I have just returned from a unique ecotourism experience. Instead of visiting a wild place with a protected and isolated habitat, I spent a week in France touring industrial facilities that are actively producing emission-free fuels and power for a large, prosperous, and well-developed country. My trip was hosted by Areva, the integrated manufacturing company that mines uranium, produces commercial fuel, recycles used nuclear fuel into new fuel, isolates the small amount of waste that remains after recycling in the form of glass cylinders, designs and manufactures all nuclear steam supply components, and produces containers for long term used fuel storage and transportation.
During a tour-packed week through a number of mean-looking security barriers, I learned what a power system that burns very little coal or natural gas looks like. During the transits between facilities, I had the opportunity to engage in spirited conversations with four other knowledgeable writers (five if you include our Areva tour guide). Those discussions added a great deal to the value of the trip and will be the source of continuing inspiration. Over the next few weeks, I will provide more details about individual sites and technologies as I have a chance to digest my notes and audio recordings.
We did not just see the wall sockets in a Paris hotel room and say – “gee, isn’t it nice that the electricity comes mainly from nuclear power plants” – we toured a major portion of the front, middle and back ends of the fuel cycle. About the only segment that we did not see was a uranium mine. I have been visiting power system sites for most of my life. (Aside: My dad was a utility electrical engineer and wanted his children to understand what his company produced and how they produced it. End Aside.) I can compare the facilities that I saw in France to what I have seen in electrical power systems that depend on coal and natural gas. I was impressed by the quality of the construction, the skills of the operators, the sheer beauty of the equipment, the small quantity of material being processed and the knowledge level of the communications staffs. Even the used material parts of the system were well-ordered and isolated from the environment.
Not only did we see facilities that are in operation, we saw a number that were undergoing significant new construction and expansion. We saw the buildings for the new centrifugal enrichment facilities that will reduce the power consumption used by the enrichment process by a factor of 50 compared to the existing gaseous diffusion plant. Those new plants – George Besse II North and South – are similar to the LES facility that just received its final permission to operate from the NRC on Thursday, June 10, 2010 and to the Eagle Rock enrichment facility that has recently been awarded a $2 billion loan guarantee. When George Besse II replaces the existing gaseous diffusion plant, it will be the equivalent of adding almost three 900 MWe nuclear power plants to the French electrical grid.
We saw the new 1630 MWe EPR being built in Flamanville (on the coast of Normandy, close to the D-day beaches) next to two existing 1300 MWe facilities. I expect to see a very similar plant built just 50 miles south of my Annapolis, Maryland home as Calvert Cliffs Unit 3. We also saw the recently expanded large component manufacturing facility at Chalon/Saint Marchel that is very similar to the facility that is under construction in Newport News, Virginia in a partnership with Northrop-Grumman.
If there is no such thing as a “nuclear renaissance”, I suppose that I have just spent a week in a skillfully designed holodeck along with a number of other similarly fooled people.
I wish to express my appreciation to Areva for the respect that they gave to new media content producers by inviting us for the same kind of tours that they have traditionally provided to other media visitors. There has been a long standing tradition among nuclear professionals to point a finger at “the media” and blame it for some of the negative perceptions held by many. Areva has recognized that nature of media and content production/distribution has changed. It is taking advantage of the growing opportunity for the industry to tell its own story to people who are technically competent and focused on telling compelling stories about their favorite technology. That will allow us an opportunity to lead the conversation rather than always being on the defensive.
(Note: At least one, and perhaps more of the other people on the trip paid their own way. I did not. One other thing to note is that with one exception, every writer on the trip had a technical degree at either bachelor or masters level along with significant work experience in technical fields.)