Thursday, May 21, 2015

Nuclear Power Reliability:

A Key Issue for Our Energy Future

I recently attended an interesting briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Global America Business Institute (GABI).  The subject of the briefing was "The Role of Nuclear Power in Energy Reliability: U.S. & International Perspectives," and the speakers were David Brown, Senior Vice President of Federal Government Affairs and Public Policy for Exelon Corporation, and Andrew Paterson, a Principal of Environmental Business International and financing affiliate Verdigris Capital.

I expected to be familiar with most of the issues, and for the most part, that was the case.  However, the two speakers raised some interesting points that I thought I should pass on.

First, David Brown showed a bar graph with the capacity factors for all forms on electrical energy supply.  I knew nuclear power was high, and I knew wind and solar power were low, but I did not realize just how much higher nuclear was than all the other sources until I saw his graph of 2013 data (which comes from the Nuclear Energy Institute):

Granted that some of these numbers may reflect how various types of power plants are used rather than how it might be possible to use them.  Still the magnitude of the gap between nuclear power and its closest competitor deserves more attention than it seems to get.

Brown further reminded the audience how nuclear power far outperformed other energy sources during the Polar Vortex in January 2014, and how wind power was lower in the summer, when demand was higher.  The consequences of this are significant.  Brown pointed out that, looking at annual figures, one would project that a wind farm would need to have 3 times the capacity of a nuclear power plant to provide equal output.  However, looking at summertime supply and demand, a wind farm would need more like 10 times the capacity of a nuclear plant to provide equal output.

Of course, that is a one-for-one comparison that does not consider storage or alternative sources, but it graphically made the point about the large difference in performance of nuclear versus wind power when demand is highest.  Also, as noted in the Q&A session that followed the talks, solar power does peak when demand peaks in the summer.  Nevertheless, there is still a large gap in capacity factor. 

On a slightly lighter note, Brown mentioned that we all believe that the public wants electricity to be clean, economical, and reliable, as we generally speak of them in that order.  However, judging by the volume of calls Exelon receives if the power goes out, the public is far more concerned about reliability than about anything else.  If you doubt that, just think about the last time the power went out where you live!

Andy Paterson's talk, which was co-authored by his colleague, Walter Howes, focused more on international issues.  He raised the troubling question of whether the US might be in danger of losing a vital industry, and drew an analogy to what happened in the UK as a consequence of its "dash for gas" in the North Sea in the 1980s.  He observed that they let much of their nuclear capability lapse, and now the gas fields have largely played out. 

He also made a point that I think we have all come to recognize--we simply cannot return to the status quo ante.  We cannot snap our fingers and return to a position of "US leadership" in the world.  We have lost the capability to manufacture major components.  Compared to other countries, where the utilities are very large and join vendor bids for overseas reactor sales, US utilities are relatively small (even Exelon) and are not active internationally.  He also argued that "getting government out of the way" is not a viable strategy for the nuclear sector.  Among other things, the governments of other countries support, and even lead, the bids for international sales.  Even domestically, he projected that half the US nuclear capacity could be shut down before 2040 without government leadership.

He then presented some interesting statistics showing the growth of nuclear power over time in different regions of the world, as well as population projections.  In fact, even now, more than half the world's population lives in Asia.  Further, there is a trend in both Asia and Africa for rural populations to move to cities.  By the year 2030, most of the cities in the world with a population of more than 10 million will be in Asia.  Air pollution from coal plants and vehicles is already a critical problem in China and will grow without a change in direction.  He raised the interesting question:  Where can those countries put large arrays of wind turbines or solar panels, sufficient to power their homes--and their mega-factories?  What sources can provide the required reliability?

Answering his own question, he pointed out the very small land requirements of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, and the fact that the areas of highest solar intensity are not even near the cities, where the greatest need exists--and where air pollution is greatest.

Although his focus was mainly on the global situation, Paterson also addressed the situation in the US.  He showed that, even with license renewals to 60 years for all plants in the US, without new build or further license renewals, nuclear capacity begins to drop after 2030, and is almost nonexistent by 2050.  If plants are shut down prior to 60 years, the situation is much worse.  Given my previous and repeated (2009, 2010, and 2014) interest in acronyms, I was pleased that he presented one that was new to me--YIMBI, or "Yes, in my backyard, immediately!"--noting that, in large parts of the US, the public is very positive about nuclear power.  Nevertheless, the extended outlook for low gas prices in the US is trumping most other options, and it is primarily gas that is replacing coal.  He touched on the possibility of small modular reactors (SMRs) having a role in the future.   

Toward the end, Paterson returned to a point he had made at the outset--the UK let their nuclear capability atrophy, and there is a risk that the US and the EU could do the same.  "US" vendors are now foreign owned.  Once "excellence" is lost, it cannot easily be rebuilt.  He did express a caution for Asia.  The pressure to build rapidly there creates incentives to cut corners and avoid needed regulatory discipline, leading to a risk of accidents later.  For the US, he concluded that market forces alone are not enough.  Policy drivers--national security, air pollution, reliability of supply for urban areas--are important, and that means the government has to play a role.  Furthermore, nuclear power is a long-range effort, and decisions made now will affect the nuclear scene for decades.

He noted that no nation is self sufficient.  The US has lost its manufacturing capability, but Asia lacks fuel.  It thus is consistent that his conclusion was that global partnerships in nuclear energy investment and innovative public-private financing approaches will play an important role in bringing a full set of capabilities to projects and in balancing risks.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Nuclear Future:

Looking Beyond the Horizon

I was a bit startled a week or so ago to get a question from someone asking me to take a really long view on the future of nuclear power.  I'm not sure my answers really addressed the entire picture, but it was interesting to think about the subject, and I thought others might want to consider the issue as well.

The first question was not all that surprising.  It asked about the prospects for the Gen IV nuclear reactor technologies.  The answer, of course, depends on so many things that I found it a difficult question.  To be honest, I didn't come up with specifics, like which technology might be most likely to succeed, or how many Gen IV reactors might be built, or where they might be built.  Rather, I tried to identify factors that might play into that decision, and how--the economy, R&D funding, other energy technologies, environmental requirements, market factors, financing options, etc.  But all of these points were points that I'd seen discussed many times.

It was the next questions that really got my attention.  What future nuclear technologies, they asked, might lie beyond Gen IV?  I must admit that the Gen IV technologies cover such a broad spectrum that it is difficult for me to think of much that Gen IV doesn't cover, at least partly.  And given that most of the Gen IV technologies are based on concepts that were first conceived in the early days of nuclear power development--and yet still have a long road ahead of them to achieve a practical role as a source of energy--it is difficult to think when we might envision a next generation beyond Gen IV starting.

Yes, I limited my thinking mainly to fission technologies.  In part, I thought I was the wrong person to answer a question about the prospects for fusion, and in part, I assumed that any breakthrough in fusion would so clearly be a new generation technology that they didn't need me to tell them that.  Perhaps concepts like accelerator-driven fission reactors might fit the "beyond Gen IV" description, but I really wasn't sure.

The last question, in a way, proved the hardest.  They asked what novel applications I envisioned for nuclear power beyond the ones presently in use or being considered.  Again, so many possibilities are on the table that I wasn't sure what would be truly novel.  We are already talking about direct use of thermal energy from high-temperature reactors for industrial processes, including hydrogen generation.  We are also already talking about small reactors for remote applications, such as small communities in the Arctic, or mines.   

One can envision space colonies--or cities under the ocean--powered by nuclear reactors.  That would be a new application, but might not necessarily entail significant developments for the nuclear technology needed.  I once worked briefly on the concept of a nuclear-powered aircraft, but I don't see that as being a likely future application.  Perhaps the most futuristic thing I could think of might be some sort of advanced nuclear technology for long-range space propulsion.  But again, not only were we getting to the farther edges of time and space, we were also getting to the limits of my knowledge about how such a technology might work.

So, I was left a little frustrated that I hadn't done an adequate job of answering the questions, but intrigued by the opportunity to look beyond what I already had thought was the future for nuclear power.  It made me think that others might want to engage in the same exercise.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Projecting the Future:

Some Bad Omens?

I am going to depart a little from my normal themes in this blog and talk about issues that are not themselves directly related to nuclear power.  However, they do relate to some indicators in the areas of research and of technical training that apply to a broad range of disciplines, nuclear among them. 

The first warning bell I saw in the last few days was a report on an MIT study that warned that the U.S. is falling behind in a number of key areas of research.  While none of the areas they mention included fission-related research, the very fact that the report identifies a broad range of cutting-edge research areas is troubling.  First, the areas they identify represent some of the key areas of technology today.  Second, it is not hard to guess that the key areas are indicators of a broader trend that affects many more areas of research.

Like the slow loading of straw on a camel that ultimately breaks the camel's back, each small budget cut in science and technology areas probably seems inconsequential to most people.  However, adding them all together--fewer research programs, less research in the remaining areas, cuts in staffing, cuts in training--suggests that the impact will be far greater than even the programs the MIT study names.  Not only will we not realize the benefits of the advances that R&D can bring, we will end up without a next generation of scientists to carry R&D further in the future.

The second warning bell I saw was a study that suggested that environmental sciences programs have a bias against nuclear energy.  At one level, of course, this clearly has a direct effect on nuclear energy.  It reinforces the gulf that many believe already exists between the environmental community and the nuclear community.  It hampers the ability of two groups who should be natural allies from working together.

However, what is even more troubling to me is, once again, the broader implications of biased education.  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look dispassionately at nuclear power, I have to wonder what other biases are coloring their judgment.  Are they ignoring the downsides of some technologies because they are perceived to be "green"?  Are they dismissing options that should be considered because they are perceived to be "dirty"?  Are they failing to look beyond the surface to see the balance of pros and cons between different options, or to look at how a perceived weakness in one technology can be compensated?  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look analytically at all issues and all possibilities, they will not come up with the best solutions.

The investments we make today will inevitably shape the future.  Just as we need robust research in a broad range of areas, we also need to train future scientists, engineers and decision-makers to approach all issues without preconceived biases to assure that the decisions they make are based on sound science.  This applies to decisions about nuclear power, but it also potentially applies to many other issues as well.

As perhaps a fitting postscript, I include here a photo of a package of irradiated hamburgers.  I covered the issue of food irradiation before, so I won't repeat myself here.  However, irradiated beef strikes me as just the kind of issue that people often approach with preconceived biases.  Perhaps in this case it isn't environmental science students who have this bias (or perhaps it is!--I really don't know), but to me, it is another graphic reminder of how biases sometimes seem to block people from looking at issues objectively, and how those biases sometimes prevent, or make it difficult, for us to enjoy the full benefits of some technologies.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Japan's Approaches to Nuclear Accidents:

Views from Inside Japan

I am a little late in reporting on a very interesting and important presentation given last month by Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) on the approaches Japan should take toward nuclear accidents.  However, I haven't seen too much on it in U.S. publications, so I think this is still worth posting.

Professor Kurokawa, who is from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, served as chairman of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC).

One somewhat surprising thing he pointed out was that NAIIC was the first investigative committee that modern Japan had ever had for the investigation of a major accident.  By contrast, he noted that most other technologically advanced countries routinely establish such a committee whenever a major accident occurs.

He also noted that, despite past calls to review existing safety measures against tsunamis, nothing had ever been done until after this accident.  The implied reason for the lack of action was an ingrained disbelief that such a tsunami could strike and could cause such extreme consequences.  The tsunami issue, of course, goes well beyond issues related to nuclear power plants.

Professor Kurokawa then went on to enumerate some of the shortcomings he saw in the Japanese approach to nuclear safety.  Most of these are well known and have been discussed in detail in the four years since the Fukushima accident, so I won't repeat all his points.  Perhaps I can summarize his points by saying that he cited insufficient defense-in-depth and a number of other elements that I would say mainly fall under the category of a lack of safety culture.  These include lack of independence, lack of a questioning attitude, and lack of mechanisms to incorporate knowledge based on past experience.

He also laid out his recommendations for what Japan must do now.  A number of his recommendations focused on the engagement Japan needs to have with the rest of the world, both to share what Japan learns from the accident, and to benefit from what other countries have to offer.

I was particularly pleased to see that so many of his observations and recommendations reflect what others around the world, as well as in Japan, have been observing and recommending about the Japanese situation.  In particular, his observations echo what others have been saying about the importance of independence and the need for transparency, both domestically and internationally.

I know that it has been difficult for the Japanese establishment, both government and industry, to absorb these messages and to incorporate them in a culture that has historically behaved very differently.  Although many changes have been made since the accident, there is still a lot that needs to be done to assure that the changes are not simply cosmetic.  I hope the repetition of the message from a respected Japanese source will reinforce the need for true change.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nuclear Regulation, Openness and Transparency:

Answers to Some Questions

I have already reported on my visit to Japan a couple of months ago and the presentation I gave to some Japanese executives.  In that talk, I focused on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as an example of an agency that behaves in an open and independent manner.  I got a couple of interesting questions on NRC's openness and independence at the conclusion of my talk.  I tried to answer them at that meeting, but I have been wanting to expand upon my answers and share them with a wider audience.

The basic question was, "How can NRC say it is independent and open when individuals in the NRC meet privately with people in industry?"

In thinking about the question and the reason behind it, I feel that sometimes, people interpret the word independence too literally.  Especially as Japan implements the changes to the way its regulatory system works, it is important to keep several things in mind.

In fact, NRC addressed this very concern when its Principles of Good Regulation were written.  They explicitly state that "independence does not imply isolation."  Therefore, independence should not be viewed as requiring regulators to cut off all contact with the rest of the world.  Rather, it should be viewed as a process that allows regulators to have access to all information and all points of view and assures that decisions take all relevant information into account and treat it appropriately.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a tutorial on the regulatory control of nuclear power plants on its website that gives a great explanation of regulatory independence at the NRC.  They outline 8 elements that facilitate regulatory independence (I have provided somewhat abbreviated versions of most of their descriptions of these elements):

Separation of functions:  NRC has no responsibility for promoting or developing nuclear energy, and is completely separate from government bodies having such mandates.

Political influence:  No more than three of the five NRC Commissioners can come from a single political party, and Commissioners may also only be removed for "cause."  Acceptable causes for removal are limited to inappropriate behavior, and not based on a Commissioner's viewpoints. 

Conflicts of interest:  Neither the NRC Commissioners or staff can have any financial or personal interest in organizations that may be subject to their regulatory decisions.   I would also add that neither Commissioners or the NRC staff can accept gifts, meals, or other favors from anyone subject to their regulatory decisions.

Openness:  NRC’s decision-making process is conducted in public.  The Government in the Sunshine Act requires advance public notice of meetings, with a right of attendance by interested parties. The Freedom of Information Act requires broad public access to any materials used in the decision-making process.

Reporting:  NRC provides extensive information related to all aspects of its activities and decisions to the public, media, other governmental bodies, without the need for review or clearance from any other government agency.

Budget and finance:  Almost all of NRC's budget is covered by fees paid by licensees, as authorized in an annual appropriations act by the Congress. The IAEA asserts that this "full cost recovery" approach is believed to provide at least some insulation from political pressures that could result from having its resources derived entirely from tax revenues.  (As an aside, I want to point out that the cost recovery provision was not instituted for this reason, and I think the pros and cons of this provision could be debated--but that is not the subject of this discussion.)

Technical capabilities:  NRC has a large staff with a high degree of technical competence that  covers cover a wide range of technical areas.  This gives them adequate scientific, engineering, management, financial and legal expertise to regulate a complex technology like nuclear power, and assures that they can assess information provided by licensees independently and competently.

Oversight mechanisms:  NRC is subject to several layers of review and oversight. These include the Office of Inspector General (an independent, internal body), Congressional oversight, and reviews of NRC decisions by the courts. 

The IAEA discussion notes that these measures, taken together, are designed to help assure that safety decisions are not influenced by political, economic or social considerations.  Having such assurance   helps maintain public confidence in the safety of nuclear energy, which is critical to the continued use of nuclear power in democratic societies.

Tellingly, the IAEA list is preceded by a discussion saying that it is somewhat difficult to "define" regulatory independence, and followed by a discussion that acknowledges that the system is not perfect.  I think these comments reflect the dilemma I felt when tried to address the question in a public forum.

There is always a balance.  I have to admit that, on the surface, someone who sits alone in an ivory tower and doesn't talk to anyone else clearly cannot be influenced by anyone else.  That is easy to see.  Once someone meets with other people, it is much harder to be sure that they are not unduly or inappropriately influenced by others. However, if they do not meet with other people, they will not have all the facts to allow them to make good decisions about complex and difficult issues.  The two needs, independence and access to information, must both be satisfied. 

In the end, independence without isolation is achieved by a variety of checks and balances designed to help assure that NRC staff and Commissioners can obtain all the information they need, but that their decisions remain independent and technically sound. 


Friday, April 17, 2015

Today's Paper Reactors:

Rickover was Right

The news this week that Russia is postponing work on its Gen IV BN-1200 reactor, along with reports of new problems at the already much delayed construction of Areva's EPR at Flamanville--this time, anomalies in the composition of the steel in certain parts of the reactor vessel--and a history of delays in the construction of the EPR at Olkiluoto, Finland, highlights yet again the wisdom of Admiral Hyman Rickover when he spoke of the difference between real reactors and "paper reactors."

I have referred to this quote several times in previous blogs, so I think it is high time I provided the full quote and a link to an original source.  This quote originates in a June 5, 1953 document by Rickover, which he read as part of his testimony before Congress, published in AEC Authorizing Legislation: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1970), p. 1702: 

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

(The astute reader will notice that the term Rickover originally used was "academic reactors," but the term "paper reactors" seems to have become popularized in the intervening years.  Witness that the term paper reactors gets almost 15 million hits on Google, while the term academic reactors gets 720,000 hits.)

The reality is that many large-scale projects seem to have construction delays and cost overruns.  The last big example of that I'm aware of was the construction of the facilities for the Olympics in the United Kingdom, which I previously discussed.  And new technologies always seem to have some unexpected hurdles to overcome as well.  How many new, advanced cars and gadgets of all types have failed to live up to expectations?  Couple new and large, and you have a "perfect storm" of conditions that lead to delays and cost overruns.

I am not saying this to make excuses and justify all the delays and cost increases.  I am just trying to urge more attention to try to anticipate problems as much as is possible, and more caution about what we even appear to promise.  The current project delays in the news are not the first and will not be the last.  We all should remember that every large, new project looks perfect on paper, and turning a paper reactor into a real one is not an easy task.     


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--April:

Another Exceptional Month

In this blog, I continue the series I started late last year of highlighting important events in the history of nuclear power that occurred in the month of April.  These same events are covered chronologically in my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development

April 3, 1965:  First spacecraft powered by a nuclear reactor (SNAP-10, U.S.)

April 4, 1984:  First power reactor on the African continent (Koeberg, South Africa)

April 9, 2009:  First operation of a nuclear reactor under a renewed operating license (Oyster Creek, New Jersey)

April 10, 1953:  Establishment of first industry association for nuclear technology (Atomic Industrial Forum, Washington, DC)

April 15, 1957:  First reactor to supply electricity off-site.  Also the first pressurized water reactor brought on-line, the first nuclear power plant containment structure, and teh first use of stainless steel cladding (SM-1, Fort Belvoir, Virginia)

April 15, 1960:  First privately financed "full-scale" reactor to operate (Dresden 1, Morris, Illinois)

April 22, 1966:  First commercial, purpose-built facility for reprocessing civilian nuclear fuel (West Valley Reprocessing Facility, Ashford, New York)

April 22, 1986:  First geologic repository to receive a license for long-term storage of radioactive waste (Morsleben Repository for Radioactive Waste, Germany)

Sadly, the last event of the month is the April 26, 1986 accident at Chernobyl in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), which was the first accident at a large power reactor with offsite effects, immediate and delayed deaths, and environmental contamination.

Once again, the list is impressive for its breadth--from underground to outer space, from nuclear plants in their infancy to their "mature years," and more.  And two events on April 15--something to think about as you work on those income tax returns!