Sunday, March 8, 2020

Coronavirus and Nuclear--Take 2:

A Second Cancellation

It may seem somewhat parochial to write about the coronavirus from the perspective of meetings for the nuclear community, but when you think that, just a few weeks ago, the news seemed very far from most of us, thinking in terms of personal impact drives home just how quickly and aggressively this brand new phenomenon is changing all of our lives.

In the beginning, most of what we heard was about things that were happening in Wuhan, China, where a new disease, quickly dubbed COVID-19, was causing illnesses and deaths.  At first, the numbers seemed relatively small, but the concern quickly grew, and quarantines and cancellations began to be announced.  But again, they were initially remote from most of us.  However, slowly, the disease seemed to be spreading--to more people and more countries--and the announcements hit closer to home.

The first announcement that affected my personal plans was the postponement of the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) originally scheduled for April in Cancun, Mexico, that I wrote about in my last blog only a week ago.

I could not have guessed when I wrote that blog that I would see another cancellation of a nuclear event only a week later.  On Thursday, March 5, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a notice that they were cancelling the annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), originally scheduled for next week. 

NRC's official notice states that, "In recent days, a number of organizations and presenters have changed their attendance plans, with indications that others would reach similar decisions in coming days."

Once again, this is an understandable, but disappointing turn of events.  The NRC's RIC has become one of the most important nuclear conferences.  It always draws a wide attendance from all over the U.S. and from a number of other countries, and it provides an excellent overview of a variety of nuclear regulatory and related issues.

While the PBNC announced a postponement of their meeting (until October), the NRC has cancelled the meeting outright.  The next RIC will be held in March 2021.

Of course, these 2 meetings are very small events compared to some of the large and well-known meetings and events that announced cancellations in the last couple of weeks, so I am not trying to imply that there is something special or different going on with regard to nuclear meetings.  And of course, many people around the world are enduring far more serious consequences of this disease than the cancellation of a meeting--deaths, illness, quarantines, worry, economic impacts, school closures, and so much more.  It is just that, as I said, the news always seems more real when it starts affecting our individual lives and our plans. 

So, for all the more serious reasons, I hope that a way is found to beat back this modern-day plague.  But I still can't help but miss this spring's RIC and PBNC. 

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Coronavirus Hits Nuclear Event:

A Major Nuclear Conference is Postponed

I should have known that, in our highly interconnected world, the recent coronavirus outbreak would start hitting in unexpected places.  COVID-19, as it is officially called, originated in Wuhan, China, a place that not many people I know have ever visited.  So initially, it seemed remote.  A serious disease, to be sure, but, I assumed, not one that most of us had to worry about.

Pretty quickly, though, that perspective was shattered.  More people than I'd guessed did visit Wuhan, and people from Wuhan traveled to other places as well, so the disease started to appear in spots all over the globe.  Furthermore, with so many manufactured products coming from China, reports of impacts on numerous industries began to surface.  This was followed by rumblings that there would be effects on the stock market--effects that we saw realized in the past few days.

And then, the impacts of the virus hit even closer to home.  We learned that one of our relatives was on the Westerdam, the Holland America Line ship that wandered around the Asian waters for days trying to find a port that would allow them to land.  Even though, as it turned out in the end, the one report of a case of the virus on that ship was false.  Our relatives are home safely now, but not before enduring a lengthy and uncomfortable ordeal.

But still, it was only February, so events that were scheduled to take place a couple of months from now were not on my radar screen.  Thus, I was not prepared for a message from the Mexican organizers of the upcoming Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) that was scheduled to be held in Cancun in late April.  The message proposed to the Pacific Nuclear Council (PNC), on which I serve, that the conference should be postponed.  Surely, I thought, this outbreak would be contained and everything would be fine by then.  However, the PBNC specifically focuses on countries in Asia and the Americas, and with the number of cases still growing in China and South Korea, and with speakers and attendees needing to make travel plans, it became clear that the success of the conference was in jeopardy.  A number of potential speakers and attendees might not even be able to leave Asia.  Others might be exercising caution and restricting all foreign travel.

Clearly, the appropriate thing to do was to postpone the conference, and the organizers did so.  The new dates are October 18-22.  The place is the same (Cancun, Mexico).  Hopefully, the virus will have been contained by then and the conference will be able to take place and will be a success.   In the meantime, the conference organizers have extended the paper submission dates, so I'd like to encourage people to consider submitting papers and to plan to attend in the fall.  It is one of the major international nuclear conferences, and attracts attendees from around the Pacific Rim and elsewhere.  The resort venue is an added attraction.  I commend the Mexican Nuclear Society for their decision to postpone the conference and wish them a highly successful conference in October.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Fessenheim 1, RIP:

Another Reactor Closes

The news today comes as no surprise.  Fessenheim 1, France's oldest operating nuclear power plant, was disconnected from the grid this past weekend, completing 42 years of operation.

This action is a consequence of a decision made under the administration of the former French president, Francois Hollande, to limit the nuclear share of the national electricity generation mix to 50% by 2025, and to cap nuclear power generation at the level that existed in 2014.  That decision clearly meant that France would have to shut down older reactors as any new reactors went online.

I want to emphasize that the age of the reactor was not the primary reason for the shutdown.  Yes, it is the oldest reactor, and yes, when the U.S. first licensed reactors, they were only licensed for 40 years.  But the U.S. law has since been changed, and nuclear power plants have demonstrated that, with proper maintenance and upgrades, they can continue operating safely for more than 40 years.

At the time the French law limiting the share of nuclear generation was passed, Electricite de France (EDF) was in the process of building a new nuclear power plant at Flamanville, a 1650 MWe EPR.  The completion of the unit has been delayed a number of times--which also delayed the closure of Fessenheim--but is now nearing completion.  However, somewhat surprisingly, Fessenheim is being closed a couple of years before Flamanville is expected to go into operation.  The grid operator has offered assurances that the gap between the closure of Fessenheim and the opening of Flamanville will not affect the security of France's energy supply.  The grid operator points to the commissioning of a new combined cycle gas plant, the development of renewable energy sources, and new grid interconnections with the U.K. and Italy.

Nevertheless, I think a lot of people would agree that shutting Fessenheim before Flamanville opens is a short-sighted decision.  France is in the process of closing its remaining coal-fired power plants.  Therefore, any further delays in the commissioning of the Flamanville plant, or any other unexpected closures of other plants, could threaten the security of France's energy supply.  

And while past performance may not necessarily provide an accurate prediction of the future, it is no secret that the construction of the Flamanville reactor has experienced numerous delays.  The plant was originally scheduled to go into operation in 2013.  If the current plan to begin operation in 2022 is achieved, that is still a 9-year delay.  

Now that France has made this decision, I of course hope they are able to maintain the current schedule for the start-up of the Flamanville plant, and that nothing happens to threaten France's energy supply.  But, even though I loved living in France, I'm sort of glad I'm not living there now.  Just in case!

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Whither Nuclear Power:

Status and Prospects

The New Year is always a time for reflection on the past and the future.  And a new decade (if you count 2020 as the start of a decade) doubles the incentive to try to look at where things are headed for nuclear power. 

As always the picture for nuclear power is very mixed, and depending on which report you read which day, you can conclude either that nuclear power is on its way out, or that nuclear power is poised for great things ahead.  I try to stay away from making predictions--there always seem to be too many moving parts--but I thought it might be interesting to summarize a few facts--things that are happening now in the nuclear power industry around the world--and to try to put them in perspective.

For inspiration, I turned first to 2 recent articles on the World Nuclear Association (WNA) website, Plans for New Reactors Worldwide, and Reactor Shutdowns Outweigh Start-ups in 2019.  Taken together, these might appear to be confusing--2019 saw a decrease in the number of reactors, but on the other hand, nuclear power capacity worldwide is anticipated to increase in the coming years. 

When you peel back the layers, you begin to see that there are a number of elements involved in what is happening.  While there were more shutdowns than startups in 2019, it is important to note that there were still a number of startups.  Furthermore, most of the shutdowns had been planned for some time and were based on the ages of the plants, government subsidies for competing sources and wholesale market economics (at least in the U.S.), or on national plans to reduce the use of nuclear power in some countries.  Most of the startups in the past year were not surprises either.  They were largely in Russia and China, both of which have aggressive nuclear power programs. 

Likewise, many of the plants listed as being under construction are in Russia and China, as well as elsewhere in Asia.  The WNA article on future plans identifies about 50 reactors under construction.  It also notes that, in the past, nuclear power plant shutdowns have roughly been balanced by new units starting operation:  in the last 20 years, from 1998-2018, they indicate that 89 reactors were shut down and 98 new reactors started operation; and looking ahead, one prediction is that 154 existing reactors will close in the next 20 years (by 2040), while 289 may come online by 2040.  The WNA article on plans for new reactors also cites the extensions of reactor operating lifetimes in the U.S. and other countries as a positive development in sustaining the nuclear contribution to electricity supply, and both articles mention power uprates in several countries.  I would also particularly highlight the recent approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the first applications for license extensions from 60 to 80 years.

Of course, predictions are always subject to a lot of change--changes in governments and national (and sometimes, local) policies, changes in public opinion, a major nuclear accident, shutdowns of fossil fuel plants, decreasing costs of renewable energy options, technological developments in nuclear technology, and much more, can all alter these projections.  And the changes can be positive or negative.  Recently, concerns about climate change are causing some countries to revisit past anti-nuclear policies.  But historically, a number of active construction projects have failed to be completed, especially in the United States, but also elsewhere; and sometimes, plants have been shut down even after license renewals were granted.  Therefore, it is too soon to tell whether the current trends will be sustained over a 20-year period.

Other factors that neither of these articles cite is the potential role of some of the advanced nuclear technology under development.  Current R&D is focusing a lot on small modular reactors (SMRs) and even micro-reactors, and there are also a number of projects focused on alternatives to the current light water reactor technology.  In the U.S., some specific causes for optimism include the recent Congressional budget appropriation for fiscal year 2020 that provides a 12.5% increase in funding for nuclear projects and an early site permit for SMRs at TVA's Clinch River site issued by the NRC. 

This work is focused mostly on the longer term, and some of it, especially the micro-reactors, is focused on applications other than power to the electricity grid.  Therefore, this work quite rightly has not been incorporated into the 20-year prediction offered by WNA.  However, in the longer term, some of this work could result in a new generation of reactors that would be appropriate for providing power to the grid, and that might address some of the concerns, such as the high cost of constructing a large reactor, and the impact of an accident, that have hampered nuclear power deployment in recent years.  In fact, SMRs might also be attractive for areas that are not suitable for large reactors, and thus, have the potential to lead to an expansion of the use of nuclear power.

To summarize, in recent years, nuclear power seems to have regained some of the momentum that was lost after the Fukushima accident in Japan.  In fact, some countries, such as Poland, that had previously had an anti-nuclear stance, are now looking seriously at incorporating nuclear power in the future.  Thus, there is some reason to believe that the WNA projections are realistic.  Nevertheless, experience has shown that unanticipated developments have sometimes drastically altered the short-term trends.  Looking further ahead, there is considerable potential for the new technologies under development to have a significant impact in the longer term, but further effort is needed to confirm that these newer designs meet expectations about cost and safety. 

I know that some will be disappointed that my projections are not more definitive.  Alas, I lack a crystal ball!  But I remain cautiously optimistic that the WNA projections will be realized, and that current R&D will pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power in the future.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Energy Supply and Bananas:

A Scary Parallel

I recently came across an article on bananas that reminded me of arguments about the future sources of energy.  If that sounds strange, bear with me.

The article pointed out that our supply of bananas today is virtually a monoculture--almost all the bananas that are commercially marketed are of only one variety.  The article goes into the history of bananas, saying that once before, we had a different monoculture, and it was basically wiped out by a disease that spread internationally.  The threat raised in the article was that we are on the verge of the same thing happening again.  Since I'm not an expert on bananas, I'll leave it to the reader to research the original article if they are interested.

However, what struck me is how so much of the dialogue on our future energy supply proposes to cut down on options and have all our needs met by just a few sources.  I think of all the bold statements I keep seeing:  We have to get rid of coal.  Or all fossil fuels.  Or nuclear power.  Solar and wind power can potentially meet all our needs.

The reality for our energy supply is almost as stark as it is for our banana supply--a monoculture has a lot of potential downsides.  In the energy world, the risks can come not only from something happening to a single source of power, but also from the "fit" of different energy sources into all the varied--and changing--environments and applications in our world.

A few examples come to mind:  While there are multiple sources of fossil fuels, some of the rare earths used for wind power are presently available from limited sources, in particular, China, so a cut-off in supply, whether for political or other reasons, could affect the ability to meet our energy needs with wind power.  Likewise, the identification of a serious design flaw that requires the shutdown of a lot of operating power plants of any one type, or a political reaction, such as shutdowns of nuclear plants in Japan and Germany, can lead to impacts ranging from increased pollution to serious health and safety impacts for vulnerable segments of the population.  And different geographical areas have different wind patterns, different amounts of sunshine, different sources and amounts of cooling water, different population distributions and density, etc., so not all energy sources are equal "fits" to all locations.  

In addition, as Jim Conca points out in Forbes, changing climate and weather patterns can also affect our energy supply.  In recent years, extreme winter weather has stalled the delivery of fossil fuels.  Hydropower is vulnerable to river flows which can be affected by changes in climate and precipitation.  Wind power is affected by temperature changes that result in changes in air pressure, and hence, in wind speeds.  Climate change will also affect cloud cover, and therefore, solar power.  And rises in water temperature affect the efficiency of all water-cooled power plants, including both fossil and nuclear plants.  Over-reliance on any one type of technology will exacerbate any of these effects.

As always, these dire warnings are not a fait accompli.  If we identify and characterize these vulnerabilities in time, we may be able to develop ways to address some of them.  However, we can't count on figuring out every possibility in advance, and we can't count on finding ways to completely address every possible risk.  The simplest and most robust measure society can take is to adopt a policy of developing and using multiple sources of energy.  In this way, the impacts of a short- or long-term cutoff of one source of energy, for any reason, will be limited, and the ability of the overall system to compensate for such cutoffs will be maximized.

After all, a loss of bananas is one thing, but a loss of the energy that powers just about every aspect of our lives is quite another. 

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Sunday, November 24, 2019

More Unintended Consequences:

The Complexities of Transportation

I recently came across several articles related to transportation--well, very loosely related, in one case--that once again show why it is so difficult to predict the consequences of new technologies on energy use.

Much of the problem has to do with human behavior.  We often assume that a new technology will take cars off the road, and therefore reduce pollution and congestion.  Wrong!  Some recent articles on autonomous cars and on e-scooters suggest that we are finding otherwise.  Rather than replacing cars, autonomous cars may be taking people out of public transportation, and e-scooters may be attractive mainly to people who would otherwise walk.

One study on autonomous cars was particularly interesting.  The article reports on a survey of commuters done by the University of Adelaide questioning them on vehicle ownership and use, vehicle sharing, etc.  While the people doing the study saw a significant potential for driverless vehicles to reduce traffic congestion in the long term, they discovered that commuter attitudes, the price of new technology, and other factors may make the transition a slow one.  In fact, they initially foresee an adverse impact on public transport, and a likely increase in traffic congestion over the next few decades.

And I note that this article didn't even address another congestion factor that I saw discussed elsewhere.  In cities where parking is difficult to find and expensive, there may be a tendency to let driverless cars just wander around the streets between uses, which would greatly increase traffic congestion.

Another study focused on e-scooters in Paris.  The biggest surprise to me was the statement that the scooters don't replace cars, they "motorize walking trips."  In addition to that, the article noted a slew of of other ecological downsides.  Although they are billed as carbon-free, they still require energy and materials to build, generating carbon in the process, and they have a short life span (due to both wear-and-tear and to vandalism), so must be replaced frequently.  They are being rented out and left in different places, so they have to be gathered up every day and brought to an area for recharging.  A lot are ending up in the river and must be retrieved.

While both of these reports are from outside the US, the findings appear relevant.  Certainly, Americans are known for their love affair with their automobiles, so I suspect that a survey on autonomous cars in the US would have similar results to the one in Australia.  And the article on e-scooters in Paris also quoted a study in the US that showed that most e-scooters are replacing walking or biking, not automobiles.  In fact, the US study showed that the electricity for charging was only a small percentage of the e-scooter's environmental impact--most of the emissions were from the materials and manufacturing, and from driving around to pick the scooters up.

Obviously, both these studies could--and should--lead to efforts to address at least some of the issues raised.  For example, financial incentives might be possible to counter concerns about the price of autonomous vehicles, and electric vans could be used to pick up e-scooters.  But the articles do highlight the fact that introducing new technologies is not enough to achieve the expected--and desired--outcomes.  Factors such as those identified in the articles need to be raised and addressed.  And even with that, human nature and other factors suggest that we may have to temper our expectations about how much some of the new technologies will reduce pollution, carbon use, congestion, etc. 

The final article I saw recently initially looked to me like it was going to tell a different story.  It addressed the energy uses of streaming videos.  I naturally thought about all the car trips on-demand access is potentially saving compared to the "good old days" when we had to pick up DVDs at Blockbuster.  Therefore, I was surprised at their conclusion that Netflix and its competitors are not as good for the environment as I would have guessed!  What the article made clear was that sitting in our living rooms, we don't see that energy is required for the streaming services.  And the higher the definition of our TV screens, the larger the data files that have to be streamed.  As always, the article notes that there are options--higher efficiencies at the source, convincing users to choose lower resolutions, and having the streaming services use clean energy sources.

While all of this may sound unduly negative, that is not my intention.  My intention is only to point out that the new technologies do not operate in a vacuum, and whether or not they achieve their full potential depends a lot on whether appropriate measures are taken to address human tendencies, comparative costs, convenience, and many other factors. 

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Electricity and Public Health:

A Vital Link

I haven't been blogging for the past month or so, in large part because I was on an extended trip.  The last stop on the trip was to attend a wedding in Half Moon Bay, California in early November.   I had been following the news about the wildfires in California and the deliberate power outages intended to prevent a power line from sparking more fires.  However, I had never thought to check what was happening where I was going, so I was startled when the groom spoke at the reception after the ceremony and mentioned that the power in Half Moon Bay had been cut off by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) until just a couple of days before the wedding!

The bridal couple--and the entire wedding party--was fortunate that the power came back on in time for the festivities, but as the news made clear, the decision whether or not to shut down carried potential negative consequences either way.  I am not questioning the PG&E's decision to cut off power in some areas.  As the 2018 wildfires made clear, fires sparked by downed power lines can be deadly, and the decision to cut power this year may have saved lives and millions of dollars of property. 

But the decision to cut off power was not without some negative consequences of its own.  Other emergencies can occur (including wildfires started by lightning or human activities), and blackouts can make it harder to communicate in such circumstances--either to get information on the path of the fire or evacuation recommendations and routes, or to call for help.  And a loss of power can be deadly to people with health problems.  In addition, there are smaller problems, such as spoilage of food or medications during multi-day outages, that also carry potential health problems. 

The importance of electricity to the well-being of people today was further emphasized in another news item I read the same week on the long-term impacts of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  This article reports on the tentative results from a study that suggests that more people died in the aftermath of the accident, from causes not directly related to the accident or tsunami, than died in the accident itself.  (This is in addition to deaths attributed to the evacuation.)  I should note that this study has not yet been peer reviewed, so I can't attest to the exact numbers.  However, the points addressed correspond well with other articles I've read, so I think it is appropriate to explore the general issues. 

In this case, the concern is not just whether or not electric power is available, it is also how the electric power is being produced, and the cost of that power.  So for the Fukushima accident, the response was the shutdown of nuclear power plants and the replacement of that power by fossil fuel plants.  This created two health risks--first, there was an increase in air pollution, which has a detrimental effect, particularly on the elderly and people with certain illnesses.  Second, these substitute sources of electricity also cost a lot more, and apparently, this resulted in some people not being able to afford the power they needed and dying from exposure to cold.

Simply put, electricity is central to today's way of life.  It is how many homes are heated; it is how ventilators, dialysis machines, and other lifesaving devices operate; and it is central to how we get news that may be critical to our safety, such as evacuation instructions, and how we let people know where we are.  More and more, such factors need to be taken into account when decisions are made to turn off electric power plants.  Of course, in the longer term, changes may be needed in our infrastructure as well.  But burying power lines and making other such changes is a very expensive and long-term proposition.  Until then, we need to give more thought to the consequences of turning off electric power plants and plan for ways to protect vulnerable population groups and provide backups for critical communications.   

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