Tag Archives: Nuclear

The Directions of Nuclear Energy

Since a nuclear reactor generated electrical energy for the first time on December 20th, 1951, it has seen varying support in public forums and has undergone ups and downs in terms of support, and of opposition [1]. Just a few years later the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act greatly encouraged the development of the technology in the private sector. However, due to damning accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power suffered a great blow in public perception as people began to see it as a dangerous, horrific thing that could blow up in a mushroom cloud and wipe out millions. The harrowing tales of radiation poisoning caused the governments of many nations to bring their nuclear development to come to a screeching halt due to the outcries of the public.

Fast-forward to present day. While nuclear power for years had enjoyed peaceful development and prosperity by sliding outside of the public eye, its blossoming reputation came crashing down with the waves of the great Tsunami that struck Japan. On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The death toll resulting from the accident is reported to be 5: two of them got swept away in the Tsunami, 1 was trapped in the console of a crane in the earthquake, 1 man suffered from a heart attack, and another died months later in an unconfirmed radiation-related death [2]. To put this in perspective: 20,000 people died from the tsunami and earthquake, making the meltdown account for just 0.025% of the deaths on that tragic day.

Following the events of Fukushima, the Japanese government, under pressure from outraged masses, systematically shut down each and every one of their nuclear power plants. For the first time since 1970, Japan finds itself operating without any nuclear power – power which formerly provided approximately 30% of the nation’s electricity [3]. So where do the Japanese go from here? Where does the world go from here, with regards to nuclear energy?

Halfway around the world, Germany appears to have made up its mind. German voters chose to begin the shutting down of their nuclear power plants, formerly providing 23% of the nation’s power supply, by 2022 [4]. This shocking change is predicted to turn Germany from an energy exporter, into an importer. Their plans are to drastically increase the output of renewable energies, specifically solar despite Germany being a predominantly cloudy nation.

However, while some nations choose to relinquish their nuclear reliance in the wake of the stirring meltdown, nuclear programs are on the rise still in others. China currently operates 14 nuclear power reactors, along with 25 in construction and more being planned [5]. Even in America, which has been shaky about expansion since the traumatizing accident at Three Mile Island, now looks to advance its nuclear program. Even after the Fukushima incident, President Obama publically defended America’s nuclear program; in fact, plans have been made to build 2 reactors in Georgia – the first nuclear reactors to be constructed in America since 1978 [6]. In addition, advancements in technology promise to yield even more growth in the nuclear sector. The Department of Energy has announced plans to provide $450 million towards the engineering and licensing of small modular reactors. These small reactors should have provide approximately 300 megawatts of electricity (roughly enough to power 200,000 homes in the U.S.) as compared to the 1,000 megawatt reactors being built in Georgia [7]. These smaller reactors would better accommodate areas with smaller electricity needs, as well as be part of a flexible power production facility that could scale up quickly if needed.

While the future of nuclear power seems to currently be unclear, it is evident that nations are drawing a line in the sand; some have been scared into phasing nuclear power out completely, while others still seek to develop it as an integral part of their future energy production demands. Only time will tell which path will triumph.

References

[1] – Bain, Alastair S.; et al. (1997). Canada enters the nuclear age: a technical history of Atomic Energy of Canada. Magill-Queen’s University Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-7735-1601-8.

[2] – http://asiancorrespondent.com/53036/the-fukushima-death-toll/

[3] – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-free-japan-braces-for-sever

[4] – http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/05/30/idINIndia-57371820110530

[5] – http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html

[6] – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/business/energy-environment/2-new-reactors-approved-in-georgia.html

[7] – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=small-reactors-bid-to-revive-nuclear-power

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Cold War leftovers provide fuel for the future

During the Cold War, the United States produced about 90 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium, which is 90,000 kg.  A “significant quantity” of plutonium, per the parlance of the IAEA, is 8 kg, making the U.S. equipped with enough material for 11,240 Nagasaki-sized weapons.  In 2000 the government, realizing this quantity to be a bit excessive, announced that it had 50 surplus tonnes of plutonium, and made an agreement with the Russian government to dispose of the surplus.  This agreement, formally termed the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, established plans for both weapons nations to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium.

The U.S. took definitive steps towards fulfilling this obligation last week, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) signed an agreement with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to study the use of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in five of its light water reactors (LWRs). MOX fuel is composed of uranium and plutonium and offers a higher burnup than traditional uranium oxide material.  In the near term, the TVA will partially load its cores with MOX fuel, which will require no significant reactor modifications.  An LWR core can be loaded with up to 50% MOX without requiring appreciable design modifications, though concentrations above 50% require core and facility adaptations due to the higher energy density and different neutronics of plutonium. In addition to burning MOX fuel in the pre-existing LWRs, the TVA has agreed to work on core designs and make environmental and reactor assessments for a next generation PWR that will run on 100% MOX.  The fuel for this reactor will be fabricated at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, located on the DOE’s Savannah River Site.  Construction of this facility is expected to be completed in 2017, and the it should go online shortly thereafter.

The use of MOX in LWRs is a well-established technology, as it has already been implemented in 30 reactors across Europe.  France is the world’s lead user of MOX fuel, contributing to France’s impressive nuclear electricity generation, which accounts for 78% of the nation’s total electricity generation.  For French reactors, the plutonium for MOX fuel is obtained by reprocessing spent fuel, which contains about 1% plutonium.  96% of spent fuel is uranium, which can also be reprocessed and recycled.  If both the plutonium and uranium are recycled from spent fuel, there is a 22% increase in the energy derived from the original uranium.  In addition to increasing uranium utilization, reprocessing spent fuel into MOX has the added benefit of greatly reducing the waste burden of spent fuel.  Seven LWR assemblies are required to produce one MOX assembly, resulting in a significant reduction in the volume, activity and toxicity of the waste.  MOX fuel can also be produced using depleted uranium, which is a waste product of enrichment plants, rather than reprocessed uranium.

The 2000 plutonium disposition agreement between Russia and the U.S. marks a critical step towards disarmament, a treaty obligation that the two nations have long ignored.  Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, five nations are designated as Nuclear Weapons States, including the U.S. and Russia. Article VI of the treaty requires that these states make a “good faith” effort to disarm, an effort that has hitherto been underwhelming. Disarmament gained unprecedented governmental support last year, when newly elected President Obama’s surprisingly aggressive disarmament rhetoric raised eyebrows around the world.  His clear statement that, “America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons,” initiated a fresh round of disarmament dialogue, and it seems has finally spurred some action.

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America’s Chernobyl: NRC Impact

In the mid-1960s, government leaders and prominent environmentalists began advocating nuclear power as a viable solution to the growing concern of pollution. As of 2008, the number of effectively operating nuclear power plants has dwindled; the last successful reactor unit was completed in 1996. In 1974 President Nixon predicted we’d have 1,000 commercial nuclear reactors operating by the end of the century. But no more than 250 were ever ordered, only 170 filed for permits, just 130 opened, and 104 remain. What happened? The Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident happened; and it temporarily stifled the nuclear industry.

In early 1979, citizens of Middletown, Pennsylvania, witnessed the worst nuclear accident in United States history. The Three Mile Island Generating Station (TMI) experienced a partial core meltdown, igniting public hysteria surrounding nuclear radiation. Starting on March 28, pumps in the turbine building responsible for delivering water to the steam generators unexpectedly shut down. Without the steady supply of heated water, the turbines tripped, bringing the electricity production to a halt. Heat and pressure escalated in the main system causing the pilot-operated release valve to open. But the release valve failed to close promptly, enabling vital cooling water to escape. Without cooling water, the reactor core of the nuclear plant melted, releasing harmful contaminants in the form of radiation. Picture a car’s radiator melting, but instead of leaking engine oil, debilitating radiation is emitted.

The accident realized the worst fears of federal government agencies and generated anxious speculation among local residents. Ultimately, the accident brought intense scrutiny upon the administration responsible for directing the industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The 1974 Energy Reorganization Act gave birth to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC succeeded the Atomic Energy Commission in the hope that the agency would more strictly regulate its nuclear energy rather than promote it. However, the NRC retained the structural characteristic of their predecessor and implemented only cosmetic changes. NRC commissioners were soon accused of harboring the same permissive attitudes toward the nuclear industry. Furthermore, with the oil crisis weighing heavy on American shoulders, President Jimmy Carter asked the NRC to streamline its licensing process. The process of building a nuclear power plant may take up to 10 years, depending of the feasibility of obtaining an operations license and contracts. Government pressure gave way to even more complacency among commissioners. The unseen problems manifested themselves at TMI and brought nuclear energy production to a screeching halt. Fear of a reoccurrence led utility and operation energy companies to bail on nuclear power until the sites were safely regulated.

But nuclear power still holds promise, especially in light of the global warming crises. Today, the hysteria generated by TMI has likely taken a backseat to obstacles such as waste minimization and storage. Yet the importance of maintaining nuclear plants will always be present if nuclear power emerges as a significant energy contributor. Thus, examining the debacle at Three Mile Island has a newfound importance. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects to receive numerous applications to build nuclear power plants in upcoming years because of the excessive oil and gas prices.  The burgeoning interest in nuclear energy underscores the significance of an accident such as Three Mile Island.  Using history as a teaching tool, the NRC will more strictly implement policy to avoid a recurrence.  Ultimately, NRC regulation on plant design and operator licensing was not sufficient to prevent the Three Mile Island accident. Although mechanical glitches and operator indiscretion caused the accident, the NRC could have prevented TMI by more effectively regulating design standards and operating qualification procedures. In response to the 1970s oil crisis, energy companies explored nuclear power as a profitable alternative to fossil fuels. At the onset of the 1980s, the accident at TMI, compounded with a drop in oil prices, stymied the nuclear industry. Today, Americans begin reassessing their reliance on fossil fuels, causing nuclear power to resurface as a viable energy alternative, especially if the federal government puts a cap on carbon emissions. The increase of nuclear power in the U.S. energy portfolio has been publicly endorsed by government. Thus, with the addition of political advocacy, nuclear power can potentially become an integral part of U.S. energy consumption. However, another accident like Three Mile Island would most likely devastate the nuclear industry and give rise to other sources of alternative energy such as wind, solar and biofuels which lack infrastructure. Therefore, the NRC’s regulation of the nuclear industry, among other factors, controls the destiny of nuclear power.

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Small Nuclear, Coming Soon

No new nuclear power plants have been constructed in the US since the 1980s. Despite this, nuclear energy continues to be touted as a critical element of reducing carbon emissions. This blog has several excited posts on nuclear energy, including  President Obama’s  announcing a tripling of federal guarantees for new plant financing and a recap of Bill Gates’ comments at the TED conference.  Several companies are positioning themselves to market smaller, self contained, standardized and portable reactors that, if the nuclear electricity market heats up, could also help meet an increase in demand through modularization.

The technology is not new,  but if taking the form of smaller battery-style reactors, can match some elements that that larger plants struggle with.  A partial list of the  obstacles that small battery style reactors could help overcome include:

  • huge financing amounts that prohibit new plants or plant expansion
  • deep regulatory hurdles
  • the perennially low priority problem of where to store waste
  • ample amounts of coolant, typically another scarce resource – water
  • and lingering fear of accidents that lead to local or even national NIMBYism

Considering the difficulty of financing a nuclear reactor, take the example of the recent decision by the San Antonio utility’s consideration of the South Texas Project’s (STP) planned expansion. San Antonio has some of the cheapest rates of electricity for a large city, in large part to their current share of the STP plant and its cheap per kWh rates, which lead a number of electricity intense employers and manufacturers to expand or open new facilities like data centers there. For a number of years San Antonio was interested in expanding that capacity, but eventually cost escalation and the issue of financing such a large amount at once became more than that utility could bear. So they lowered their commitment share on the expansion from 50% to 7.6%. A smaller reactor could pose more manageable for the utility to finance, at a fraction of the cost, and could therefore be more acceptable.

Small, automated, self-contained and modular systems manufactured in a licensed plant (that has manufactured nuclear submarine powerplants for decades, for example) may more readily pass the onerous and frequently changing regulatory structure for nuclear power, another costly obstacle.

Self contained reactors under development are designed with built in lifespans of 30 to 60 years, with the fuel needed for the development contained inside. While while does not obviate the outstanding questions of what to do long term with spent fuel and nuclear waste, the smaller size and sealed characteristic do compartmentalize the waste issue per reactor, which appears to be the de-facto national policy for handling nuclear waste until a more permanent solution can be politically agreed upon.

Some of the newer smaller systems are even air cooled, like the Babcock & Wilcox mPower reactor, which would allow for deployment in water scarce regions like the southwestern states.

Lastly, while no system is fail-proof, the smaller units lessen the scope of damage that could occur from an accident, and again their self contained structure is intended in part to minimize error and contain a potential accident. While this may not assuage all opponents, it may make it more feasible to locate them on smaller sites or with less opposition.

Examples of small, battery style reactors under development (organized by decreasing size) include:

  • The Small, Sealed, Transportable, Antonymous, Reactor SSTAR being developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Labratory in the US.
  • The Babcock & Wilcox mPower, set for reactor design approval in 2012, and possible deployment in 2018.
  • the GE PRISM, set to submit for design approval in 2011.
  • the Westinghouse and their parent company Toshiba’s micro reactor the 4S: Super-safe, Small, and Simple

Small reactors still have significant obstacles, including the long term waste issue, well entrenched electricity generation competitors, and the issue of security for any reactor, including the possible byproduct of breeder style reactors – plutonium. Yet despite these detractors, small reactors have been used on military ships for decades. Given time and the proper due diligence, perhaps development of these technologies will bring dispersed, reliable, carbon free energy to augment the electricity system as it grows to meet increasing need.


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Obama’s Nuclear Plan

The Obama administration this week unveiled its plan to “jumpstart”  the U.S. nuclear power industry by awarding U.S. government financing for nuclear reactors.

Under the plan, the Department of Energy will provide $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to Southern Company for the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, which will generate approximately 2200 megawatt hours of electricity annually, once the plants are up and running.  (source) It’s enough energy to power 550,000 homes (says the POTUS).  This is a strong step toward increased nuclear energy production after 30-year hiatus.  It suggests that  U.S. policymakers finally acknowledge the need for more nuclear power resources, despite environmental opposition and the major financial investments.

Yet at the same time, the Obama administration has pulled the plug on an important component to the equation for successful nuclear plant construction: where to store increased nuclear waste.

For more than decade the federal government has been working to create a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But that plan has been bogged down in political wrangling, thanks in large part to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as well as decision by the Obama administration in 2009 to de-fund the project. (source) The FY 2011 federal budget scraps all funding for the project, despite billions already spent.  The DOE budget explains: “The Administration has determined that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is not a workable option for a nuclear waste repository and will discontinue its program to construct a repository at the mountain in 2010.”

It seems disingenuous to hail a decision to award loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction and at the same time, completely rule out a location for radioactive waste storage that’s been years in the making at the cost of billions.

Of course, I’m counting chickens before they are hatched.  It could take another decade for these two reactors to actually come online, thanks to the construction and regulatory requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  It was the Bush administration that originally signed 2005 energy law that created the DOE’s loan guarantee program. In that time, the agency has received dozens of applications, but no grants have been awarded for nuclear plant construction.  The Wall Street Journal reported that DOE received 21 applications in 2008 for more than $121 Billion in loans. (The program is currently funded at about $18 Billion). What’s remarkable is that if all 21 applications were approved and the subsequent plants were online tomorrow, it could increase energy production by up to 33 percent.

I applaud the push to increase energy output, particularly if nuclear reactors can generate large amounts of electricity without the nasty emissions.  However, President Obama needs to be consistent in his push for cleaner energy – that includes funding the mechanism for storing nuclear waste in spite of the NIMBY lobby.

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Is Nuclear the Solution?

Since it has become trendy to be ‘green,’ talk of reducing greenhouse gases, eliminating carbon emissions, living sustainably, and getting off coal and imported oil has been on the rise among everyone from college professors to hippies for years now. As people continue to acknowledge real concerns about the issues surrounding power generation, the government is taking actions to increase the amount of energy generated from renewable sources.

One source that has been receiving much attention lately is nuclear power. Whether this is truly a renewable energy source is up for debate, and for years the argument against nuclear has revolved around the expensive cost of building nuclear plants, concerns about safety, and the question of how to store the spent nuclear fuel. While most of the country’s nuclear power plants came online in the 70’s and 80’s, President Obama has recently mentioned nuclear power, and even established a commission to develop a long-term nuclear energy strategy and deal with these concerns. This week Obama will announce his plans to follow through with his State of the Union remarks with an additional$36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of at least one new nuclear plant in Georgia. Site preparation has already begun, and construction approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected by early 2012.

Nuclear power, unlike coal and natural gas, releases no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. This is one reason why many pro-nuclear environmentalists are pushing for the construction of new plants, which can cost between $8 and $10 billion, and have a tendency to go over budget. President Obama’s budget could potentially provide for six or seven new plants, enough to provide electricity to millions of homes across the country. Although the up-front cost of nuclear plants is high, they produce electricity that is cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels and the plants are more efficient. There are currently 104 nuclear power plants in the country that produce 20% of the nation’s electricity (source).

The fact that nuclear power involves mining uranium, using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, and permanently storing spent nuclear fuel probably means that it is not the best way to permanently meet our nation’s energy needs. It takes a decade for nuclear waste to become 1,000 times less radioactive than immediately post-fission, and 500 years for the waste to be less radioactive than the original uranium (source). Realistically, it will take decades to achieve a completely renewable energy portfolio, if it is even possible. Until our grid can completely incorporate wind, geothermal, solar, hydroelectric, and other forms of energy, we need a solution that is less harmful to the planet than mining and burning coal. Perhaps nuclear power is that in-between step.

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Obama’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Nuclear Waste Fuels the Nuclear (Debate) Revival

On January 29, President Obama announced the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel of policymakers, scholars, and industry representatives organized to “conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”

Despite the lofty and broad goals for the panel, as outlined by the Obama administration and the DOE, it seems that the panel is born from the outcry over the scuttling of Yucca Mountain. However, it also appears that the “comprehensive review” of disposal options is exclusive of Yucca Mountain, as panel member Pete Dominici, a former New Mexico senator, said of Yucca Mountain: “It’s like it doesn’t exist, so let’s get on with it.” Panel members expect to find options that they call “much more attractive” than Yucca Mountain.

Opposition to the panel is fronted by Sen. John McCain, a supporter of the Yucca Mountain project, who stated his concern regarding the usefulness of the commission’s recommendations if it does not consider Yucca Mountain. However, opposition to the panel focused on issues outside of Yucca Mountain as well. Critics cite the lack of panel members with technical backgrounds, as 11 of the 15 panel members fall into the policymaker or industry executive categories.

Support for the panel seems mostly conditional, with various organizations backing the formation of the panel while still opposing existing or new nuclear policy.

The White House memo ordering the DOE to form the panel also suggested that the panel’s “review should include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization, and the minimization of materials derived from nuclear activities in a manner consistent with U.S. nonproliferation goals,” which could be interpreted as a go-ahead for the panel to reopen serious discussion of reprocessing.

The motivations and usefulness of the panel can only be speculated for the next 18-24 months. It is equally difficult to say whether the “long overdue expansion of nuclear energy” will materialize, but it is clear that the recent developments in nuclear energy policy, including the formation of this panel, the increase in loan guarantees for new reactors, and the funding cuts for Yucca Mountain among others, have revived the debate over the role that nuclear power will play in America’s energy future.

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