Saturday, October 29, 2011

US Industry Response to Fukushima:

A Status Report

On October 12, 2011, Anthony Pietrangelo, Senior VP and CNO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), made a presentation to the Washington, DC Section of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). The talk was entitled "US Industry Leadership in Response to Events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant." I have tried to make it a practice to provide summaries of nuclear- and energy-related events in the Washington, DC area that I attended--at least when I find something worth reporting--and I want to continue that practice by providing some highlights of Tony's talk. (I should note that part of my delay in publishing this post was that I waited until the ANS Section posted the viewgraphs. This is the first chance I've had to publish my post since the viewgraphs went up.)

Tony started the meeting by noting that, even outside the concerns about Fukushima, nuclear plants in the US have faced an unusual number of natural challenges this year. He mentioned the tornadoes in the path of Browns Ferry and Surry, the flooding at Ft. Calhoun, the earthquake near North Anna, and the hurricane that swept past a number of nuclear plants.

He also provided some statistics on NEI's outreach in the aftermath of Fukushima. Among their activities were a conference call with hundreds of financial people and a hundred-fold increase in the number of hits on their website.

The bulk of his talk discussed some of the activities and plans of 3 key industry groups: NEI, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Key facts about the activities of these groups are highlighted in his viewgraphs.

To me, some of his most interesting comments were his relatively positive views of the response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the public. Among his observations were the following:

• Since March 11, 2011, there have been 5 license renewals at US plants, including Vermont Yankee, Palo Verde, Prairie Island, and Hope Creek

• There have been 2 power uprates (increases in the maximum power level at which the reactor is licensed to operate)--Limerick and Point Beach

• Final Environmental Impact Statements (FEIS) have been completed on 7 new reactors in Georgie, South Carolina, Texas and Maryland

• The Final Safety Evaluation Report (FSER) has been issued for the ESBWR

• Construction-related activities are taking place at Watts Bar, Vogtle, and V.C. Summer

• Public opinion, while down somewhat, is still favorable to nuclear power.

One interesting observation he made is that the NEI has shifted the focus of its public relations efforts. Early on, they focused on safety, but more recently, had been focusing on the environment, cost, and jobs. They have now shifted back to a focus on safety.

Tony fielded a lot of questions during the Q&A session that followed his talk. I can't go into all of them, but he pointed out some of the differences in procedures and requirements for hardened vents for US BWRs versus for those in Japan. Some of the questioners were particularly concerned that the industry initiative could get ahead of the NRC and that NRC might later impose additional, or different, requirements. Tony indicated that they were working closely with the NRC and wouldn't be getting too far ahead.

Tony also noted lessons learned that have been implemented in the industry in response to past events that he thinks will serve us well in responding to the Fukushima experience. In particular, he noted that some of the equipment intended to respond to a 9/11 type event could also be used for natural disasters. He referred to the current approach as "symptom-based and event-informed," in contrast with the historic event-based approach. The symptom-based approach facilitates such actions as using "9/11 equipment" to respond to, for example, a station blackout triggered by some other type of event.

I'm sure we will be hearing much more about the industry activities in the weeks and months ahead. From what was presented at this meeting, it looks like the industry is off to a very good start.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Energy Resource Wars:

Is a New Round Emerging?
I was never very good at history in high school. I much preferred the physical sciences, where I could derive most of the answers to test questions, as opposed to subjects like history, which required a lot of rote memorization of names and dates. I survived only by learning a few tricks. For example, I noticed that my teacher always had a question on the causes of each war we studied, and I noticed that disputes over resources were almost always among the top causes. Thus, every time the question came up on the cause of any war, my first answer was always resource disputes. It never failed!

Thus, I suppose I should not be surprised to notice that the countries of the world are still bickering over resources today. While the disputes have not yet led to open warfare--and I sincerely hope they don't--the saber-rattling should alert us to the risks the world faces by relying on energy sources which are limited in supply and unevenly concentrated around the world.

There are not one, but two, such conflicts brewing around the world. Both have been developing over the past few months and both involve disputed claims of sovereignty over offshore gas and oil fields. One involves the new offshore gas fields discovered in the Middle East. The dispute threatens to exacerbate already existing tensions between Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Greek Cypriots. The second involves the offshore oil fields in the South China Sea. This one has India and Vietnam pitted against China, with the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia also making claims. China is clearly staking out its territory in the South China Sea, and Israel is doing the same in the Mediterranean.

At one point a couple of months ago, articles on both disputes hit the press on the same day. While I'd seen other news items on each dispute, seeing them both in the news the same day really drove home for me the fact that, as we focus on the relatively recent concern about global warming from fossil fuels, we have tended to forget the long and painful history of international conflict over access to critical oil and gas resources.

These disputes make it painfully clear that the historical battles over fossil fuels have not disappeared. In fact, they may be reaching a new and dangerous phase. Admittedly, some of the reasons for the rising conflicts between countries in these areas go beyond oil and gas resources. They including fishing rights and shipping lanes in Asia, and both recent and long-standing political issues in the Middle East. But oil and/or gas deposits are growing factors in each case.

Unfortunately, these kinds of spats are likely to continue for a very long time. There is no way to replace existing and future demand for fossil fuels quickly. However, the more slowly we move to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the more such international conflicts will escalate.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Radium in the Basement:

Unexpected Finds from Fukushima Radiation Searches

It was almost a moment of comic relief to me. After all the stories from Fukushima, especially the stories about pockets of high radiation levels being found far from the plant site, I read a story about an anomalously high radiation reading in Tokyo that turned out to be Radium-226 for luminous paint!

And the story hit somewhat close to home for me! The material was found in an abandoned home in Setagaya Ward, which is the part of Tokyo in which I lived when I spent a year there in 1998-1999. It was not in my immediate neighborhood, but close enough to get my attention. The material was found under the floorboards of an unoccupied house. The owner, a 90-year-old widow who vacated the house early this year, has no idea how it got there. Her deceased husband was an office worker and had nothing to do with radioactive materials. (Storage under the floorboards does not have the somewhat sinister implications it often has in US culture. Japanese houses have no basements and are built with crawl spaces under them. In small buildings with limited storage space, the space under the floorboards is often used for storage.)

The source of the material and the reason it's there is still a mystery. So far, no one is implying the house was broken into while vacant. The bottles are old, and the authorities are busy estimating the dose the woman would have received assuming they had been there a long time.

Of course, the comic relief was temporary. Like other cases where radioactive materials have found their way into the public domain, this could have had much more harmful consequences. What if someone had bought the house and had children sleeping just above the material? It is an accidental piece of luck that a search for radiation hot spots from Fukushima turned up this stash and possibly prevented the exposure of innocent people.

But after all the stories of radioactive contamination, and hot spots unexpectedly far from the reactors, it was a nice piece of news to hear that the search led to a discovery that might have prevented a smaller tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Coal versus Gas:

No Clear Cut Winner

In the past few years, the "conventional wisdom" has been that switching from coal to natural gas for power production would benefit the environment. Not only does burning gas reduce particulate emissions, it also reduces CO2 emissions. Most sources acknowledge that natural gas is not as clean as nuclear power and renewables in terms of CO2 emissions, but having been promoting that option as an interim step, allowing the faster draw down of coal power plants.

Now, a report has come out that says "it ain't necessarily so"--switching from coal to natural gas would actually do very little to reduce global climate change. This report takes me back to a point of view I've expressed several times in this blog and elsewhere--the chemical and physical interactions involved in all our power sources and their interactions with the environment are incredibly complicated, and we cannot make long-term policy decisions based on simplistic models of the world.

I'm not a climatologist, so I can't say for sure if someone is going to come along in the next day, or week, or year and debunk this entire analysis. However, my point remains the same. Simply measuring the amount of CO2 generated in a bench-scale test of coal versus natural gas doesn't take into account all the emissions of both energy sources and all their interactions with the environment.

In a similar vein, I just ran across a letter in a recent issue of Science that challenged claims that electric-powered automobiles wouldn't reduce emissions because of the need to generate more power from electric power plants. The letter claimed that there was still a net savings because electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines and because electric vehicles obtain some of their power from regenerative braking. Again, I haven't done the math, but it makes sense to me that one can't project the net emissions without taking such factors into account.

So, what does this mean for energy policy and planning? I think we need to keep pointing out the following:

• There are no perfect solutions. Every option has some benefits and some drawbacks.

• Simple comparisons are apt to miss important factors.

• What your mother told you at the dinner table is right--"Everything in moderation."

In short, we need a mix of energy sources. We can't simply replace coal with natural gas so we can wait it out for renewables to be perfected, as some recommend.


Monday, October 3, 2011

These Plants Are Your Plants:

A Nuclear Song

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about a nuclear song called Neutron Doodle. In it, I alluded to an earlier set of lyrics I had written, but the only link I gave for the lyrics was to a member-only American Nuclear Society site.

Recently, I was reminded of both songs by a thread I was following in a LinkedIn group I belong to that was talking about the potential value of a nuclear song in helping shape the image of nuclear power.

That reminded me of the old posting, and when I provided it to them, I realized I ought to make the lyrics of my song more publicly available as well. So here they are:

These Plants are Your Plants

(sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land," by Woodie Guthrie)
Lyrics by Gail H. Marcus
These plants are your plants
These plants are my plants
From their cooling towers
To their nuclear islands
From the U.S. Heartland
To its coastal waters
These plants were made for you and me.

As I was walking
That ribbon of highway
I saw before me
A smogless skyway
And sparkling waters
Were flowing my way
These plants are good for you and me.

The children were laughing
And people were singing
At all the wonders
The power was bringing
The lights were shining
And the bells were ringing
These atoms split for you and me.

And at the plant sites
The workers labored
To use the atom
To help their neighbors
With clean safe power
To fuel all nations
These plants bring joy to you and me.

These plants are your plants
These plants are my plants
From their cooling towers
To their nuclear islands
From Europe's vineyard
To Asia's water
These plants were made for you and me.