Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Episode 39

Listen to the Podcast Here

1. Westinghouse Wins Bid to Build 4 AP1000 Reactors in China
2. The USA Approves the India Nuclear Cooperation Bill
3. Russian Parliament Approves Nuclear Restructuring
4. Virginia Politicians Bow to Antinuclear Pressure
5. New Nuclear Plants to Support Developing Economies
6. Nuclear Plants for Load Following and Peaking
7. Alternative Energy Holdings Intends to Build New Nuclear Plant
8. Fresno, California Considering Nuclear Energy Solution
9. Lochbaum Fails to Justify Claims with Out of Date Study
10. Rudy Giuliani Speaks Out for Indian Point License Renewal

Global Politics and the Nuclear Renaissance

In the last two weeks a fascinating series of events shows how the nuclear renaissance is taking the world stage in both business and politics:

On Dec 6th the Russian Parliament approved an overhaul and consolidation of their nuclear organizations with the goal of enhancing centralized control and promoting global expansion.

Then on Dec 9th the US Congress approved the USA/India Nuclear Cooperation deal and sent it on to President Bush to be ratified.

And just yesterday, on Dec 18th a pair of events occurred – in the morning we received word that China awarded Westinghouse a contract worth upwards of 8 billion dollars to build up to four AP1000 Pressurized Water reactors – projects that will create more than 5000 jobs in the USA alone. A few hours later we got word that US President George Bush has signed the US/India nuclear cooperation bill into US law. The bill is scheduled to be debated in India over the next few days where it does not have to be voted on in the way that it was in the USA.

These are exciting times, indeed!

Russia's Nuclear Restructuring

In Russia, the restructuring of their nuclear programs brings all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle under one umbrella controlled by the government – mining, fuel manufacturing, plant construction, and operations and decommissioning will all fall under Atomenergoprom . The official party line is the reorganization will promote investment and facilitate growing the business. I have a little different take on it, though. I think this represents another example of the Russian government reinforcing its position as a dominate energy supplier in Europe and Asia. The Russians recognize that by controlling the energy supplies in the region they will have tremendous political and economic leverage. Here’s an example:

Belarus is planning to build a new nuclear plant to secure their energy future. That’s good news, but in the wake of that announcement Russia's Gazprom state natural gas monopoly has warned it will raise the price Belarus pays for natural gas fourfold to $200 per 1,000 cubic meters. Then, after giving Belarus time to contemplate how that price increase would cripple their economy, Russia offered to keep natural gas prices lower if Belarus turns over a controlling stake in the Belarusian gas pipeline system. Hmmm….let’s get this straight “We will raise the rates you must pay, and it will bankrupt your economy, but you have no choice because your people will freeze to death if you don’t agree. Ah, but we have a deal for you! You give us your pipeline and we will give you a price break for the gas we send through it!” That is nothing but blackmail, plain and simple! It also shows how the Russian Government plans to take over the region’s energy supply piece by piece and country by country. The nuclear restructuring consolidates Russia’s control over their nuclear energy industry and infrastructure so they can support their political ambitions of dominance over the region.

Virginia Politicians Bow to Antinuclear Pressure

This story came to light some time ago, but it’s worth recapping because it’s a great example of how local and state politicians in the USA are more than willing to bow to political pressure from antinuclear radicals. While it demonstrates the new licensing process works, it also shows how antinuclear groups will do everything they can to make nuclear power more expensive, even when there’s no technical benefit to their claims.

The North Anna station is a two-unit nuclear plant in Virginia that was built in the 1970’s. Unit 1 came on line in the 1978 and Unit 2 in 1980. The plant’s owner, Virginia Power Company, the predecessor to present day Dominion Energy, built a 13,000 acre lake to serve as a source of cooling waster for the plants. Originally the site was intended to have four reactors, and the lake was sized to handle the heat load of all four reactors, but only two were built. This put Dominion in a great position to add two new reactors to the site, but that’s when the state stepped in. Several anti-nuclear groups complained that the addition of reactors at the site would cause lake temperatures to rise a few degrees, and that would affect the stripped bass population of the lake. Other groups made claims that during periods of high heat loads lake levels could drop, and that would have a detrimental affect on recreational activities like boating and fishing.

Here’s where the injustice occurred; a state court ruled in favor of the anti-nuclear groups! The state ruling claims that in the years since the first North Anna Nuclear plants come on line, Lake Anna has become a recreational resource for the people of Virginia. As such, the utility could not add to the heat load of the lake. As a result, Dominion will have to construct cooling towers for the proposed new unit at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Let me get this straight…the company built an artificial, man made lake on land that they own. The lake is only one-half used because it is sized for four reactors, and only two have been built. But now, because the lake is nice for boating and fishing the state of Virginia has decided that the utility doesn’t have the right to use their lake for the purpose it was built and permitted by the state. As a result, the utility will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to build a second cooling system. And worse, because of cooling water restrictions imposed by the state, the ruling makes it impossible to add a forth light water reactor at the site. If a forth reactor is ever built it will have to be a high temperature gas reactor or another generation IV reactor that does not use water coolant. This restriction significantly reduces the value of the North Anna site for future energy development.

Do you think the state intends to compensate Dominion for the additional expense or the lost value of the site? Heck no! This is one that should have gone to the US Supreme Court! But the utility decided it was not work the political fight. They essentially allowed the state to confiscated half of their 13,000 acre lake, and they accepted the restrictions that prevent using the site as it was originally permitted. Score one for the anti-nuclear radicals! On the positive side, the new plant should be able to squeeze out a few additional megawatts with a cooling tower as opposed to once-through cooling.

Nuclear Plants To Raise the Standard of Living in Developing Economies

In the last couple of weeks there’s been a flurry of new plant announcements in nations with developing economies. Nigeria, Belarus, the Bengal region of India, and Indonesia all announced they plan to build new nuclear plants, ad these on the heels of announcements by five Arab states last month. The plant in Indonesia will be a small Russian barge-mounted reactor, but the designs to be used at the other locations have not been decided. These are the kind of announcement I really like to see because nuclear energy will give these countries a domestic source of emission-free energy, good paying jobs for the people, and a stable supply of electricity that will raise their standards of living.

Nigeria has a total national electricity generation capacity of 6 000 MW, but they typically have only about one-half of their capacity because of frequent breakdowns in tier generation and transmission systems. They say they want to add up to 4000 MW of nuclear generation, but if they’re going to take advantage of even a small reactor they will need to invest in improving the reliability of their transmission and distribution systems. Even if the nuclear plant has the capability to run at full load, if they can’t reliably get the power to the customers then they’ll have to run at reduced output.

Load Following with Nuclear Units

This reminds me of a question I received this week from a listener named Avrom. He asked me to discuss what types of nuclear plants would be good for other than base load generation. For those of you who are not familiar with electrical system operations, I'll provide a little background…The 24-hour load profile for most electrical systems has a “double hump” shape with a morning peak when people get up, take showers, and cook breakfast, and when daytime factories and businesses energize lighting and industrial loads. Load drops a little mid-day then rises again in the afternoon and evening due to heating and air conditioning demands, and when people return home at night and begin cooking, watching television, and using computers. Load drops in the late evening hours and is lowest in the dead of night. Different types of power plants are needed in order to reliably supply energy to this ever-changing load. There are typically three types of generation in an electrical supply system – base load plants, power plants that load follow, and peaking units. Base load plants are the cheapest producers and run at full power day in and day out. Coal and nuclear plants generally fall into this category because they produce the lowest cost energy and because they are larger and do not change load as quickly as other kinds of plants.

Load following is the next level of generator, and as the name implies they follow the load. They sit in standby or at low power when system load is low, and as load goes up they increase power to match it, then they ramp back down when the load reduces. Load following plants are usually oil or gas fired, but some nuclear plants around the world do load follow, particularly in places like France where a large percentage of the power is from nuclear plants.

Peaking units are usually the most expensive producers and only generate electricity when the system load peaks, or when there are supply/load imbalances caused with a large base load plant shuts down unexpectedly. Peaking units have to be able to start up on demand and pick up load rapidly. Peaking units are usually gas turbines, diesel generators, and sometimes oil fired units. You’ll hear the phrase “spinning reserve” used to describe plants that are essentially idling at zero power with their turbine generators spinning. They’re in standby so they can pick up load in a hurry when it’s needed. In some markets plants get paid a premium to be in spinning reserve because they’re needed for grid stability. There’s also system voltage control that’s related to load control, but that will have to be the topic of another show.

So the question is what kind of nuclear plant would be suitable for load following or peaking. As I mentioned before, some current day nuclear plants do load follow, but it’s not the norm in most systems. The commercial pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors that I am familiar with have some operating characteristics that make repetitive up and down transients tough to manage. I’m not familiar enough with CANDU reactors to know how well they load follow. Maybe one of you in Canada or India can post something in the show notes about CANDUs and load following.

To be good for following the load, the plant would need to be able to easily and economically go up and down from low power to full power and back two times per day. There are some good reactor designs for this. Marine propulsion reactors, for example, are designed to change power level very rapidly. They could even be in spinning reserve and do load peaking, but that might not be economical. Smaller gas cooled reactors, particularly those tied to gas turbines, would be good load followers. The pebble bed modular reactor, for example, might be an ideal load follower if it were coupled either a gas turbine or a steam system designed for rapid power level changes. The Adams Atomic Engine would also be a good load follower. The nice thing about using smaller modular units is that you can have a chain of reactors and you start up as many or as few as you need depending on system load. That is ideal for areas with isolated transmission or distribution systems. While I'm not certain, the barge-mounted Russian reactors might be good load followers because they are based on marine propulsion reactors.

So Avrom, that’s my take on the best nuclear plants for other than base load energy production. Thanks for the great question!

Nuclear Energy is Attracting New Investors & Municipalities

There’s a new player in the USA’s nuclear renaissance; Alternative Energy Holdings, and this week they announced they plan to build a new nuclear plant near Bruneau, Idaho. The company was formed by several experienced utility executives to promote new energy technologies, including nuclear.

The board of directors includes Ralph Beedle, a past Senior Vice President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Ken Straum, a former president of INPO, and Donald Gillispie, a senior industry executive who is serving as the company's President and CEO.

The press release states they plan to build a 1500 MW plant, and will start construction in 2008. I’m not sure what they mean by beginning construction in 2008 because it will most likely take that longer than that to obtain a combined construction and operating license. Perhaps they mean they will start field work at the site in 2008. Another news article I read indicates that some of the reactor's low quality heat will be used to supply energy to a bio-diesel manufacturing plant. If so, that would be a really innovative combination of two energy forms. It makes great since, too, because the low coast energy from the reactor will make the bio-diesel cheaper and more competitive with petroleum based fuel.

And the city of Fresno, California announced they are interested in building and operating a nuclear plant for their municipal energy customers. That will be tough because under current California state law no new nuclear plants can be built until the state’s Energy Commission determines that a technology has been demonstrated for disposal of used fuel. You could argue that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has done that, but you’d have to convince the California Energy Commission! The state law can be changed, though, and perhaps it will be in light of California’s leadership in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Generally, I’m not in favor of municipal governments running nuclear plants. History has proven that local and state governments in the USA are not effective at efficiently building and operating the current vintage of large commercial nuclear plants. They just don’t have that skill set or area of expertise. They could make it happen, though, through a partnership with an experienced nuclear operating company. That kind of arrangement would give the new Fresno Nuclear Plant access to nuclear operating expertise and other advantages of being part of a fleet of plants. That way they could enjoy the low cost, emissions-free electricity that nuclear energy has to offer without the burden of trying to build an operating organization to support it.

There’s been some recent experience with this business model with lots of lessons learned to build upon. The two that come to mind are Nuclear Management Company who operates nuclear plants in the US Midwest, Exelon's agreement to operate the Salem/Hope Creek Plants, and Entergy, who manages the operation of the Cooper Nuclear Station for Nebraska Public Power.

Lochbaum Quotes Out of Date Study to Support His Claims

David Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists is promoting a 25 year old study that theorized that a Boeing 707 airplane crash into a nuclear plant could cause a core meltdown and radiation release. He's using this dated analysis to support his beliefs that nuclear plants are unsafe.

Here’s David Lochbaum describing his concerns…

(listen to the audio podcast)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission dismissed Lochbaum’s allegations as irrelevant and unfounded. I've considered the arguments here and have to agree with the NRC for a number of reasons. Let me give you just one example of why Mr. Lockbaum's conclusions are out of date:

Lochbaum quotes a part of the study that says that if an airplane crashed into the control room of a nuclear plant there would be a melt down because the operators would be dead or they would loose control of the reactor and would be unable to shut it down and keep it cool. That’s a false assertion for several reasons:

Nuclear plants have a fail safe design, so any kind of disaster like this that would disturb cooling or other vital systems will cause the reactor to automatically shutdown and the emergency cooling systems to automatically start.

Next, the 1982 study Lockbaum refers to was done before the alternate shutdown capabilities were added to US nuclear plants. This feature provides the ability to safely shut down the plant and keep the reactor cool from remote locations within protected areas of the plant but outside of the control room. If an aircraft hit the control room then the operators who work outside the control room could take control and keep the reactor cool. These features were retrofitted to all existing nuclear plants, as well as designed into new ones.

The 1982 study assumed “No Operator Intervention” an assumption that ignores the realistic timeline of any such disaster. There are emergency procedures and contingency plans in place that provide many, many ways to keep the reactor cool, and it’s unrealistic to assume that the people responsible to carry out those plans would simply ignore the situation and walk away. Many of these hypothetical core damage scenarios take many hours to get to the point that radiation is released, and that provides ample time for a whole variety of preplanned compensatory actions to be put into place.

When nuclear engineers and plant designers consider what would happen in a nuclear accident, they usually start with an assumption of no operator action. They run the scenario out to see if there will be any core damage or a radiation release with no operator action. Then, if a particular scenario DOES yield core damage, they go back and add in reasonable operator actions and other barriers to counter the accident. Very often people who are opposed to nuclear power use the "no action" scenarios as a basis for claiming the plants are unsafe.

Giuliani Speaks Out for Indian Point License Renewal

The concepts of nuclear plant safety and security were the highlight of remarks made by Rudy Giuliani recently. The highly respected former Mayor of New York City and expert on emergency preparedness and security spoke out in favor of Indian Point’s application for a license extension. Here’s what he had to say…

(listen to the audio podcast)

That was Rudolph Giuliani on nuclear plant safety and security, and the value that Indian Point provides to New York and the US northeast. Quite a contrast between Rudy and Dave Lochbaum, don’t you think? Who are YOU going to believe?

Listener Letters and Comments

My last show, episode 38 generated a ton of listener - I must have received about a dozen emails with all kinds of great suggestions and observations. Here are a few:

Two listeners, KenG and Tom P, pointed out that burning bio-diesel in combustion turbines is probably breakeven from the perspective of CO2 emissions because the soy beans absorb CO2 when growing, then return it to the air when the oil is burned. The particulate and other air polluting emissions would still need to be dealt with. Both are excellent points!

Dave M wrote that Indian Point has a number of other somewhat unique features that provide enhanced accident response. One example is their internal containment sump recirculation pumps. Dave promised to join us on a future show to discuss this more in detail. Thanks Dave!

One listener asked if I am related to John Archibald Wheeler, the renowned nuclear physicist. Unfortunately not; while we share names and similar passions, we’re not related, at least not to my knowledge. If you’re listening out there Dr. Wheeler, give me a call. It would be great to have you on the show!

Not everyone was happy with episode 38. If you’ve taken a look at my blog and show transcript #38 you’ll see the blogger who calls himself Pinto Bean and Porgie Tirebiter posted some very critical comments. He’s the blogger that I mentioned in that show. He apparently lives around Indian Point and I invited him to join in the debate, and to post links to documents he claims to have about unsafe conditions at the plant. So far he’s declined to do that. He did, however, do a piece on me in his Washington Scandal blog where he claimed to have uncovered a “secret industry mole.” If you’ve been listening to my show for a while you’ll get as big a kick out of that as I did. I’ve been podcasting and blogging now for about a year, and as far back as episode one I made it very clear I work in the industry. I’ve also always used my real name, and not an alias.

Porgie also has the mistaken impression that I anonymously posted inappropriate comments to one of his blogs. That’s puzzling – why would I want to do that when factual and courteous blog posts generate friendly but heated debates? It’s that interactivity that makes this “new media” such a fantastic tool for sharing thoughts and ideas! Here’s a link to Porgie’s blog. I thought it was nice of him to put my photo right above that of Senator Evan Bayh’s and just below Rudy Giuliani’s. At least I’m in good company!

Happy Holidays!

John Wheeler

No comments: