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.


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!