Category Archives: Spent nuclear fuel reprocessing

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The View from Vermont

By Howard Shaffer

Since the last The View From Vermont post by Meredith Angwin on February 21, our nuclear world has been changed forever by the tragedy in Japan and the events at Fukushima. Many of us who are members of the American Nuclear Society have devoted untold hours to following the events and communicating with the media, including the local media here in Vermont. Still, some in Vermont seemed unaffected by the crisis.

Still the same

On March 29, Meredith participated in a debate at a central Vermont high school. I accompanied her to assist. Her opponent was James Moore, of Vermont Public Interest Research Group. The debate was scheduled at the conclusion of a high school class project, and students, faculty, parents, and community members attended. In their opening statements, Meredith spent time talking about what had happened at Fukushima, while Mr. Moore tried to link Fukushima to Vermont Yankee’s tritium leaks that occurred last year. Later, during the question-and-answer period, there were no questions on Japan. Afterward, one adult commented to Meredith that she had spent too much time talking about Fukushima:  “It’s not here,” he had said. I, too, had spoken with two audience members, who were concerned only about the functioning of Vermont Yankee’s reactor containment.

Days later, on April 4, I spoke at a mid-state Rotary club about issues affecting Vermont Yankee and Fukushima. There were no questions about them. Instead, there was interest in state events and about high-level waste, which the local nuclear opponents have been harping about for years.

The opponents have always looked for opportunities to organize an event, and they have seized on what happened at Fukushima. For example, on Sunday, March 20, several anti-nuclear organizations held a “vigil” outside the Vermont Yankee gate, in sympathy for Japan. It was publicized as a silent vigil, with “mourners” to be dressed in black. Caven Stone, a Dartmouth graduate student, and I attended the vigil. About 600 people from several states were there, many in costume,  and some wearing death masks.

We were directed to line up silently on the sidewalk, extending from Vermont Yankee’s gate. After an hour, the vigil was ended and the crowd crossed over to an elementary school parking lot, to gather around for a few speeches and statements. All of the speeches and statements were about Vermont Yankee and the Fukushima plants. There was not one word about the devastating loss of life in Japan due to the earthquake and tsunami.

While the flurry of local media interest in Japan’s event has died down, nuclear opponents are keeping up their drumbeat of letters and op-eds.

Changes

On March 10, commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted, after a five year review by the NRC, to extend Vermont Yankee’s operating license for 20 years. The next day is when the tsunami hit Japan and the plants at Fukushima. Of course, Vermont Yankee’s opponents immediately declared that the license extension should be delayed. (Did we expect anything less?) But the good news is that the NRC delivered the license letter to Vermont Yankee, after only a few days’ delay, due to the NRC staff’s involvement with the Fukushima event.

A few months ago, the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel held its first meeting under the new administration, chaired by the new Department of Public Service commissioner, appointed by the new governor, Peter Shumlin. The panel met on February 22 in Vernon, across the road from Vermont Yankee. It was a highly disciplined meeting, unlike some past circuses. The two legislative members of the panel who had disrupted past meetings had been reappointed. They did not disrupt the meeting of Shumlin’s new appointee the way they had disrupted meetings chaired by the previous governor’s appointee.

In other news, Entergy, which owns and operates Vermont Yankee, announced a tentative contract for 20 MW with the Vermont Electric cooperative. There also is now discussion in the media about how Vermont Yankee may be able to operate on its renewed license without state approval, through court action or otherwise.

The governor, however, is in favor of a natural gas pipeline into the state!

Stay tuned for more policy based on political expediency.

Shaffer

Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 34 years. He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS commitees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in Nuclear Public Outreach. He is coordinator for the Vermot Pilot Project.

Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Waste not, want not

The time has come for the U.S. to recycle its spent nuclear fuel

By Dale Klein, Ph.D.

Stubborn resistance to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, driven by some long-held myths, has caused the United States to fall behind other countries as the rest of the world moves toward a “closed fuel cycle” by recycling its nuclear fuel.

More than 30 years of inactivity in this area has diminished our technological capability and intellectual capital to compete internationally. Not surprisingly, little funding has been available for radio-chemistry in our universities during that time, to a point where we now are all but irrelevant on the world stage.

Areva's reprocessing center in La Hague, France

France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and China all have invested substantially in programs to reprocess spent fuel. They have moved forward for two reasons: first, reprocessing recovers significant energy value from spent fuel that contributes to energy security. And, reprocessing substantially reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of high-level nuclear waste.

The once-through nuclear fuel cycle, which is our practice here in the United States, is an enormous waste of potential energy.

Part of the problem is one of perception:  For decades, spent nuclear fuel has inaccurately been referred to as waste. But it is not waste. In fact, compared with other fuels used in the production of electricity, the energy density of uranium is remarkable–fully 95 percent of the energy value in a bundle of spent nuclear fuel rods remains available for re-use.

The true waste is in our failure to capitalize on this valuable and abundant domestic source of clean energy. That’s something we can ill afford to do, particularly in a carbon constrained environment.

Spent fuel pool

Utilities operating nuclear power plants continue to store spent nuclear fuel rods on site in pools of water, as they have for more 30 years, before eventually moving them to dry cask storage. And while there is some debate over whether the casks should be located in one central storage site, the practice is widely accepted as safe and secure.

That’s the first myth–that we don’t know how to safely store nuclear spent fuel.

Critics of reprocessing also cite the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation as the biggest reason to oppose recycling. That, too, has acquired mythical status. The truth is that such concerns are largely unfounded.

While it is true that the plutonium in recycled nuclear fuel is fissionable, no country in the world has ever made a nuclear weapon out of low-grade plutonium from recycled high burn-up nuclear fuel. It just doesn’t work for a strategic or a tactical nuclear weapon.

If the United States is to get in the game and reverse decades of intransigence, it must establish an infrastructure for recycling nuclear fuel. The best way to do that, I believe, is by creating a public-private partnership that operates outside normal appropriations and has a charter to manage the fuel over a period of decades.

The government’s Blue Ribbon Commission, chartered by the Department of Energy, is charged with making recommendations for the safe, long-term management of spent fuel. The 15-member commission is to issue a draft report this summer, with a final report to be completed in January 2012.

Unless we act soon, within 10 years the United States will be the only major country in the world with nuclear power that lacks recycling capability. The time has come to get over our historic resistance to recycling nuclear fuel. After all, how can we tell other countries what they should or should not do with their nuclear waste when we refuse to take action ourselves?

_________________________________

Klein

Dale Klein, Ph.D., is associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System and Associate Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2006-2010 and served as its chairman from 2006-2009.

 

About the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin:

The Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin initiates compelling research on some of the most pressing issues facing America today–issues vital to our nation’s energy security and economic vitality. Through a multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach with academia, government, and private industry, the Energy Institute seeks practical solutions to real-world challenges–good policy based on good science.

For more on the Energy Institute, visit here.

40th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

The fuel cycle is a frequent topic in the nuclear blogsphere

This is the 40th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs. The carnival  features blog posts from the leading U.S. nuclear bloggers and is a roundup of featured content from them.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

Bloggers call foul on NRC licensing and Yucca Mountain

The staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission might feel like a soccer ball at a World Cup match after reading the critiques of three nuclear bloggers. In their view, the NRC is not scoring any points with them. Their issues are decision processes for relicensing, how fast the agency moves applications for new licenses through its approval process, and the increasingly muddy waters of the end of the Yucca Mountain project.

Yes Vermont Yankee

Yes Vermont Yankee notes that Duane Arnold and Vermont Yankee are sister nuclear plants. Duane Arnold’s license review took two years and two months.  Vermont Yankee’s license review is at five years and counting. It is pointed out that if the NRC were actually using objective criteria to evaluate plants, this would not happen.

Next Big Future

The NRC does not have enough money to process all the COL (combined operating license) applications in 42 months. Some of the applications, however, are not ready for prime time because of deficiencies, and other license reviews have been suspended at the applicant’s request. The situation is better with reactor design certification. There, NRC expects to finish by 2011 (claim made in 2009) all three that it has docketed.

CoolHandNuke

The NRC has just released a heavily redacted version of the Yucca Mountain review. This action has been justified using a maneuver within the Freedom of Information Act, the process by which the Heritage Foundation sought access to these documents.

What was redacted, you ask? Well, it was the scientific analysis and unbiased recommendation of the NRC staff, something that the taxpayers and nuclear utilities have paid millions upon millions of dollars for, but Chairman Jaczko seems bent on preventing.

Spent fuel is here to stay

An example of dry cask storage

Three states are suing the NRC over the issue of spent fuel stored in dry casks at the Indian Point nuclear plant. New York’s attorney general led the charge.

Idaho Samizdat – New York’s AG sues over spent fuel at Indian Point.

Idaho Samizdat reports that the state of New York has sued the NRC over the issue of storage of used nuclear fuel in dry casks at the Indian Point reactors in Westchester county. It is a politically motivated act promoted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ,who campaigned on a platform of closing Indian Point.

Idaho Samizdat – New York may have lost the case before the ink was dry. New York’s lawsuit may fail as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled against an anti-nuclear group in California that sued over the very same issue at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. If courts in New York look at the Ninth Circuit ruling for precedent, it could turn serious litigation into nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Learning from the opposition

People who are opposed to nuclear energy are good at what they do. The public is scared silly about radiation as a result. Are there ways to push back?  Several bloggers explore the landscape.

Pop Atomic – Learning from anti-nukes: An alternative strategy.

Save Vermont Yankee ~ original artwork by Pop Atomic Studios

Anti-nuclear activists are good at exploiting cracks in the media coverage of thenuclear industry. Can the nuclear industry learn from this tactic? Is is a good idea?

It may seem like anti-nukes “don’t get it,” but you must admit that they are good at what they do, and they do make nuclear projects as difficult as possible.

It is time to take a closer look at what is working for anti-nukes, and examine exactly what they are trying to achieve. Is it possible that we have a lot to learn from each other?

Nuke Power Talk – Are people finally getting it or not?

People are beginning to capture the subtleties of the issues of nuclear power compared with other energy sources. An editorial entitled “Energy Roulette” in  the Washington Post calls for a technology-neutral carbon reduction standard, saying that if “the government interest is in reducing climate change…why should government aid only wind and solar?”

NEI Nuclear Notes – big splash in USA Today.

Editions of USA Today in many regions of the country include a special section on the nuclear energy industry. The section includes a foreword by Nuclear Energy Institute president and chief executive officer Marvin Fertel on the value of nuclear energy, as well as articles and advertising from many nuclear energy companies.

Nuclear Fissionary – Greenpeace activists swarm Spanish nuclear site.

Greenpeace activist on cooling tower at Spanish nuclear plant

Twenty Greenpeace activists entered a nuclear reactor compound in eastern Spain and several of them climbed a cooling tower to protest the use of nuclear power, a Spanish official and Greenpeace spokeswomen said.

Some of them attacked and injured three security officers. The men were assaulted as the angry mob of activists painted the word “peligro” or danger on the cooling tower.

Greenpeace claims that this reckless stunt demonstrates that nuclear power plant security is weak. The truth is, the cooling tower is outside of the secure areas of the plant and the activists never got anywhere near the reactor or the redundant security barriers.

Nuclear Town Hall – Report on fuel rods creates false fears.

A story about potential defects in reactor fuel rods was siezed upon by citizens groups opposed to nuclear energy. On closer inspection, however, the story reveals that alarmist hand-wringing over a gloom-and-doom scenario is not warranted.

If the rods begin to crack, they release boron and tritium into the cooling water, a condition that can easily be monitored.

“As long as there is no significant increase in boron or tritium observed, the recommendation would be continue operation until the end of the operating cycle,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, told the Wall Street Journal.

Areva North America Next Energy – Survey says American support nuclear energy.

A survey found that 79 percent of respondents agree that “to jump-start investment and maintain U.S. competitiveness, the federal government should provide guarantees backing loans for buildings solar, wind, advanced-design nuclear power plants, or other energy technology that reduces greenhouse gases.” Nineteen percent of those surveyed do not agree, and two percent don’t know.

Those who “strongly agree” outnumber those who “strongly disagree” by a similarly lopsided margin, 46 percent to 10 percent.

This was a telephone survey of 1000 U.S. adults was conducted on February 10-13 by Bisconti Research Inc./GfK Roper for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Thorium fueled reactors generate interest

Nuclear Green – Rising interest in thorium fueled reactors.

Full-size thorium fuel assembly for a 1000 MWe Russian VVER-1000 nuclear power plant

Now that China has announced interest in developing innovative thorium-fueled reactor designs, a lot of people are paying attention.

Despite [the Chinese announcement of LFTR development plans] not making a ripple in the wider press, there’s a chance this development could be very significant. If the advocates of LFTRs are proved correct—and their arguments are certainly very compelling—then the Chinese could be taking one of the first substantial steps in a new type of nuclear race.

And the stakes are high: as Kirk Sorensen reports, the project “aims not only to develop the technology, but to secure intellectual property rights to its implementation.” It will be very interesting to see what happens next.

Oil company business model v. nuclear energy

Atomic Insights – Embargo oil business model.

The Atomic Insights blog has been covering the business competition between oil, gas, and nuclear energy. This week, it takes on the oil company business mode,l exploring reasons why it is low on innovation, yet high on profits.

ANS launches India Section

ANS Nuclear Cafe – A passage to India.

ANS India Local Section officers (from left: Kumar, Deshpande, Joshi, and McDaniel)

The American Nuclear Society presented the charter to the ANS local India Section at its inaugural event held in Mumbai, India, on February 11, 2011. ANS Past President Harold McFarlane led the presentation of the charter, which was granted in November 2010 by the ANS Board of Directors.

The keynote address for the meeting was given by Vice Admiral John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), who talked about recent U.S. developments in nuclear research and development.

The event was hosted by the U.S. Counsel General for Mumbai, Paul A. Folmsbee, and attended by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. The event took place with the simultaneous visit to India by representatives of 24 U.S. firms on a trade mission. A delegation from INL also visited.

Reprocessing used fuel

Recovering uranium and plutonium from used fuel can power a nation’s factories and cities. We recycle aluminum, glass, and paper, so why not used fuel? The logic appears to escape some in the United Kingdom and elsewhere

Canadian Energy Issues

Get ready for a righteous fight over plutonium in the UK. The coalition government has launched consultations on the question of whether to recycle it in power reactors, or entrain the stuff permanently in glass logs and dispose of it, or just keep it in long-term storage.

Expect the professional environmental lobby—with the full support of the professional anti-proliferation lobby—to oppose recycling, and to back up that opposition with reasoning that is either weak or outright contradictory.

Brave New Climate – Safeguarding the nuclear fuel cycle.

The purpose of this post is to compare the safeguards challenges presented by two nuclear recycle approaches, relative to the current U. S. approach of a once-through fuel cycle. If these nuclear fuel cycles are evaluated solely on the basis of the safeguards needed, one finds the following:

PUREX recycle offers no safeguarding advantage over the once-through fuel cycle. Beyond that, this approach presents a significant concern over handling of separated plutonium in the power plant environment. Since chemically pure Pu is inherent in the PUREX process, safeguards inspections must be highly intrusive.

Adding recycling fast reactors with pyroprocessing (“PYRO”) to an existing fleet of LWRs absorbs all of the plutonium produced by LWRs. There will be no inventories of plutonium other than what is in active use. PYRO is a new class of facility requiring safeguards, but batch-process inventory controls, coupled with a simple mechanical layout, will make the inspectors’ jobs more straightforward than for a PUREX facility.

The facility for recovering usable material from used LWR fuel may require safeguards similar in approach to those in PUREX facilities, but no separated plutonium will be involved. If plutonium were to be diverted from a PYRO facility or from the LWR recovery facility, it would be useless (for weapons use) without further processing in an otherwise unneeded PUREX type of facility.

Realistically, a full transition to recycling fast reactors is a process that will take decades. If, however, all the LWRs were retired and replaced with recycling fast reactors, in addition to the above advantages, there would be no further need for uranium enrichment.

This is a guest post by William Hannum, a member of the Science Council for Global Initiatives who has worked for more than 40 years in nuclear power development, stretching from design and analysis of the Shippingport reactor to the Integral Fast Reactor.

Hannum earned his BA in physics at Princeton and his MS and PhD in nuclear physics at Yale. He has held key management positions with the U. S. Department of Energy.

Hannum is a fellow of the American Nuclear Society, and has served as a consultant to the National Academy of Engineering on nuclear proliferation issues.

# # #

China announces a 3000-year fuel resource

By Rod Adams

On Monday, January 3, 2011, China Central Television announced that scientists and engineers at the China National Nuclear Corporation’s No. 404 Factory, located in the Gobi desert in Gansu province, had demonstrated their mastery of nuclear fuel recycling technology that would allow them to improve fuel utilization by a factor of 60 over the current once-through fuel cycle they are using. This means that a resource base that was projected to last between 50-70 years would now have the potential to last 3000-4200 years. For a country full of people who think in terms of millennia, I assume that this was very good news indeed.

Despite the way that some media sources are reporting the news as a “breakthrough”, it really is not news of any kind of scientific discovery or a previously unknown physical process. Though details about the specific technology that the Chinese have mastered are a bit murky based on the available English language sources, there is wide recognition among U.S. nuclear technology experts that a judicious combination of chemical or pyroprocessing techniques, fast reactors, certain kinds of thermal reactors, and careful material selection will enable fuel utilization gains on the order of the factor of 60 that the Chinese have announced.

There is more than one way to make this kind of improvement; one of the systems that would have demonstrated such a gain was the Integral Fast Reactor. As you can read in Chuck Till’s story titled Plentiful Energy and the IFR Story, the United States had essentially demonstrated its own mastery of the necessary technology components by 1994. The team at the Argonne National Laboratory had developed adequate tools, developed the fuel forms, developed the reactor technology, developed the control systems, and were ready for a full-scale integrated production test when the project was abruptly “defunded”.

The Chinese announcement indicates that it recognizes the importance of abundant sources of affordable energy. It is what enables future development. China has now completed enough steps of a technology development process similar to what Argonne scientists and engineers conducted that they are comfortable in announcing this accomplishment to the world.

Unlike the Argonne team, the technologists at No. 404 Factory have apparently been able to convince decision makers with a long view that steady efforts can address cost concerns associated with used fuel recycling. Decision makers that are familiar with manufacturing development will recognize that the processes of improvement are not fundamentally different from the ones associated with rare earth metal production, hard disk manufacturing, and producing large screen LCD television displays.

According to some news reports, the recycling development process in China has been underway for 20-25 years. My assumption is that the scientists involved have been actively attending international conferences and reading as much material as they can find in order to help improve their own creative efforts. This is not an area where there is a great need for originality or creativity; the required math, chemistry, and physics are reasonably straightforward.

Not surprisingly, some of the news reports provided discouraging quotes from people who have made a career out of trying to slow down fuel recycling technology. Here is a quote from an article published in R&D magazine’s online edition titled China says it knows how to reprocess nuclear fuel.

To produce that amount of fuel, however, China would have to build a hugely expensive and highly dangerous breeder reactor, said Matthew Bunn, an expert on the Chinese nuclear program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Rather than build a breeder reactor or even start reprocessing on a commercial scale, China should simply store used fuel for the next several decades while safer and less expensive technology emerges, Bunn said.

“Reprocessing the spent fuel is much more dangerous,” Bunn said, adding that it increased the risk of nuclear terrorism if recovered fuel were stolen.

I do not expect that the international nonproliferation community that has so effectively slowed or halted used fuel recycling efforts in the United States and other western nations will have much of an impact on China’s decision to pursue continued process improvements and continued development of the kinds of hard spectrum reactors that enable achievement of that factor of 60 improvement in fuel use.

As supporting evidence for that assertion, I point to India’s recent decision to refuse permission for the International Panel on Fissile Materials to hold a meeting in that country. Though Frank von Hipple, a prominent member of that group of international arms control and nonproliferation activists, expressed shock and incomprehension at the rejection, it was not such a surprising action.

Like China, India has a very large population of people who have never had access to energy intensive features of modern society that most of us take for granted. Refrigeration, air conditioning, clean drinking water, lights at night, readily accessible transportation, and many other features of first-world living have been completely unavailable. From that point of view, the idea that anyone would voluntarily walk away from a technology that could turn a 50-year fuel supply into a 3000-year fuel supply simply because it requires some investment and effort is incomprehensible. Vague and scary words like “non-proliferation” do not mean much in countries that demonstrated long ago that they knew enough about the atomic nucleus to produce weapons—if they so desire.

China’s announcement will, I hope, have the beneficial effect of overcoming certain kinds of opposition to U.S. nuclear fuel recycling programs. We have developed and virtually abandoned various technologies with the potential to turn a world of energy scarcity into a world of emission-free energy abundance. We should take a page from the Chinese and determine that we will master and continually improve those techniques.

Borrowing words from some of the people that I correspond with on a regular basis on various e-mail lists, perhaps we will use this opportunity to inspire competitive actions that will stop the Chinese from “eating our lunch” because people with opposition agendas have purposely slowed our progress.

Adams

Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

External costs of energy technologies, part 2

by Art Wharton

Where does waste = external costs?

Dry cask storage area (Photo: NRC)

Part 1 of this article, which appeared here on December 28, made the point that the nuclear power industry sequesters its nuclear “waste.” The same statement of high standard cannot be said for applications of combustion, whether it be from coal, petroleum products, or methane (ingeniously marketed as natural gas). This is where external costs come into play. External costs can come in many forms, including from public health impacts, environmental impacts, and reductions in people’s quality of life. As I’ve been writing this blog post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper has been in the middle of publishing an eight-part series of articles titled “Mapping Mortality,” based on a year-long investigation. The articles describe the many external costs of the coal plants lining the Ohio River valley in western Pennsylvania.

Just as nuclear engineers can express their disappointment over what may be the final chapter in the 28-year history of the Yucca Mountain repository project, there is similar disappointment by others over the fate of Little Blue Lake, which was originally advertised decades ago by Penn Power as eventually becoming a recreation area with beauty matching the rest of western Pennsylvania’s picturesque landscape. Thirty-five years later, Little Blue Lake garners descriptions such as “moonscape,” which highlights its desolate wasteland feel. It currently contains 100 million tons of fly ash and calcium sulfate—the waste from coal power. The sheer volume of this 1000-acre site that crosses state lines dwarfs the volume of waste from the nuclear energy industry. Where are the boats and skiers that were supposed to enjoy Little Blue Lake? After all, it’s just ash, right? I use ashes in my compost for my home garden.

Fly ash is different, however, and a debate exists on whether it contains enough heavy metals such as arsenic and lead to be considered “hazardous waste” under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. The environmental groups such as the Sierra Club claim that the ground water is contaminated around the Little Blue Lake site, but the company that maintains the site says that it has met all regulations imposed on it, with an emphasis on safety. Some people will feel as though this exchange of public positions is similar to the back-and-forth that goes on regarding tritium in groundwater around nuclear plants, so this example of one of the largest of 39 coal-ash dump sites in the United States may not be compelling enough for some people. Rather than describing why I’d be willing to drink the water contaminated with tritium that was found to have leaked from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant or anywhere else, I’ll move on and stay on topic.

Spent fuel shipping cask mounted on a railroad car

Non-nuclear industries have the luxury of not having to create indestructible containers in which to dispose of their waste, as does the nuclear power industry. Little Blue Lake is one example, and another clearer example is the smoke stacks at fossil fuel plants and refineries that spew their waste into the atmosphere. Western Pennsylvania is again an excellent example of the effects of this non-containment of waste, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has done a lot of legwork in describing the phenomenon through Mapping Mortality. It only confirms through statistically significant data what we all intuitively know as true: breathing polluted air is bad for us.

There are 32 facilities in Allegheny County (around Pittsburgh, Pa.) alone that the state of Pennyslvania’s Health Department labels as “major sources” of air pollution because annually these facilities emit 10 tons or more of a hazardous air pollutant, or 25 tons of what they define as “criteria pollutants” such as ozone, lead, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen dioxides, and carbon monoxide. Ten tons of hazardous air pollution times 32 qualifying polluters in Allegheny County equals 320 tons of airborne hazardous pollutants, separate from the sludge that the 32 facilities pour into waste sites.

When we consider how beautiful Pittsburgh looks today, versus how obvious the air pollution was in the early 1980s when the southside district was still lined with steel mills, the plainly observable fact that 320 tons per year is less severe than the pollution levels of 30 years ago (when many scrubbing technologies didn’t exist and were not required) indicate that the external costs of utilizing combustion of coal or even the less-polluting methane gas have affected the way our society operates. Clusters of death, respiratory problems, cancer, and other sicknesses related to these technologies’ ability to release massive amounts of waste into the atmosphere don’t enter into the equation on the cost of energy in conventional models. As the EPA adds regulations based on the Clean Air Act, pollutants are reduced, but from a technological standpoint, it’s not reasonable to suggest that they can be reduced to zero, or to some level that could even remotely compete with the nuclear energy industry’s ability to contain its “waste.”

As a reminder of the principle of Conservation of Mass, note that any of that particulate that doesn’t end up in the air just becomes more waste for places like Little Blue Lake. Either way, there are significant external costs to the community.

(Part 3 of this three-part article will appear on December 30, on the ANS Nuclear Cafe. Part 1 appeared on December 28 and is available here.)

***

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.

Wharton

Art Wharton is a senior project engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in the Nuclear Power Plants product line. He is a member of the ANS Planning committee, the Operations and Power Division Program committee,  is a Pittsburgh Local Section past chair, and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

External costs of energy technologies, part 1

by Art Wharton

The often-ignored difference maker

There are numerous articles and analyses on the construction, operation, maintenance, and fuel costs of the various forms of energy that demonstrate that nuclear power is competitive with coal power generation. The articles and analyses reveal that nuclear and coal run neck-and-neck for the total cost of energy over the plant lifetimes. Buried among the numerous position statements of the American Nuclear Society is PS63, “External Costs of Energy Technologies,” which addresses an additional cost not often taken into account in the calculations—external costs.

ANS believes that decisions concerning national energy policy should appropriately take external costs into account. That’s how PS63 begins. It is innocuous enough, and it doesn’t provoke too much thought at the surface, because it seems so logical that “you should take all factors into account” when making important decisions.

If, for example, a nuclear engineer took one factor out of reactivity calculations, it could create catastrophic results. The 0.65 percent of neutrons borne delayed in uranium-235 fission—a comparatively small amount of neutrons—is exactly what makes fission controllable, and thus makes the peaceful applications of nuclear energy possible.

Understanding this logic, and the immense amount of energy that is needed to build baseload electricity capacity, I won’t buy an argument from someone who says, “External costs are only a minor part of the equation.” We’re not talking about nuclear physics anymore, so whatever is meant by “external costs” must be compelling.

It starts with waste

External costs can be directly linked to one of the most popular questions I get from people outside of the nuclear energy industry: “So, what about the waste?” Although the issue of nuclear waste generates the most questions, there are answers. Not everyone agrees on the “right” answers, of course, but people who are educated in nuclear waste disposal/storage techniques agree that one or many of those answers is technologically viable and is safe to the public.

One thing is for sure: The nuclear industry’s answer is assuredly not “the waste goes out of the smoke stack.” Unlike many other forms of energy production, the nuclear industry does have an answer to deal with the waste it generates. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ensures that all licensees under Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations know where their radioactive material is at all times. But not everyone has undying faith in the vigilance of the federal government to enforce laws and regulations—they haven’t met the NRC chairman, Gregory Jaczko—so we’ll talk technology here that is applicable worldwide.

The primary loop in nuclear reactors can be thought of as a closed system. No nuclear material gets added or taken out except during deliberate outages when power reactors are being serviced or refueled. When the partially-used fuel that is commonly referred to as “waste” is taken out of the reactor, it is stored. I put quotes around “waste” because there is a lot of value left in it—in fact, more than 98 percent of it remains usable after a “once-through” cycle.

La Hague

In France, the nuclear industry recycles the used fuel and vitrifies (encases it in glass) the remaining portion that some still insist on calling waste. One room in Areva’s La Hague reprocessing facility, in France, contains the entire French nuclear power fleet’s remaining waste after the used fuel is recycled. If you can gain access to this facility, you can slowly saunter across that room without having to worry about your health due to radiation risk, even though the vitrified waste is stored right under the floor on which you are walking.

Where else is used fuel reprocessed? Belgium, China, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom all reprocess, according to World Nuclear News.

In the United States, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), as amended in 1987, declares Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the storage facility for the nation’s used fuel—and American electricity ratepayers have been paying for such  storage facility since September 1983. Regardless of what political outcome arises from the drama surrounding the NWPA or your opinion on how Yucca Mountain should be used, the nuclear energy industry is dedicated worldwide to ensuring that the public is not exposed to the used fuel that we call “waste.”

[Aside: When I’m in a particularly flippant mood and not in a situation where I represent any company or organization in a formal manner, I often reply to the “What about nuclear waste?” question with, “Why don’t you call your representative and senators? They’ve had you paying for that solution since 1983.” Through this provocation is how I often get the attention of the audience to address politics vs. technically feasible solutions. End Aside.]

Cohen

If you want to talk about mining operations, not only do we see a high death/accident rate among coal miners, but a paper written by legendary Dr. Bernard Cohen, Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that uranium mining operations actually SAVE lives by taking that uranium out of the earth and controlling it in industrial facilities, thus reducing the overall population’s exposure to radon gas.

(Part 2 of this three-part article will appear tomorrow, December 29, on the ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

***

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.

Wharton

Art Wharton is a senior project engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in the Nuclear Power Plants product line. He is a member of the ANS Planning committee, the Operations and Power Division Program committee,  is a Pittsburgh Local Section past chair, and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

UAE Ambassador to IAEA pursues development of nuclear energy

Hamad Al Kaabi is a nuclear engineer

By Dan Yurman

In December 2009, the United Arab Emirates awarded a $20 billion contract to a consortium of South Korean firms to build four nuclear reactors on a remote desert location along the Persian Gulf. The consortium, led by state-owned Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO), is committed to having the first reactor in revenue service by 2017. The change from fossil (natural gas) to uranium as a fuel source comes not a moment too soon as the UAE is now a net importer of gas for electricity generation and desalinization.

UAE Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi at ANS Winter Meeting, Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Fritz Schneider, Clark Communications - 11/09/10)

At the ANS Winter meeting, which took place in Las Vegas, Nev., on November 7-11, I had the opportunity to interview one of the key players in the UAE’s nuclear program. Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi (right) is the UAE Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. He has been personally involved in key milestones of the country’s nuclear energy assessment, including:

  • A national scope energy assessment evaluating future UAE requirements and potential sources of electricity.
  • Drafting and release of the policy of the UAE on the evaluation and potential development of nuclear energy.
  • National nuclear energy legislation.
  • Bilateral agreements related to cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy between the UAE and various nuclear supplier nations, including France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea.
  • The UAE pledge of $10 million to support an IAEA-administered international uranium fuel bank initiative, resulting from a proposal by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Ambassador Al Kaabi trained as a nuclear engineer, getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue University in Indiana in the United States. His graduate work focused on nuclear safety.

Background of UAE nuclear deal

In 2006, a UAE energy working group developed projections for electricity needs. It found that demand would expand by three times the current level of use by 2020. The question was how to meet demand.

The UAE evaluated all energy sources including oil, gas, renewables, and nuclear. The working group found that natural gas supplies are not sufficient for future needs. The UAE imports a growing portion of its natural gas supplies. The UAE cannot get more nor produce more since the gas supply is driven by oil production, which is under quota. (see table below)

Natural Gas Supplies
in the United Arab Emirates

Natural Gas Supply Categories

Billions of
cubic meters
Production

50.24

Consumption

59.42

Imports

16.75

Exports

7.57

Source: CIA World FactBook 2009 data

In addition, the gas has a high sulfur content, which along with burning oil, yields poor environmental performance, and burning oil is a hit on revenues from oil exports. In a nutshell, increased emphasis on fossil fuels had the potential for increased environmental and financial costs that were not acceptable to the UAE.

New technology for desalinization

Desalinization will be supported by nuclear energy. Currently, the UAE is using natural gas to heat seawater and remove fresh water from the process. The UAE will use electricity from the new reactors to run a reverse osmosis plant. While the technology is complicated, recent innovations make it a feasible choice to use on a large scale.

Smaller reverse osmosis units can be placed closer to end users, e.g., factories and cities, thus reducing water pipeline and delivery costs.

“We can make water at night when electricity demand is low,” Al Kaabi said.

Solar not the answer to gas use

Despite abundant sunshine, Al Kaabi said that renewable energy sources are not the answer to the challenges of using fossil fuels.

“Even aggressive investment in renewable energy like solar will yield only a small amount of electricity to meet rapidly growing demand. It is not proven that solar can meet base load requirements,” Al Kaabi said.

He added that the UAE has had some problems with manufacturing issues regarding solar panels delivered to the UAE and problems with dust from the desert cutting down on the efficiency of solar cells.

Nuclear chosen for reliability and capacity to meet demand

Ultimately, nuclear energy was chosen for the energy path forward because it is a proven, reliable technology that is economically competitive.

The UAE set three broad principles for the path forward for nuclear energy:

  • Safety
  • Security
  • Nonproliferation

The UAE held early consultations with the IAEA to develop a “roadmap” for legislative, institutional, regulatory, and technical organizations. In setting up these organizations, the UAE reviewed best practices globally. Due to the urgency of energy issues, the UAE set 2017 as a target date for start of revenue service for the first reactor.

The next issue was site selection. The UAE chose an uninhabited coastal location on the Persian Gulf. The Braka site is about 50 km (31 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi’s oil industry at Rawis. A port facility will be developed to receive reactor components and construction materials by sea.

The two most important organizations in the UAE new build are the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), which has 100 employees, and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), which has 300 employees. These employment numbers are expected to grow.

ENEC will manage the construction and operation of the reactors. It will handle all aspects of the supply chain. FANR will handle nuclear safety. A separate government ministry handles security for nuclear facilities.

Another organization is developing a program to educate and certify nuclear engineers in the UAE. The UAE will need them all by 2017.

Of the nation’s three million people in the labor force, more than 80 percent are expatriates. The UAE has a goal of educating its own citizens to run the nuclear plants. The reason is that the reactors offer high paying jobs with long-term stability.

Key factors in the contract award

In December 2009, UAE awarded a $20 billion contract to build four 1400 MW PWR type reactors to a consortium from South Korea. Key factors were a buildable design, procurement and construction of components, and lifetime operability. The tender process was completed in a record time of one year.

Al Kaabi said South Korea will provide the first fuel load, but future fuel contracts will be bid as part of the normal procurement process for any nuclear utility.

Training new nuclear engineers and plant personnel was a key success factor for the winning award. The UAE is working hard to promote science technology engineering and math education so that eventually it will have young people entering the nuclear field. Mentoring and certification has a strong emphasis. Until the UAE fully develops its own educational programs, it is sending the first groups of future nuclear engineers to South Korea for training.

1-2-3 agreement with the U.S.

A hallmark of the UAE nuclear program is that it has set as a national policy under which it will not develop uranium enrichment nor spent fuel reprocessing facilities. Because of this policy, a 1-2-3 agreement with the U.S. sailed through Congressional review.  It allows U.S. firms to export nuclear technologies to the UAE.  The UAE policy is a model for the Middle East. This is the heart of Al Kaabi’s message to other countries considering development of nuclear energy.

“No country has done what the UAE has done on enrichment and reprocessing. It is a major milestone in nonproliferation. It is a reflection of UAE policy. We are the first country to achieve such a level of transparency,” he said.

“Our experience could be used as a template for other countries,” he added. “This approach to nonproliferation is the right way to do things. We hope other countries will see the full international support for our approach and adopt them it as well.”

While the ambassador never mentioned Iran directly in his remarks, his comments could be interpreted to include that country. Efforts by the United States and European Union countries to restart negotiations over Iran’s uranium enrichment program are off to a rocky start. Meanwhile, the fourth round of sanctions is having an impact on that nation’s economy.

The UAE new build is one of the fastest moving nuclear energy programs on the planet after China. Other countries will be following the UAE’s progress with interest to take home lessons learned from their experience.

_________________________

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy. He is a contributing reporter for Fuel Cycle Week and a frequent writer on the ANS Nuclear Cafe.