Sunday, May 27, 2007

Episode 47

Listen to the Podcast

1. Browns Ferry Unit 1 is Online!
2. Brazil to Resume Angra-3 Project
3. UK Energy White Paper Calls for Nuclear Build
4. Anti-Nuclear Groups Continue Vermont Yankee Tax Battle
5. Tornado Warnings Cause Electricity Price Spike
6. USA Today Story Generates Buzz
7. More Coal Miners Die, but who’s paying attention?

Utility Worker Shortages

Browns Ferry Unit 1 Startup

There’s cause for celebration in Alabama! The Browns Ferry Unit 1 just returned to service after 22 years shutdown. Three Browns Ferry units were taken out of service by the TVA, or Tennessee Valley Authority n 1985. Units 2 and 3 were retuned to service in 1991 and 1995 respectively, but Unit 1 remained mothballed. As demand for electricity grew, the TVA board considered their options in meeting the demand in a way that would cost effective and add value for their 8.7 million customers. In 2002 they concluded that restarting Browns Ferry Unit 1 was the best decision for the company and for the ratepayers because it would offer a lot of energy at low cost, and the promise of stable energy prices.

Preparing for the startup was a major project that included installing digital instrumentation, modern power supplies, and replacing many plant components like 200 miles of cable and eight miles of pipe.

Each Browns Ferry unit is rated at 1155 MWe, so with three units in operation it will be one of the largest power stations of any kind in the United States. Over the next several days the unit will be undergoing a series of at-power tests and power will be slowly raised to full load.

I have some friends at Browns Ferry and in other TVA locations, so I just want to say “Congratulations” on achieving this milestone!

Congressmen Need Computer Networking Lesson

There are a couple of US Congressmen who apparently have a serious misperception of how computer networks function. As a result, the NRC is being put in a position to educate them. Bennie Thompson of Missippi and James Langevin of R.I. wrote a letter to the NRC about an event last year at Browns Ferry Unit 3. In that event, a malfunction in a digital control system caused main feedwater pump flow to drop. Feedwater control systems in this type of nuclear plant are not safety-related. This means the plant does not rely on feedwater control systems to keep the reactor safe, and the malfunction of these systems can not cause an situation that would challenge reactor safety.

Operators recognized the abnormal condition and decided to take the unit out of service. In this kind of situation the proper way to do that is to manually scram the reactor, and that’s what they did. A reactor scram sounds like a serious thing to do, but what all that means is they signal the plant’s control rods to insert into the reactor to stop the neutron chain reaction. Control rods move pretty quickly, and within a second or two the reactor is shutdown.

The technicians and engineers troubleshooting the problem determined that the cause of the control system malfunction was excessive traffic on the closed internal Ethernet network. There was actually an article about this particular failure on a technology web site I follow called ComputerWorld. According to that article, this type of failure is not uncommon in that particular type of process controller. One fix is to install digital firewalls between different controllers and between different segments of the control network that will block excessive data. These networks are between the process controls in the field and the control room, mind you, and are internal to the plant. The NRC reviewed the plant’s response to the problem and agreed with the approach.

That’s where it gets humorous. These two congressmen, Thompson and Langevin are convinced that the plant shutdown might have been caused by external hackers using a denial of service attack on the plant’s computer network. They are calling the malfunction a “cyber-security event” and are demanding the NRC institute comprehensive anti-cyber attack policies on safety and non-safety systems. So tell me this…if the digital control systems are a closed network, and are not connected to the Internet, how could the system be hacked? Maybe these two congressmen have been listening to Senator Ted Stevens who became infamous in geek circles when he referred to the Internet as “a series of tubes.” Let me see if I can find a copy of that audio – it’s all voer the internet. Ahh yes here it is…

You'll have to listen to the podcast to hear Ted Stevens!

What’s so scary about this is these are the people who are setting policy and passing laws to regulate technologies they obviously don’t understand! Thompson is the Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Langevin is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber security, and Science and Technology.

One last point I need to make – control systems like these have nothing to do with reactor safety. The instrumentation in a nuclear plant is separated into two distinct categories – protection and control. Protection systems, as the name implies, automatically reduce power or shut the plant down, and start safety equipment when conditions warrant. Control systems are used for non-vital plant control – things like non-vital cooling water, air systems, feedwater and condensate. A malfunction in a control system can very easily cause the plant to shut down, but that has economic impact, to the plant owner, but not safety impact. Protection and control systems are isolated from one another such that a failure on a control system can’t cause a malfunction on a protection system. The systems that were affected by the excessive network traffic at Browns Ferry are control systems, not protection systems. That’s another example to illustrate the two congressmen Thompson and Langevin don’t understand the technology they are tasked with governing.

Brazil to Resume Angra-3 Project

On a brighter note, on Monday Brazil’s president approved the resumption of constructidon of the Angra-3 nuclear plant, a project that has been on hold for several years. They’ve been discussing restarting construction since 2003, and finally decided it is time to get it going again. Angra 1 and 2 together provide 2000 MWe, about 1.5% of Brazil’s electricity. The new unit will add another 1300 MWe. The project is expected to cost $3.6 billion, and the plant will come online in 2012.

UK Energy White Paper Calls for Nuclear Build

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a big advocate of building new nuclear plants in the UK as a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and to provide price stability as oil and natural gas prices continue to rise. The Energy White Paper he commissioned was released this week, and his successor Gordon Brown will continue the fight. Mr Brown was quoted as saying it’s important that Britain not become reliant on imported gas for its energy supply, something that is destined to happen if they continue down the present course as their internal gas supplies run out. He said that it would not be sensible to rule out nuclear energy.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistar Darling, countering claims that wind energy can meet the demand said, “On very hot days or very cold days, if the wind doesn’t blow, then you would have a big problem.” Mr Darling also said there needs to be a mix of nuclear and renewables.

The white paper was originally due out in March, but was delayed by legal challenges from Greenpeace and the Green Party.

Anti-Nuclear Groups Continue Vermont Yankee Tax Battle

Here’s a great example of how statistics can be twisted and shaped by whoever is using them to tell a story. In a recent show I discussed the proposal being argued in Vermont that would level a special tax on Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to pay for a home heating oil conservation program. The bill is being pushed by anti-nuclear activists who this week released a report that claims Vermont has the highest per capita amount of radioactive waste of any state in the USA. Well, I haven’t had a chance to read the report or to verify the facts in it, but at first glance I’d guess it’s probably true. The anti-nukes are referring to the used reactor fuel that is stored at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont is a pretty small state by population – only 608,000 people, and Vermont Yankee produces a lot of energy. That’s why Vermont has the highest percentage of nuclear generated electricity of any state in the USA – more than 70%, and the plant has been around for a long time churning out low cost, emissions free electricity. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that Vermont would have more used fuel on hand per capita than other states in the Northeast. Here’s some other statistics:

  1. Vermont is #1 when it comes to avoiding air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Of the seven states in Vermont’s region – NY, MA, CT, RI, ME, NH, and VT – Vermont has the lowest electricity prices.
  3. Here’s another one – thus far over the life of the plant, Vermont Yankee has paid $632 million into the Nuclear Waste Fund that was set up by the US government to pay for long term storage of the used nuclear fuel.
  4. And we’re not talking about a large amount of waste. It’s actually a pretty small number; about 650 tons in VT. Used fuel is pretty dense stuff, so it does not take up a lot of space.
  5. You’ve probably heard this analogy before, but if you took all the used fuel from all the commercial nuclear plants that have ever run in the USA over the last 50 years. That’s enough to have generated one-fifth of the USA’s electricity for 50 years! That fuel would fit on a single football field and would only cover it to a depth of 7 feet.
  6. By comparison, if Vermont Yankee was a coal plant it would burn 2.5 tons of coal PER MINUTE!

So the anti-nuclear folks are trying to make the case that because Vermonters are holding more used fuel per capita, they are justified in raising taxes on Vermont Yankee. Statistics aside, the proposal to tax one energy source to reduce reliance on another source does not pass the sanity test. And why would you tax a low cost, clean energy source to help reduce consumption of higher cost dirty energy? So Governor Douglas, I hope you are listening! This proposed tax is unfair, and worse. It will end up costing Vermonters more in the long run, and it will demonstrate to businesses that the State of Vermont will break promises to satisfy the political wins of the fringe elements in the state.

Tornado Warnings Cause Electricity Price Spike

On May 16th an unusual weather condition existed in New York – there was a strong frontal system passing though the east coast and there were tornado warnings issued across the state from 12:30 PM to 6:00 PM – just in time for the daily peak demand. The fear that tornadoes would upset the electricity supply caused power prices to spike to more than $1,500 per megawatt hour. This event points out a few realities – the reserve capacity in the US Northeast is very low and can’t sustain much in the way of lost generators. In addition, the reserve energy that is available is very high cost power – from gas and oil fired units. As the price of oil continues to rise the cost of peaking power will go even higher. People around the country are already writing letters to their congressmen because of high power prices. If we don’t start building new plants soon the problem will just continue to get worse.

USA Today Story Generates Buzz

“Utility Workers Brace for Worker Shortage” – that was a headline story in the USA Today business section last week. I’ve been telling my listeners for quite some time that this is a great time to get into the nuclear industry. In reality, jobs are plentiful though out the energy sector. Many of the same skill sets are in demand in the oil and gas industry, chemical and pharmaceutical, and other manufacturing fields. The USA Today story, and I’ll put a link to it in my show notes, says that one-half of the 400,000 utility workers across the country could retire in the next five to ten years. It also points out that lineworkers are one of the highest paid professions – the average annual compensation is about $75,000 and many earn more than $100,000. Shortages of engineers in some areas have already caused General Electric and the NRC to miss deadlines associated with the design reviews for new nuclear plants.

So if jobs are so abundant in other industries, why would you want to get into the nuclear industry? Well, here are a few things that come to mind;

  • It’s safer – the nuclear industry has the lowest injury rate for workers.
  • The nuclear industry has strict regulations and testing that ensure people are fit for duty.
  • It pays well – nuclear worker salaries are higher than their counterparts in other comparable industries.
  • There’s a lot of variety – if you get tired of one career you can change careers without losing seniority or benefits. Many people start in one area, maintenance for example, then move into outage planning, then later become instructors.
  • Rapid advancement – if you want to move up the career ladder into management opportunities are there. Managers are on average older than the workers and are retiring in greater percentages.
  • You can’t be off-shored – manufacturing and petro-chemical industries are relocating to other countries where labor costs are lower. That can’t happen with electricity generation. The power plants need to be relatively close to the load.

More Coal Miners Die

In the past week two accidents, one in Siberia and one in China claimed the lives of more than 50 coal miners. This follows another accident last month in Siberia that killed more than 100. Why isn't the mainstream media, Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, our valiant protectors of humanity, paying attention? You’ll have to listen to my podcast to hear my rant.

Go green, go nuclear and be safe out there!

John Wheeler