Saturday, September 29, 2007

TWiN 49 - NRG Energy Files 1st New Nuclear Constuction License Application in USA

Listen to the Podcast Here

In this Episode I discuss:

  1. Insights into the NRG Application to Build & Operate Two New Nuclear plants.
  2. Rep. Ed Markey's (D-MA) On-Going War on Nuclear Energy
  3. CNN's Anti-Nuclear Bias
  4. Nuclear Plants Perform "Better than expected" in Major Earthquake
  5. Letters from Listeners

The nuclear renaissance in the United States reached another important milestone this week! Those of you in the business have probably heard the big news: On Monday September 24 the first combined construction and operating license for a new nuclear plant in the USA was filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by NRG Energy and South Texas Nuclear Operating Company. The companies plan to build two Toshiba Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) at their South Texas Project site where they already operate two Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactors.

  • New Units will add 2 x 1350 MWe (2700 MWe) to the already 2,500 MWe from the PWRs.
  • New site will surpass the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Station as the largest nuclear electricity generating station in the United States.

About the ABWR Design

  • It's already one of the NRC's "certified designs." The other pre-certified reactor type under active consideration in the US is the Westinghouse AP-1000. The Areva/Unistar EPR and the General Electric ESBWR designs are not yet certified. This could give an advantage to the STP project when it comes to timeliness of obtaining approval for their COL.
  • There are already four ABWRs in operation in Japan, and two more are under construction in Taiwan. The experience of having built, started up, and operated the units will give the NRG project a huge advantage compared to first-of-a-kind projects. For example, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit No.6 was built in 51 months from ground breaking to commercial operation (and only 39 months from the first concrete pour to the first time they connected to the electrical grid).
  • The Toshiba ABWR is a variation on the General Electric ABWR. It is not really an "evolutionary" design as are the ESBWR and AP-1000. It is more of the next step in a progression of BWR where each generation has benefited from the experiences gained building and operating the ones that came before it. Each generation of BWRs has been an improvement on the last in terms of design, construction, margins of safety, ability to maintain, and reliable operation.
  • So from a perspective of minimizing risk in the licensing process, construction time line, and reliable operations it is a logical choice.

Some design specifications worth mentioning:

  • The volume of the ABWR building is about one third smaller than those of present BWR buildings, resulting in less construction time and expenses.
  • Toshiba states improvement in design yield safety margins that are about one hundred times greater than the current plants in the United States.
  • The design includes ten internal reactor pumps that replace the external recirculation pumps in earlier BWR designs. This eliminates piping and connections to increase safety and decreased costs.
  • The reactor safety systems are automated and Toshiba claims no operator action is required for the first 72 hours in the event of a coolant loss. Being a former operator, I'm a bit skeptical on that point. But…. the plants I operated were designed in the '50's and '60's and built in the '60's and 70's - so I have to be careful. Also, my background is in military and commercial PWRs - so my personal experience may not be relevant. If any of you out there have recent BWR operating experience I'm interested in hearing from you about your post-accident operating guidelines and training.

The Companies Involved

There is an intricate web of legal entities and companies that could be involved in the STP units 3 and 4 project.

  • According to Wikipedia, South Texas Nuclear Operating Company (STPNOC) is owned by three entities:
    • NRG Energy 44%
    • City of San Antonio 40%
    • City of Austin 16%
  • Toshiba, of course, will be the lead for reactor design and procurement.
  • GE, Hitachi and Bechtel were involved in drafting the COL, and NRG is in talks with them to reach agreement on their role in the construction phase of the project.
  • Toshiba has hired Fluor's Power Group to provide engineering, procurement, and construction services.
  • And with Toshiba being the majority owner of Westinghouse, I've got to wonder what Westinghouse's role will be in the project.

If you build them will they come?

  • The company stated they plan to have the two units on line in 2014 and 2015. If you back up the timeline from those dates you'll find there are some long lead time things that need to happen. In addition to the physical plant components, there's a lot of early work needed in developing the workforce for the new units. Initial fuel load happens about one year before commercial operations, and when you load fuel you have to have just about everything in place for an operating plant; licensed operators, a fire brigade, maintenance crews, security, a training staff, a simulator.
  • Here's a thought: STP runs two PRWs - they don't have BWR operating experience. So where do you think they'll get experienced operators for the new units? True, some will come from their existing units and will re-train on the BWR technology, but my guess it they'll be recruiting experienced BWR operators away from other companies. South Texas did this once before - back in the late '80's and early 90's I was working as a Senior Reactor Operator at Turkey Point Nuclear plant in Florida. About that time STP was building up their operating staff for the new PWRs - units 1 and 2 that had just come on line. I recall hearing of telephone calls into the Turkey Point control room from STP employees who were recruiting operators. In act, several experienced operators left Turkey Point around that time and went to work at South Texas.
  • I know personally that the folks at South Texas are doing a lot in their local community to strengthen the technical education infrastructure so they can recruit local talent for the plants. I take my hat off to them! That is definitely the right thing to do! I doubt it will be enough, though. They'll have to recruit some experienced people from the outside

I've mentioned before on the show that the time is ripe for people who want to get into this business. All you have to do is go to the web sites of various nuclear utilities and take a look at the job postings. I'll put some links in the show notes. Hey - if you get a job in the nuclear industry after hearing one of my shows then shoot me an email ad let me know!

Anti-Nuclear Politician Ed Markey Tries to Throw Cold Water on the Optimism

If you've listened to my shows long enough, you've undoubtedly heard about Representative Edward Markey (D-MA). He is without question one of the most rabidly anti-nuclear elected officials in the US government. The day after the NRG Energy COL application, Markey sent a letter to the NRC commissioner questioning the legality of the NRC's practice of using independent consultants to review parts of nuclear plant construction applications.

Markey's quote: "Assuring the safety of nuclear power plants falls well within the definition of an 'inherently governmental' function," Markey wrote. "I am therefore alarmed that this contract may violate the law and ... result in a danger to public health and safety."

Man, he's a pro! He knows all the key words and tricky phrases to get the media all spun up, doesn't he?

Markey's claim is that by outsourcing design reviews, the NRC is deferring its responsibility to external consultants. Again, it's easy to see the fallacy in Markey's argument; every branch of government uses external talent and resources when they don't have the permanent staff to meet the demands. FEMA, the DOD, the Dept of Labor, and the FDA - they all use external consultants and experts when needed (people like college professors, government retirees, and engineering consultants are commonly used by federal government agency). The NRC Office of New Reactors started with about 85 people late last year and is expected to grow to 430 by the end of 2007 to deal with an anticipated onslaught of nuclear reactor applications. And while about 100 government employees will work on each application, they still don't have all the talent needed. I need to mention here that the US taxpayers do not pay one cent to support the effort. The NRC is funded entirely though user fees levied on the beneficiaries of the work - in this case the reactor vendors and utilities. This is simply one more way Ed Markey is trying to slow the process down - on one hand he works as a congressman to prevent the NRC from getting approval to hire the people they need to do the license reviews, then he complains when they outsource work they can't do on their own.

Typical! It sounds like something right out of the play book from the anti-nuclear group the Nuclear Policy Research Institute! If you think that's far fetched just do what I did; Google the terms "Markey NPRI" and see what you find. Interestingly, many of the references have been removed from the host websites, but thanks to Google, you can view the old pages by clicking on the "cached" files.

In response to Markey's letter an NRC spokesman stated: "The NRC has not, and will not, delegate any decision-making authority in the licensing of potential new U.S. nuclear reactors,"

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this!

CNN's Negative Nuclear Campaign

I spend a lot of time in airports, and I've often wondered why all the televisions in all the airports in the United States are constantly tuned to CNN. It's pretty irritating for a guy like me because CNN has a knack for sensationalizing any story related to nuclear energy, and they rarely present the positive sides of the stories.

Over the last few months I've come to expect weekly negative coverage about the earthquake that struck Japan in July. The epicenter was near the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear station, and the non-nuclear parts of the plant suffered some minor damage. If you didn't know anything other than what CNN told you about the event you would believe the reactors were gravely damaged, leaked dangerous radioactivity into the sea, had caught on fire, and will probably never operate again. All this is false, but that's what they've been reporting. The facts are the reactors automatically shut down when the earthquake occurred (as they are supposed to), and while the non-nuclear parts of the plant had some damage, the reactors and safety systems were virtually unscathed. In fact, an independent team of nuclear safety experts from the IAEA inspected the reactors and concluded that plant safety features performed admirably during the earthquake. They also confirmed that the very small amount of radioactivity that sloshed out of the fuel storage pools well below the authorized limits for public health and environmental safety. Damage from the earthquake is limited to those sections of the plant that would not affect the reactor or systems related to reactor safety.

It's worth noting that the earthquake, a major one at 6.8 on the Richter scale, exceeded the level of seismic activity for which the plant was designed. Other building and industrial facilities built to normal commercial standards were completely destroyed. According to one report I read, the nuclear plant was just about the only thing left standing and, as I said, it was almost unaffected. The IAEA team concluded that the safety margins used in building the plant and conservative seismic design measures added robustness to the structures, systems and components that helped them weather the earthquake better than expected.

So in a REAL WORLD major earthquake the Kashiwazaki Kariwa reactors demonstrated the success of a conservative nuclear design philosophy that protected the public, even when the event was worse than the designers envisioned. That sounds like a huge success story to me!

The plant, by the way, is the world's largest nuclear power generating complex with seven reactors and 8.2 GW of electrical output, including the two ABWRs I mentioned earlier in the show.

I want to mention the classical music on this episode is at the request of Marje Hecht who posted some very interesting comments about the last episode on the podcast web page, and she provided a link to an article by Marsha Freeman on the political and economic factors that contributed to the downturn of the nuclear industry in the United States in the 1970's and 1980's. Thank you, Marje. Marje, by the way, is the Managing Editor of 21st Century Science & Technology. Check out their web site.

By the way I get all the music for my podcasts at the Podsafe Music Network. This particular track is called Paul in Love, by Paul, a group of musicians in Austria. Check out the PodSafe Music Network! It's an amazing source for royalty free music by artists who are trying promote their work.

I also received an email from Giorgis from Sydney who feels I am overstating the threat posed by Iran's eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons. I'm trying to keep an open mind about it, but international diplomacy has not yielded any results for several years.

And Orlando Stevenson wrote I to say "thanks" for bringing to light the career opportunities in the nuclear industry. He's passed some information from the show to a family member who may be interested in a career change. Excellent Orlando, thank you!

On the topic of ways to get a positive outcome from the Iran nuclear crises, Stuart Peterson asked "Why not give Iran some demand for Natanz's enrichment services (i.e., sell Iran a few LWRs)? That way, they'll be forced to produce LEU." Great idea, Stuart! Cash speaks louder than swords, and from what I've heard Iran could use all the hard currency they can get! Come to think of it, that's what Russia has been trying to do with the Bushehr nuclear plant, the project has been stalled for months because Iran has not been paying its bills.

I also got a note from my good friend and fellow podcaster Rod Adams of the Atomic Show. While I've been busy with other endeavors Rod has kept nuclear podcasting alive with some absolutely great shows. If you don't listen to the Atomic Show, you should!

Thanks everyone for the emails and comments! Keep them coming! And I'd like to say "Welcome" to new listeners in Slovakia, Serbia, Egypt, and Hawaii. As a reminder, the show web site is at where you can read show transcripts, post comments, send me email, and much, much more.

Have a great week!

John Wheeler