Nuclear Newsreel, Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nuclear Power

Argentina begins construction of world’s first SMR (Small Modular Reactor; in this case, VERY small reactor). It’s only 25 MW, and in fact is meant to be a pilot project to build an actual-size SMR. Notably, unlike the advanced SMR designs most industry boosters want to pretend are the wave of the future, this one is based on existing Pressurized Water Reactor technology. It’s not much more than a tiny version of the Westinghouse AP 1000 reactor, and thus is hard to see as a harbinger of anything. Those advanced, “inherently safe” SMR reactor designs? Guess we’ll have to wait a little longer–like perhaps forever–to see construction begin on one of those.

fukushimabookNew book from UCS warns regulators’ complacency could lead to Fukushima in the U.S. UCS says that the NRC hasn’t learned the lessons of Fukushima and has been slow to implement even the few regulatory changes it has decided to require. As co-author Dr. Ed Lyman puts it, “The NRC hasn’t heeded all the lessons of Fukushima and is slow-walking post-Fukushima regulatory changes,” said Lyman, a physicist. “Likewise, the agency has failed to address a number of longstanding threats, including the risks of overcrowded spent fuel pools, unenforced fire protection standards, and inadequate emergency planning.”

And UCS’ David Lochbaum, as usual, gets right to the point: “Fukushima wasn’t a ‘Japanese’ nuclear accident,” said Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked in the industry for 17 years before joining the UCS staff. “It was an accident that happened to occur in Japan. Japanese and U.S. regulators share the same mindset that severe, supposedly ‘low probability’ accidents are unlikely and therefore it is not worth the time and money to protect plants from them.”

“How many Fukushimas will we have to go through before NRC commissioners get it through their heads that it could happen here?” Lochbaum concluded.

Nuclear economics at work: Soaring clean-up/decommissioning costs at UK’s Sellafield nuclear mess reach $115 Billion. That’s a lot of money to clean up after not all that much output from the UK’s first major nuclear facility. In the end, will the UK actually lose money on its nuclear program? Members of Parliament are angry about the rising costs, and are threatening to fire the consortium doing the work. Their problem is that the consortium doesn’t really have any competitors that might be able to come in and do the job any better.

FirstEnergy is betting $600 million that it can turn troubled Davis-Besse reactor around. We’re betting it can’t. Most of that money will go toward a steam generator replacement just beginning this month. While some utilities have been able to replace their generators with little problem, botched replacement jobs at San Onofre and Crystal River resulted in permanent shutdowns of those reactors. There is little in Davis-Besse’s history to suggest they’ll get the job done right and be able to run that reactor until 2037 as the utility currently plans.

Utilities and Clean Energy

Three perspectives on the future of electric utilities. Very interesting discussion with Ron Binz, former chair of Colorado’s Public Utility Commission and nominee to be the next head of FERC until fossil fuel and nuclear interests ganged up on him and forced President Obama to withdraw his name; Jim Rogers, outgoing CEO of Duke Energy; and Mike Chesser, former CEO of Great Plains Energy and Kansas City Power & Light.

All three view this as a time of great transition for the electric utility industry, even though the industry itself seems slow to grasp its situation. Perhaps it’s easier to understand the historical transformation beginning to take place if you, as these three, are not actively working in the industry anymore. But Binz and Rogers have the most informative perspectives.

Rogers points out that for the first time, electricity demand is flat (and even shrinking) even while economic productivity is increasing. “There’s been a decoupling of the growth and demand for electricity from growth in GDP for the first time in our history.” Rogers said. “And it’s going to have profound implications for the way forward.”

Rogers also notes that the future of the nation’s power supplies will be made by conscious decision, not just a continuation of what has gone on before: “By 2050, virtually every power plant in this country, with the exception of our hydro plants–assuming they don’t extend the license for nuclear from 60 years to 80 years–are going to be retired and replaced,” Rogers said. “It’s almost a virtual blank sheet of paper in terms of how do we design the generation next going forward.”

Both Binz and Rogers believe the electric grid will increasingly resemble the Internet. Says Rogers, “the Internet of everything will transform the use of electricity in the United States….The simple fact that Google acquired Nest tells you where it’s going. Because at the end of the day, what Nest is going to do is write the software for every device within the home, and that’s going to lead to an optimization of the use of electricity within every home and — I suspect—every business.”

Binz agrees, saying the power supply will be low-carbon and the grid will be connected in much the same way the Internet is today. He adds that every device in the network—“every refrigerator, every hot water heater, every generating plant, every steel mill”—communicates with every other device, and is operated by a central orchestrator (i.e., the electric utility) “who makes all of this work together.”

The grid of the future is “effectively a very giant battery,” according to Binz, from which “you can put in power or take out power” as needed.

“Today’s utilities are a long way from that reality,” Binz acknowledges. The problem is that “today’s regulation gives very little incentive to utilities to evolve in the way society needs for them to evolve.” Binz emphasized that utilities shift their business models according to regulatory incentives.

It will be up to activists, of course (you’re not expecting the utilities or their regulators to do it themselves, are you?), to ensure that the regulatory incentives to build a nuclear-free carbon-free power supply on that blank sheet of paper and construct a grid capable of handling that power supply are in place as quickly and effectively as possible.

Electric grid as terror target. The Wall Street Journal article we reported on last week about an alleged terrorist attack on a Silicon Valley electric substation is starting to gain interest on Capitol Hill, and now outside Washington as the implications of a massive shutdown of the electrical grid–and just how easy it may be for terrorists to accomplish that–become apparent. But what no article has yet mentioned was the concern we expressed in these pages: a long-term shutdown of a substantial portion of the electrical grid would lead to offsite power loss to dozens of nuclear reactors. Offsite power loss is ultimately what caused Fukushima. Offsite power loss has been identified by the NRC as probably the most severe accident scenario in terms of consequences. The possibility of dozens of simultaneous meltdowns is either just too horrific for journalists and regulators to consider, or they are abdicating their responsibility by ignoring the issue. Most likely, both are factors. It’s time that both journalists and regulators woke up to the real implications of this story.

Japan looks at dozens of new geothermal power plants. This is an article written for potential investors, so it’s a little bit on the hype side of things for our comfort. But the reality is that the continued shutdown of Japanese reactors is leading to a lot of new investment in renewable energy sources in Japan as the inevitable power sources of the future, and Japan has a lot of potential geothermal resources to tap.

AP: North Carolina Governor/regulators have been protecting Duke Energy from lawsuits & regulations. One result: the coal ash spill into the Dan River. Another, so far only threatened result: weakening of state renewable energy and net metering standards, which the current CEO of Duke is vigorously working to accomplish.

Missouri utilities are balking at implementing renewable energy; state could fall far short of voter-approved goal. Missouri voters made clear in a referendum five years ago that they want more renewable energy in the state. But the utilities there are doing everything possible to undermine the law; unfortunately, the Missouri government has been little help so far.

Inside Washington

It appears that S. 1240, the Senate Energy Committee’s Mobile Chernobyl radioactive waste bill, is on the fast track to nowhere. The bill was originally introduced by Sens. Wyden, Murkowski, Feinstein and Alexander at the beginning of the session and would have encouraged “interim” storage of high-level radioactive waste (and the accompanying mass transportation program) and implemented some of the recommendations of the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on radwaste policy issues.

But Sen. Wyden apparently got cold feet about some of the provisions in the bill, and has now left the chairmanship of the committee. Incoming chair Mary Landrieu (D-LA) hasn’t expressed much interest in the bill, at least publicly.

And now we hear that an informal poll of committee members resulted in more Nay votes than Aye votes, meaning that the bill would be unlikely to even make it out of committee. Thus, it won’t be brought up this session.

That’s basically good news; the bad news is that many, if not most, of the “Nay” votes are likely because the bill isn’t awful enough. Some, especially on the GOP side, still want a bill that would re-open Yucca Mountain as a waste site regardless of the science that says the site is unsuitable. Despite decades of working on the issue–and a lot of victories–it’s clear that activists still have a lot of work to do to educate their legislators on radioactive waste issues. There is plenty of information about S. 1240 and the Mobile Chernobyl concept on NIRS’ website here:

Michael Mariotte


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