Continuing Education on Advanced Reactors for U.S. Senate
On May 17, 2016, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the status of advanced reactor technologies. Hosted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) the Committee Chairman and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member, the committee heard testimony from the five witnesses listed below.
- Dr. Jacob DeWitt, Co-Founder and CEO Oklo
- Dr. John Gilleland, Chief Technical Officer, TerraPower, LLC
- Mr. John L. Hopkins, Chairman and CEO, NuScale Power, LLC
- Mr. Steve Kuczynski, President, CEO, and Chairman, Southern Nuclear Operating Company
- Dr. Mark Peters, Director Idaho National Laboratory
The people arranging the hearing were seeking to receive a wide range of information. To achieve their goal, they invited a micro-reactor developer, a small modular reactor developer, an advanced liquid metal cooled reactor with a long core life, a visionary leader from a company that is currently building two advanced passive reactors, and the director of one of the premier nuclear reactor technology development national laboratories.
Missing from the invitation list was a wet-blanket witness from the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, or Greenpeace. Perhaps the organizers realized that they would not hear anything new from them; they’ve made it abundantly clear over the years that their answer to nuclear is invariably a resounding no. It never seems to matter to the naysayers that talented engineers and scientists have been successfully developing technology improvements that have made most of the opposition talking points either thin or obsolete.
There were several highlights of the hearing that I’d like to bring to your attention. Senator Angus King (I-ME) adamantly claimed to Mr. Kuczynski that the Price-Anderson Act was a significant subsidy to the nuclear industry. When Kuczynski responded that he did not consider that insurance pool to be a subsidy, Sen King said, “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…”
Not long after that exchange, one of my favorite Senators, Lamar Alexander, was given an opportunity to comment.
In case you are too time constrained to watch the video, here is a brief summary.
He stated that reliable nuclear generators might be the biggest beneficiary of a major electricity storage breakthrough.
He also engages in a minor rant about Senator from Maine’s claim that the Price-Anderson Act is a subsidy.
Aside: Sen Alexander was speaking quickly and off the cuff, so he can be forgiven for saying “Price-Waterhouse” and for understating the magnitude of the industry’s self insurance, which is now $13.6 billion, not the $3.75 billion as he mentioned. End Aside.
He follows quickly with his frustration with the repeated extensions of the wind energy tax credit. As Chairman of one of the most important appropriations committees in the Senate, Sen Alexander understand that the wind energy credit costs a large amount of real money that cannot be used for other purposes, like expanding the available resources for advanced energy research.
Sen King had mentioned earlier in the hearing that the extension passed at the end of 2015 included provisions for a subsidy phase out, but Sen Alexander, who’s been in the Senate for a couple of decades, reminded everyone that the subsidies have been supposed to end about a dozen times already. Every time they are supposed to end, they’ve been extended.
Sen Alexander reinforced the reason I’m a big fan of his by contrasting the $50-$100 million per year that is being spent on NuScale, a start up company developing small modular reactors with the $5 billion ($5,000 million) per year being granted to mammoth corporations like GE, Eberdrola, Vestas, Siemens and Next Era for manufacturing and installing mature wind turbines. (Note: I’ve added a few editorial modifiers to his statement.)
At the end of the hearing, Sen Murkowski, another of my favorite problem-solving Senators, addressed an issue that is important to her as the Senator from the vast and lightly populated of Alaska.
She is keenly aware of the high cost of electricity in some of her state’s remote areas. Even though Alaska is a major oil producing state, the crude oil that is extracted there is not capable of direct consumption in generators. Instead, the remote villages must pay several times the going rate for refined diesel fuel because the price has to cover the embedded transportation costs.
Sen Murkowski questioned Dr. Jacob DeWitt about his company’s micro-reactor power systems. As DeWitt explains, their 2-4 MWe power plants are specifically designed to address the needs of remote areas.
Note: Caroline Cochrane, Oklo’s co-founder, is visible in the background proudly beaming during DeWitt’s description of their joint creation.
People interested in building coalitions and ensuring a reliable, abundant energy future for the United States would do well to spend 7-21 minutes watching and then re-watching Senator Manchin (D-WV) turn to ask questions. The segment illustrates the benefit of doing homework before testifying; it seems to me like a few of the responders did not really understand Sen Manchin’s point of view and current priorities.
As the former governor and now senator from West Virginia, Sen Manchin is deeply concerned about the effects that both low natural gas prices and the overt “War on Coal” have had on numerous communities in his state. Coal is not a demon; it is a valuable store of useful fuel and raw material that can be used much more cleanly, especially in a system where nuclear energy is used to dramatically upgrade coal to higher and cleaner uses. There are many paths worth immediate study; some might already be ready for demonstration.
Red-headed step children that get no respect can to respond to years of mistreatment by bullies by working together.
Thanks Rod, great post. I spent a summer in Bethel in the mid-80s, never gave much thought to where our electricity came from.
Re: “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…”
Well, the “walk” and the “talk” of a “subsidy” is money SPENT.
Sen. King wants to “duck” that, though.
The average estimate of any subsidy from Price Anderson are on the order of ~0.1 cents/kW-hr. (Corroborating this is that if you divide the ~$100 billion financial cost of the Fukushima accident by the amount of kW-hrs produced by worldwide nuclear over the last several decades, you get an “accident cost” on the order of…… 0.1 cents/kW-hr.) Of course newer reactors are much safer, so…..
Meanwhile, renewable projects get, at a minimum, a direct cash subsidy of 2.3 cents/kW-hr. And there are more (direct and indirect) subsidies than that. For example, in Sen. King’s region (New England), renewables get ~8 cents/kW-hr from renewable energy certificates, which are the vehicle through which renewables mandate policies are implemented. Thus, in New England, renewables overall subsidy is at least 10 cents/kW-hr, i.e., 100 times any Price Anderson subsidy nuclear gets.
The free pollution subsidy that fossil fuels get is also on the order of 100 times any liability limit subsidy nuclear gets. (According to EPA fossil power generation inflicts ~$100 billion in economic costs *every year* in the US alone, along with causing the deaths of ~10,000 Americans annually, and greatly contributing to global warming).
Fine, if it walks and talks like a duck (or subsidy) then sure, it’s a subsidy. The question is what the magnitude of that subsidy is. Yes, it would cost nuclear somewhat more to have unlimited insurance, so it could be argued it’s a subsidy (but a very small one). Of course, nuclear is nowhere near unique, among heavy industries, in having limited liability. In fact, nuclear’s $20 billion limit is higher than most.
Rod, excellent work in terms your “color commentary” of the session. Like you i watched it live (I tuned in as soon you announced you were doing so on the ANS list, so thanks for that).
I would of preferred more companies to be involved and more time for the Senators to ask question as the speakers responses had to be included within the time constraints for each *Senator* to ask a question so the more detailed a question was poised the less time was available to respond.
I actually wished Sen Murkowski could of spoken longer. A few years ago she gave what was arguably the most detailed and knowledgeable talk anyone in Congress I ever heard on nuclear. The talk was given to the Congressional Republican Conference on energy. Unlike anyone else who spoke, it was clear she completely understood the nature of energy systems generally and atomic energy specifically. It was clear to me that she was speaking and not just the words of her staff that often prepares Senator’s talks. I was quite impressed regardless of her own political disposition on other issues.
She is, or was, I think, the only Senator ever elected by a write-in campaign against the establishment Democratic and Republican candidates. (her family is a long time GOP family that is a fierce rival to the family of former Governor Sarah Palin. Her election over the chose Palin favorite was seen as a huge blow to the ex-Governor’s political base in Alaska.
One last point. I was also impressed wit the CEO of Southern’s Nuclear Company as well. He wasn’t just your run of the mill MBA corporate apologist but also new the subject. Likely he was an engineer himself. What really impressed me is that Southern is so interested in SMRs, the sort of focus of this hearing. For a large fortune 500 company to be so interested…and knowledgeable about the future of SMRs was quite shocking, acutally.
“As the former governor and now senator from West Virginia, Sen Manchin is deeply concerned about the effects that both low natural gas prices and the overt “War on Coal” have had on numerous communities in his state.”
As a native of West Virgina, I have heard the “war on coal” rhetoric all my life in one form or another. Coal production peaked in West Virginia in the 90s at around 180 million tons per year. It has fallen off slightly, as Senator Manchin says, mostly do to cheap natural gas.
What the senator doesn’t say is that massive increases in automation have eliminated far more mining jobs than recent production decreases. Mining employment peaked during WW2 at over 120,000. With the advent of the continuous miner and later the long wall system, mining employment has dropped to around 20,000 at the same time production hit new highs. Data from http://www.wvpolicy.org/coal-production-shifting-to-northern-west-virginia
Not that this is very relevant to nuclear power, I felt the need present the facts on the so called “war on coal”.
I understand that coal mining jobs are far less numerous than they used to be. I suspect, however, that each job is better paying than it used to be due to the substantial productivity improvements.
It’s not popular to say this, but there is a strong negative effect on communities when major capital assets are declared worthless, even if the mine or factory was not longer employing as many people as it used to. Communities normally obtain a large portion of their government resources through property taxes; those fall near zero on unproductive property.
Even though there are fewer of them, the coal mining industry still employs thousands of good, hard-working, salt of the earth people. It still produces a product that has real, physical value in making people’s lives better. It should not be demonized.
There might have been rhetoric “all your life,” but were there formerly organized, unabashed efforts similar to Sierra Club’s well funded “Beyond Coal” campaign?
It seems to me that Jack DeVanney cut directly to the heart of the matter in his post on the MOX subject a few days’ ago: “We have not delivered, nor can anyone deliver new nuclear technology in the US under the present rules of the game. These new technologies cannot be prudently licensed without fullscale, rigorous prototype testing. But NRC says you can’t test without a license, Until this Catch 22 is addressed, there will be no new nuclear in the United States.” No one has ever successfully built anything, much less anything complex, without repeated iterations of integrating theory and practice. The NRC is opposed to this scientific method. It therefore blocks science. This is due to Congress being run by fossil fuel money. It likes the NRC being a giant source of nuclear energy constipation. But Pax Americana is threatened by its clinging to a prior successful technology, that is now a threat to the survival of the species, and is also, running out. (Read Mason Inman’s new book, by the way, the Oracle of Oil, Marion King Hubbert.) US geopolitical influence is being rapidly undermined by Chinese, and especially Russian (Rosatom) world nuclear energy initiatives building reactors in Egypt, Jordan, etc. etc. In short, the US Empire is being undermined by the very technology that fueled its prior success: abundant coal and oil. Tell Congress: if you want to keep your empire, you better smarten up, fast. That might get their attention.
The pay rate for miners depends on many factors. Small non-union underground mines pay less than surface mines which pay less than unionized underground mines. Skilled equipment operators, like a continuous miner operator, make more than a man with a shovel.
You are right about the decimation of communities. Extraction jobs, whether it’s fracing in the Dakotas, logging the Pacific Northwest or coal mining are job multipliers. Every one of them creates 5 to 10 other jobs in either support (trucking for example) or retail. I’ve seen ghost towns where the mines have closed. The community my grandmother is from no longer exists because the mine closed and the lumber mill shut down.
But the real “war on coal” is not being waged by the limousine liberals. It’s a war on employment. A war on miners for lack of a better term. Every year the automation gets better and more jobs are replaced by it. If you believe the tehcno optimists, the trucks that support the mines will be self driving soon. How long till the shuttle car underground and the bulldozers above ground drive themselves?
What happens when (I’m going to be optimistic and not say “if”) a highly efficient fission power plant become available? Let’s assume for a moment the the Chinese start knocking out 1 gigaWatt LFTRs that can run for several hundred years on the waste left by a single gen 2 plant. What about those coal jobs then? At that point it isn’t just West Virginia, is the whole Appalachian coal industry, and the upper Midwest as well. Do we keep sending people under ground to get black lung or blowing the tops off of mountains just to keep them in work?
The popularized war on coal by environmental groups is not what’s going to shut the mines, it will be the mine operators. All the while, their paid mouth pieces, like Senator Manchin, carry on about the “war on coal”.
The inevitable phasing out of coal is simply handwriting on the wall. Its a real shame that the movers and shakers in our political system, on both sides of the aisle, long ago abandoned the interests of the people. The exportation of manufacturing jobs has effectively murdered any hope for the future that an idled mine worker may hold. I recall what happened in N. Idaho when the Bunker Hill mining complex was closed in the early eighties. Fortunately, N.Idaho experienced a real estate boom shortly afterwards, and it did somewhat lessen the impact. But I knew many families that were forced to sell their homes due to the head of household being an idled miner worker.
Poverty, nowadays, is merely a target of exploitation for our corporate and political leaders. The poorer the work force, the lower the wages. Bring our american workers to their knees? That only puts a smile on the face of those such as trump, clinton, etc, and thier ilk. They might just bring those manfacturing jobs back to the states. When they’ve rendered our work force poor enough to work for a pittance. A huge part of that strategy is the political agenda to dismantle the unions.
I think mining employment was a LOT higher in WWII Stephen. There were 500,000 members of the UMWA working bituminous and anthracite coal with most of Kentucky non-union during the war up from 400,000 in the mines during WWI. But you are correct, the big drop off came with the rise of mechanization in the 1950s.
If coal-burning electricity were to go away tomorrow, the impact on West Viriginia would be considerably less than one might at first assume. Electric generation usually burns lignite or sub-bituminous coal, of low fuel value, like the stuff which comes from Powder River — effectively one or two steps above peat. Appalachian production tends to grade more toward higher-quality “metallurgical” coal.
Still and all, in the end, coal mining has a tendency to kill miners, & to poison the land & the water ; & coal companies have a tendency to run off other industries, to make sure the people in mining towns feel they have no other options.
“If coal-burning electricity were to go away tomorrow, the impact on West Viriginia would be considerably less than one might at first assume.”
Other places would get hit.
Then there are the railroads and the folks running the steam plants.
@publius and Eino
I cannot imagine the scale of the negative impact on the US economy from the sudden loss of more than 30% of our electricity power supply.
“I cannot imagine the scale of the negative impact on the US economy from the sudden loss of more than 30% of our electricity power supply.”
They would be dark times.
Ask the Japanese!
Although I can’t say I would be sorry to wake up tomorrow morning in an America with 100 GW(e) each of LWRs, HWRs, HTGRs, & LMFBRs, & 0 GW(e) of coal. That America would probably have a hundred thousand people living off-Earth…
Coal, by the way, isn’t the boon to the railroads that many seem to think. It’s a big revenue item on an absolute basis, but a small one per tonne-mile. Worse still, loading down the system with large volumes of low value freight contributes heavily to on-time performance problems which sends higher-value freight onto trucks. (The long-term prospects for Wyoming aren’t good in any case, because the Department of Interior has been letting the coal operators evade their statutory obligation to pay for remediation of former mine sites. And those leases aren’t even competitively bid!)
Yeah…the removal of any source of power from any double-digit contributor to the grid would be disastrous. And, no one is seriously advocating that.
The issue is how to phase it out over a generation or two.
This also brings up an interesting question about metallurgical coal that “publius” brought up. Coal is used in basic steel (which is now a limited amount of). When I lived in Pittsburgh, PA for a few years in the last 70s, most of the coal there (Allegheny, Washington counties) was used exclusively for the steel mills (most of it, coking coal) and the remaining blast furnaces.
Is there a nuclear substitute for this? Direct process heat is limited to temperatures even from GenIV reactors to below that what is necessary to melt iron ore and used in blast furnaces. Can electricity be used?
Coal serves three functions in a blast furnace. It supplies heat by combustion, it carries away the oxygen from the iron oxide in the form of mixed carbon monoxide & dioxide, & it supplies carbon to form low-melting iron carbide (Fe3C, cementite).
Back about 1900, before the development of long-distance transmission systems, there were surpluses of hydroelectricity at places such as Niagara & some sites in Norway. One of the ways proposed to absorb this surplus was to use electricity to supply the heat in the iron-smelting process. A retort would be packed with crushed iron ore, coal, & (typically, depending on the ore chemistry) limestone, & a carbon rod would be used to strike an electric arc in the midst of the mixture. A savings of 50% or more in total coal use could be achieved, which was thought valuable in places with iron ore & hydro potential, but little or low-grade coal.
Howdy all –
Lisa is up for reelection. She is a social moderate which doesn’t play well up here and contributed mightily to her primary loss in 2010. This time around, she was told to shut up and concentrate on AK issues and energy, both of which she is very good at. She appears to be listening, which is a good thing.
She and her staff are very familiar with Marvin Yoder’s efforts to bring in a Toshiba 4S into Galena (around 10MWE). That size is a bit large for the Alaska Bush, but not so big if you chunk it up into central energy distribution centers. Some of the rest of us in the Railbelt have discussed nuclear over the years (Heat engines in a part of the world that gets cold are Good Things).
Progress? Maybe, though I won’t believe it until she does a Come to Jesus meeting with the collective speed bumps at the NRC. Cheers –
Senators Murkowski and Alexander are working with several others to realign the NRC’s priorities and fiscally encourage them to produce more efficient and effective regulations. I’ll look through my archives, but I’m pretty sure that there have already been a few “come to jesus” meetings. Alexander, as the Chairman of the appropriations committee that is responsible for the NRC’s funding lines, sits in a pretty good position vis a vis an agency that is not fully serving its Congressionally mandated mission. That mission, by the way is
“The NRC licenses and regulates the Nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.”
The mandated standard of protection is “reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and common defense and security”.
It is NOT, contrary to some myths and practices, absolute protection or even as much protection as is physically possible with an unlimited amount of expenditure.
My thoughts are that NRC fosters radiophobia, this policy inherently makes an unlevel playing field, constantly using the word “safe” is causing a problem, and this policy is conceptually like ALARA. The NRC might as well being regulating to “absolute perfection”, with their interpretation of their own Safety Goal. Here’s some background on the NRC Safety Goal.
To recommend to the Commission possible modifications to the Commission’s Reactor Safety Goal Policy Statement in response to the Commission’s Staff Requirements Memoranda on SECY-97-208, SECY-98-101, and SECY-99-191.
The policy statement on reactor safety goals was initiated because of recommendations of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. The content of the policy statement was discussed in many forums before the Commission issued Safety Goals for the Operation of Nuclear Power Plants; Policy Statement in 1986. The Safety Goal Policy Statement expressed the Commission’s policy regarding the acceptable level of radiological risk from nuclear power plant operation as follows:
Individual members of the public should be provided a level of protection from the consequences of nuclear power plant operation such that individuals bear no significant additional risk to life and health.
Societal risks to life and health from nuclear power plant operation should be comparable to or less than the risks of generating electricity by viable competing technologies and should not be a significant addition to other societal risks.
(Note these are intended to be QUANTITATIVE)
The following quantitative objectives are used in determining achievement of the above safety goals:
• The risk to an average individual in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant of prompt fatalities that might result from reactor accidents should not exceed one-tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of the sum of prompt fatality risks resulting from other accidents to which members of the U.S. population are generally exposed.
This one is a mouthful, I look at it like this. NYC, 8 million people, IP NPP nearby up river on the Hudson. There are a ton of ways you can get killed in NYC, run over by cab, shot by a bad guy, gas line explodes, you name it. And our government is famous for keeping track of all, so you can get an actual number. Let’s say ave year is 10,000 people from ALL ACCIDENTAL DEATHS (I know, too low), but is that even a level playing field? Why use the total? Next we can calculate IP can only kill 10,000 X .001 = 10. Does that represent “no significant additional risk”? Heck no, that’s about saying zero additional risk. I don’t care what starting number you use, the .1% multiplier in no way represents any reasonable understanding of “significant additional risk!!!. I can only interpret this as NRC is spreading radiophobia. I don’t care if I get run over by a cab or 1000 Rem from IP, I’m just as dead. This methodology not only spreads radiophobia by implying “Death by IP NPP” needs to be limited to an extremely small fraction of virtually everything else that can accidentally kill you in NYC, it is directly contrary to the concept of the stated goal of “no significant additional risk.”
• The risk to the population in the area near a nuclear power plant of cancer fatalities that might result from nuclear power plant operation should not exceed one-tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of the sum of cancer fatality risks resulting from all other causes.
This policy statement was not a regulation, but influenced various regulatory actions, primarily the development of the Regulatory Analysis Guidelines used in backfit analyses and the guidance developed for risk-informing reactor regulatory activities. Updating the policy statement will provide a current, high level statement of Commission intent that can guide the development of reactor rulemaking activities and changes in reactor regulatory practices. The reactor Safety Goals do not
address environmental considerations, worker protection, non-reactor activities, or safeguards matters.
I think this guidance is definitely used in backfit analysis, and has become the standard. Using PRA, et all for cost/benefit evaluation of risk improvements. I interpret the “regulatory activities” above to include issuing COLs and Design Certifications too. My problem is there is nothing reasonable about this because their “0.1% additional” and “no significant additional” used in the same concept is an oxymoron. Further I think they in fact actually regulate using an extension of this concept, “acceptable risk” to NRC has moved to zero risk to the NRC staff itself. They will “break the bank” asking computer analysis based questions about everything; never applying engineering judgment about “acceptable.” They do this so they never get hauled before Congress again like after TMI2 and asked “why did you say it was safe?”
Here are some of my thoughts about the “acceptable risk” discussion, with respect to communication with the general public.
It has always been my understanding that everything about the basis for licensing and operation of NPPs has always been about “acceptable risk”, as determined by the NRC. My awareness of the first attempt to quantify risk was the WASH 1400 report of mid ‘70s, using PRA technology. I think PRA use is now commonplace in all aspects of NPP regulation. There was never the thought within either the NRC or people directly associated with NPPs that NPPs afforded zero risk. It was thought that the risk was very small therefore acceptable. Current PRA methodology does three types of PRA. First, the probably of a core damage accident is estimated, and that risk result has to be acceptable to the NRC. Second, given the core damage accident has occurred, the probability of Contaiment Structure failure is estimated, and that risk result has to be acceptable to the NRC. Third, given the Containment Structure has now also failed, the consequences of that failure are estimated, and those results have to be acceptable to the NRC. So zero risk has never been part of the equation.
My opinion on the communication of this concept, and it is really not just a difference in semantics, is that when this “acceptable risk” concept gets communicated to the general public the words always change. They change to “safe”. I realize there is a warm fuzzy association or maybe even a Webster’s correlation. But I’m a “nuke” so I believe they are safe because I work with all the design information, operation information, etc. But I honestly believe when the general public hears “they are safe” they really hear (or want to believe) “100% safe, zero risk.” This happens for a few reasons. First, that is what most of them want to hear. Second, we have become a sound bite news sponge from cable TV, internet, etc; and they want it kept simple. Third, it is constantly crammed down their throat by press releases by Industry Spokesmen, NPP PR departments, etc. NEI can come up with more variants of “safe” in a single press release than I could even imagine.
I’m convinced, over time, to solve this communication problem the Nuclear Industry (except for the NRC, they are hopelessly dysfunctional)) has to start using “acceptable risk” instead of the word “safe”. A curious public will start asking what exactly that means, and explain it to them. Zero risk was never the idea. Also discussing “acceptable” inherently brings in “compared to what.”
Based on the two above Safety Goals, and an evaluation of the known facts of the Fukushima industrial accident (Prompt Fatalities and ‘ future latent’ cancer fatalities), what exactly caused a need for US NRC regulatory action on US plants? Has this regulatory action cost influenced any recent plant closure announcements? If so, do the replacement power sources increase the probability of the ‘sum of the fatality risks from all/other sources …’?
I agree with Rod, someone has lost sight of the total meaning of their regulatory oversight function and responsibility mandate.
Reading this again, Senator Manchin may have been talking about CTL, turning coal into synthetic diesel. Marry the process up to a reactor turning out excess hydrogen and the final step when they chop the long chain hydrocarbon into whatever length the output needs runs more efficiently. The shorter the molecule, the more hydrogen needed. It’s a nice operational combination. Cheers –
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