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Nuclear Energy in the U.S. is Not Dead, Yet

Lots of people in the US want to write the obituary of the nuclear energy industry in the US.  Among their reasons the high cost of new reactors, the low price of natural gas, and a skeptical public spooked by the shadow of Fukushima.

EIS for PPL’s new reactor at Blue Bend

If imminent demise was on the event horizon for nuclear energy, then why would PPL be still in pursuit of a combined license for a new 1600 MW Areva EPR at its Bell Bend site in Pennsylvania.  This week the NRC announced that it had released for comment a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the new reactor. The preliminary NRC staff recommendation, based on the EIS, is that the license should be granted to the utility.

The agency will conduct a separate safety review and a hearing will be held before the Commission makes a decision on the license.

Even so a decision to build a reactor is many years away. Additionally, a separate business unit spun off from PPL would actually take on the financial risk of the project. Finally, there is the question of whether the Areva 1600 MW EPR would actually be selected to built. That firm halted its design review with the NRC and without the agency’s safety stamp of approval, PPL can’t build with that vendor’s technology.

It’s speculative at best, but there is certainly a plausible basis for the idea that the firm may change its reference design to a newly approved GE ESBWR especially since it already has a GE BWR on site.

Duke Energy “optimistic” about building Lee plant

According to a news report in a Charlotte, NC, business journal, Duke Energy is closely watching the progress of construction of four Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at sites in Georgia and South Carolina. Chris Fallon, Duke Energy VP for Nuclear Development, told the journal that the firm wants to learn how to control costs for the construction of two similar reactors at the Lee Nuclear Station in Gaffney, South Carolina.

Fallon’s optimistic comments about continued progress towards breaking ground for the twin AP1000s planned for the site is at odds with prior “prudent investor” type statements from executives of the giant utility. The general line has been that while Duke is interested in nuclear, given current low natural gas prices, it isn’t setting a date to start work on the Lee site.

According to the NRC schedule for issuing a combined license for the plants, a decision could come from the agency as early as summer 2016.

Fallon thinks that as EPA requirements for clean energy, and a drive to reduce carbon emissions, settle out that states, including North and South Carolina, will be much more interested in the nuclear energy option.

The two new reactors could cost about $6.5 billion each. However, Fallon is betting that improvements in the nuclear energy supply chain resulting from the four units of the same design that are under construction, will result in lower costs for the two planned units at the Lee site.

Green groups seek to overturn license for Ameren’s Callaway reactor

Not taking “yes” for an answer when it comes to extending the license for a nuclear reactor seems to be a default response from green groups. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is no exception to this rule having filed a federal lawsuit over the NRC’s decision to renew the license for Ameren’s Callaway nuclear reactor for another 20 years.

The NRC defended its decision saying that the reactor met all of the agency’s requirements for environmental protection and safety of operations.

Ameren said that it is confident the NRC will stand by its decision of March of this year. The utility had expected the license renewal in December 2014, but the NRC took more time to consider its basis for the decision when the green group threatened to file the lawsuit it finally brought this week. The current license runs out in 2024 so the 20-year extension goes until 2044.

The green group cites problems it sees with long-terms storage of spent nuclear fuel at the Ameren facility. It disputes the legality of the NRC’s “waste confidence decision” which allows utilities to store spent fuel at reactors until a permanent geologic or other interim repository is available.

Also, in a March 2014 TV interview, the green group compared the risks of the Ameren site to Japan’s Fukushima disaster. Also, it claimed the spent fuel stored at the site could catch on fire.

The so-called threat of spent fuel catching fire has been a staple of anti-nuclear rhetoric since the Fukushima event. However, all of it was directed at the spent fuel pool at Fukushima reactor #4 which turned out to have retained all of its water despite the earthquake.

There is no way spent fuel covered with water can catch fire. Fuel moved to dry storage has cooled off sufficiently, usually for a period of 5-7 years in wet storage, to prevent such an occurrence.

The Missouri green group has also opposed plans by Ameren to partner with Westinghouse to license and build a 225 MW small modular reactor at the Callway site.  Those plans are on hold at this time since the firm shuttered most of its SMR work in February 2014.

Westinghouse is continuing to explore SMR opportunities by sponsoring work in Missouri on supply chain issues and also is continuing its licensing work for the design at the NRC.

Dan Yurman's picture

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 28, 2015 10:41 am GMT

Dan, reading about Ameren is infuriating. Pseudo-green antinuclear groups should not only be held accountable for legal expenses when an energy company prevails in legal action – they should be held accountable for a plant’s downtime. I have a feeling there would be a remarkable improvement in nuclear’s “LCOE”.

Time to play hardball.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Apr 28, 2015 1:28 pm GMT

It’s the same old strategy of trying to use scare tactics over spent nuclear fuel to pull the plug on reactor licensing.  The NRC has answered the US Court of Appeals with the revised Waste Confidence Rule.  

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 29, 2015 3:53 pm GMT

Dan,

Nuclear is doing well in most of the rest of the world. Excerpt from:

http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/368081/russian-gas-exports-and-western-encroachments-russia

INCREASED RUSSIAN NUCLEAR PLANT SALES

Russian has sold a large number of nuclear reactors to various nations during the last quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015, which indicates Russia is doing business as usual, despite sanctions. Is this how “isolating Russia” is meant to work?

Country………. Qty………Capacity, MW……..Cap. Cost, $billion

Turkey………….4…………..1200…………………..20

Jordan………….2…………..1000…………………..10

Hungary……….2……………1200…………………..10.6

Iran……………..9……………1000…………………..45

Egypt……………4……………1200………………….20

India……………12…………..1000………………….40

China…………..2……………1000…………………..20

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 30, 2015 8:41 am GMT

Mike – this is the standard antinuclear nonsense anyone can find at greenpeace.org. If you’re interested, here are some facts:

On March 13, 2013, Terry M. Dinan, senior advisor at the Congressional Budget Office, testified before the Subcommittee on Energy of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives that federal energy tax subsidies would cost $16.4 billion that fiscal year, broken down as follows:

  1. Renewable energy: $7.3 billion (45 percent)
  2. Energy efficiency: $4.8 billion (29 percent)
  3. Fossil fuels: $3.2 billion (20 percent)
  4. Nuclear energy: $1.1 billion (7 percent)

We’re spending 26 times as much on solar and wind as on nuclear, based on their actual clean energy contribution. So if nuclear subsidies are “luxurious”, what adjective do you suggest to describe those of renewable energy?

The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act is not a subsidy. In case of an accident it covers damages which are not covered under an energy company’s primary insurance. It has yet to pay out one dime.

Nuclear energy is as safe or safer than any other form of energy available.  No member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.  In fact, recent studies have shown that it is safer to work in a nuclear power plant than an office.

http://www.nuclearconnect.org/know-nuclear/talking-nuclear/top-10-myths-about-nuclear-energy

• Idaho National Laboratory, with an annual budget of $1 billion, is the only lab under the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science, and Technology. The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has an annual budget of $271 million. We’re spending roughly the same amount for R&D on solar and wind as on nuclear, as a proportion of the energy we get back.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 29, 2015 11:34 pm GMT

How does price Anderson qualify as a subsidy?  There are no taxpayer dollars involved.  The industry still obtains liability insurance through a dozen different underwriters.   Price Anderson brings an out control tort law system back into balance, as is done for air travel. 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 30, 2015 5:50 am GMT

The so-called threat of spent fuel catching fire has been a staple of anti-nuclear rhetoric since the Fukushima event. However, all of it was directed at the spent fuel pool at Fukushima reactor #4 which turned out to have retained all of its water despite the earthquake.

There is no way spent fuel covered with water can catch fire. Fuel moved to dry storage has cooled off sufficiently, usually for a period of 5-7 years in wet storage, to prevent such an occurrence.”

What the second paragraph implies is that there is a threat in the period that it is covered in water.

And the fact that the spent fuel pool at Fukushioma reactor #4 turned out to have retained all of its water despite the earthquake is far from a persuasive argument that there was no threat of it losing its water.

Now, a weak argument being present is no proof that a stronger argument is unavailable, but nuclear advocates do not do themselves a service if they rely on the level of argument that is merely strong enough to persuade those already supportive of nuclear power, when that is not the focus of the public opinion battle ground.

The fear that is fueled by Fukushima is the fear that corporate HQ CYA behavior succeeds in covering up design flaws. Soothing that fear is a substantial PR challenge, given the number of people who will have experienced corporate HQ CYA behavior and its negative consequences in the course of their lives.

That is part of why some people find passive failsafe designs so appealing. If there is a system that will not create a catastrophe no matter how badly mismanaged by corporate HQ, so that total corporate bungling will result in a “financial catastrophe” at most, and not a human or environmental one, then its credible to proclaim that the corporate SOBs will be kept in check by making them pay the cost of their mess, if investigation after an incident shows that their negligence or attempted cover-up was responsible for the incident.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 30, 2015 6:02 am GMT

It’s the same old strategy of trying to use scare tactics over spent nuclear fuel to pull the plug on reactor licensing.  The NRC has answered the US Court of Appeals with the revised Waste Confidence Rule.”

The general strategy is even older than that: attack an opponent where they are vulnerable:

It disputes the legality of the NRC’s “waste confidence decision” which allows utilities to store spent fuel at reactors until a permanent geologic or other interim repository is available.”

… is approving based on a stop-gap solution on the assumption that eventually a permanent solution will become availble. “We will put it into permanent storage when there is a permanent storage site to put it in” is shaky ground in the PR battle.

They’ll raise a stink about that in part because whether or not the current legal basis for that decision is sound is not the end-game for them … if it is currently legal, they will use the stink that they raise over the issue to fund raise to try to get the law changed.

Fortunately, where it is most urgent that new nuclear plants be rolled out is here in China, and to the extent that pressure for environmental action influences public policy here, the focus is on air quality. And China is also pursuing advanced technology fuel cycles, especially the thorium breeder reactor technology that offers hopes of substantial export sales without exciting fears of nuclear weapons technology proliferation.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 30, 2015 5:55 pm GMT

Bruce, contrary to popular mythology, the Fukushima accident was not the result of a design flaw or mismanaged corporate bureaucracy – it was the result of of the strongest earthquake in Japan in 1,400 years, and the tsunami which followed. The plant was not designed to withstand either. You could argue that nuclear facilities should be designed to survive 50,000-year earthquakes, but given their 60-80 year lifetime and the progress of global warming such a policy would be recklessly overcautious. There’s no evidence it didn’t perform to spec.

Like all nuclear plants, it was also not designed to survive a direct hit by an asteroid, nor a volcanic eruption beneath it. The accident qualifies as a quintessential black swan event, where public reaction is the result of “psychological biases that blind people, individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.”

Japan’s Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency initially declared the Fukushima accident as Level 5 on INES scale – an accident with wider consequences, the same level as Three Mile Island in 1979 – but after new estimates of radioactive releases in the first few days of the accident NISA reclassified it as level 7, while making it clear that radioactive releases were about one-tenth of Chernobyl’s. The design basis acceleration for both Fukushima plants had been upgraded in 2008, and is now quoted at horizontal 441-489 Gal for Daiichi and 415-434 Gal for Daini. The interim recorded data for both plants shows that 550 Gal was the maximum for Daiichi, in the foundation of unit 2 (other figures 281-548 Gal), and 254 Gal was maximum for Daini. Units 2, 3 and 5 exceeded their maximum response acceleration design basis in E-W direction by about 20%. Recording was over 130-150 seconds. (Ground acceleration was around 2000 Gal a few kilometres north, on sediments.)

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on May 2, 2015 6:18 am GMT

Bruce, contrary to popular mythology, the Fukushima accident was not the result of a design flaw or mismanaged corporate bureaucracy – it was the result of of the strongest earthquake in Japan in 1,400 years, and the tsunami which followed. The plant was not designed to withstand either. You could argue that nuclear facilities should be designed to survive 50,000-year earthquakes, but given their 60-80 year lifetime and the progress of global warming such a policy would be recklessly overcautious. There’s no evidence it didn’t perform to spec.”

There is an empirical flaw in this argument. The fact that a particular earthquake triggered a particular tsunami does not imply that the height of the tsunami is as unlikely as that particular earthquake was. It may have been a 1-in-20,000 year or 1-in-50,000 year earthquake, but, as Walter notes below, it was a 1-in-500 year tsunami.

And, yes, of course if we roll out the number of nuclear power plants for nuclear power to play an important role in producing no/low GHG electrical power, we need to insist that they be designed against major 1-in-500 year events. People are risk averse, and when you start looking at the expected annual incidence of 1-in-500 year events for hundreds of nuclear power plants, its at the expected frequency where people start taking out property and casualty insurance.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 2, 2015 3:01 pm GMT

Bruce, I’m not sure how an argument can have an empirical flaw, but again – there was no design flaw at Fukushima Daichi. It was designed to a standard which doesn’t satisfy your comfort level for safety.

That’s fine, there are people who won’t fly on commercial jets because they don’t consider them safe enough. My point is that they’re missing the forest for the trees – that we can’t take comfort in the fact that global warming isn’t an incalculably more serious problem just because it doesn’t lead on the evening news.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 2, 2015 3:02 pm GMT

Walter, what were the warning markers?

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 2, 2015 3:59 pm GMT

Bob – For example.

“The tsunami stones are warnings across generations, telling descendants to avoid the same suffering of their ancestors,” said Itoko Kitahara, a specialist in the history of natural disasters at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “Some places heeded these lessons of the past, but many didn’t.”

The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a common sight along Japan’s northeastern shore, which bore the brunt of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left almost 29,000 people dead or missing.

 

 

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