the primary organizing principle of a liberalized market is that it minimizes short-term market prices, whereas traditional regulated markets minimize long-term electricity costs to users.

This pressure has been exacerbated by a couple of simultaneous trends--the subsidies for renewable energy sources in many places, and the sudden low price of natural gas.  As a result, we have all been left scratching our heads in disbelief when we hear about negative spot prices on local electricity markets.

This in turn is putting pressure on utilities to shut nuclear power plants.  We have already seen some closures in the US in the last couple of years due to the economics of power generation in their regions.  Numerous forecasts point to several other plants that may be at risk for a similar reason.

It seems particularly criminal to lose an existing asset to economic considerations.  The investment in it has been made, so replacing it with anything comes at a cost, and since most of the replacements envisioned in the near term are natural gas plants, the new plants will produce more carbon emissions than the nuclear power plants they replace.  And despite new natural gas finds and methods of extraction (i.e., fracking), history teaches us that the price of oil and gas is very volatile and subject to sudden large fluctuations.  We ignore that history at our peril.

I found the titles of the two articles interesting--one asks a question about whether nuclear power can succeed in liberalized markets, while the other seems to suggest that the conclusion is negative.  Nevertheless, the articles suggest several options that are being, or could be, tried:  allowing extended, but temporary, shutdown and mothballing of nuclear power plants during periods of low electricity prices (he mentions the Bruce plants in Canada); some way of externalizing carbon emissions (he mentions the US Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule and the flaws in the measures proposed); power purchase agreements; contracts for difference; and other models that improve the revenue certainty within a deregulated marketplace.

Although I'm sure that some will say that undercuts the intent of deregulation, I would take a different view.  Every institutional measure we impose has multiple ramifications, and often, unequal and unfair impacts on different segments of society or different commercial enterprises.  What we usually end up doing in such cases is going back and making "backfits" to fix the problems. 

It appears that we need such backfits to assure that liberalized electricity markets don't end up costing us more--much more--in the long term than we are saving in the short term.  Ed has laid out a number of options, but aside from the few places he mentions (all outside the US), I am not clear on what may be under active consideration elsewhere.  I hope these two articles spur some action.  


Friday, January 30, 2015

Puzzling Energy Pronouncements:

This Does Not Compute!

Recently, I've seen more than the usual number of pronouncements from other countries about energy plans that just don't make sense to me.  Now, I will grant you that there are lots of things the US does that don't make sense to me either, but these seem to me to be particularly incomprehensible. 

First, from Germany:  OK, they wanted to abandon nuclear power, and by the way, the rest of the world should, too.  Or at least Europe.  But now, Germany has announced that they are also abandoning their commitment to binding CO2 targets for 2020.  They are not saying that they can't do it without nuclear power.  They are just saying no.  But everyone else should close their nuclear power plants and still continue to commit to binding targets?

Next up, Scotland:  Scotland claims to lead the world in a low-carbon (via solar and wind) agenda, and urges the rest of the world to follow.  But at the same time, they bemoan the loss of their bid for independence.  They could have financed more solar and wind power with the revenues from their North Sea oil and gas.  So, everyone else should buy their oil and gas, but also follow their non-fossil fuel lead?  

And finally, Sweden:  Sweden is angry at Finland's plans to build a nuclear power plant about 100 km from the Swedish border and 150 km from several Swedish communities.  Sweden has flip-flopped on nuclear power altogether over several decades, but they didn't like it so much when Denmark complained about Barseback being only about 20 km from Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.  True, Barseback has now been closed, but as I recall, it took a long time, and when it was finally closed, it was not because of the Danish objection, but rather as a part of their first plan to phase out of nuclear power.  And the Swedish Forsmark nuclear power plant looks to me like it is not that far from Finland.  So, what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander?

As I said at the outset, lots of national policies don't make sense to me, both US policies and those in other countries.  But in these particular cases, the countries have put themselves out as examples to follow, yet there are glaring inconsistencies in what they expect of other countries.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Google and Renewable Energy:

A Retreat?

One of the more intriguing items that crossed my desk a few weeks ago was an article saying that Google was terminating their R&D efforts on renewable energy.  Basically, their stated reason was that "trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach."

To back up a bit, in 2007, Google undertook a major and well-publicized effort to conduct R&D to develop renewable energy technologies.  Their announcement said that they planned to invest tens of millions of dollars in emerging solar, wind and geothermal technologies in order to make them competitive with the economics of coal.  Later, they transformed their efforts from R&D to deployment of renewables and energy efficiency technologies.

Now, even though the cost of renewables has come down to the point where some claim it is getting competitive with coal, Google appears to have backed off.  They "came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions."

They appear to be backing off to a strategy where they are looking at a broader range of technologies and a greater mix of current and advanced options.  There are only hints to date of what some of these efforts might involve.

For those who are wondering if they might be considering nuclear power, they seem to be silent on that point.  They don't explicitly rule it out, but they appear to be focusing on ways of improving the penetration of the erratic generation from renewable technologies.  For example, one possibility they hint at is technologies that can control the grid efficiently, enabling higher penetrations of distributed generation.

Some might argue that, when companies change course, their publicly stated reasons are not always the whole story, and that may well be the case here.  Nevertheless, I find it interesting that their official explanation acknowledges that cheaper renewable systems to generate electricity are not enough.