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14 Comments

  1. Rod, I see your proposal as a Band-Aid solution.

    If we take a few steps back and look at the whole situation, we see that (at least part of) the problem is the whole licensing process that makes building and running a nuclear power plant more expensive than it really needs to be. Add on top of this that competing fossil fuel generation gets to dump its waste into the air for free. The result is that what should be the cheapest (and cleanest) form of dispatchable power generation is less profitable than alternative dirty generation. If nuclear power generation were as profitable as it should be, these plants would be generating power instead of being shut down.

    1. @donb

      When a patient has numerous wounds gushing blood, some large and some small, Band-Aids cannot solve the problem. A few of them on minor cuts might help, as the process of treating the other wounds continues.

  2. “Should NRC spend time and money simplifying transition to decommissioning?”
    This is actually a rather interesting question in-and-of itself. My feeling is it actually grew out of discussions on earlier blog posts on the demise of VY, which pointed out that the current regulatory structure has no “in between” status. Plants are either in operation or possession only. There are really no current regs addressing a “maintain the asset but not operate (for now)” status. That alone doesn’t make sense because every technology does it. We all even do that in our personal life as in “put that idea on hold until financial conditions change.” If the need for that condition is real and will exist for awhile, and it appears it is, that’s the condition that should be addressed first. But it must be made both easy and financially attractive or it won’t be used.
    On a conceptual level the scope doesn’t seem that difficult. The NRC regs would still obviously apply to the used fuel and all the equipment needed to keep it within the original design basis. Maintaining the rest of the asset is not new technology. But proving you did, for a return to operation, is fair game for the regulator, and it too must be easy and cheap.
    A more difficult problem for a small utility is keeping the qualified labor pool available for eventual return to operation. IMO, the NRC track record on “easy and cheap” is a dismal failure. So maybe some organization that has not already reached a state of maximum entropy should be charged with the task.

    The other part of the question I don’t understand fully is the idea of NRC “spending” money. I don’t think they really do that (other than the tax payer 10% contribution), rather the person sitting at a desk doing “stuff” must charge (or assign) their time to a budget line item number or they are wasting time, which 90% of the time gets passed on to the utility as a fee. So indirectly the licensee is actually spending the development money. The real solution is to simply eliminate the dysfunctional middle man.

    Also if this process is “promoting nuke power” not strictly regulating, which it seems to be, it is not even the NRC’s job to do it.

  3. I don’t know, but my general impression is that this situation is symptomatic of the whole licensing apparatus currently in place. A lot of people spend a lot of their time dealing with things like bean counting and peripheral issues instead of really focusing on what is useful and helpful. When I was in the research reactor business I spent a great deal of my time trying to convince the powers that be in the NRC and elsewhere that the proposed fee structure would have a disproportionate impact on small, university-based facilities than it would on power plants. They just didn’t seem to grasp that facilities whose budgets were fixed or declining were in a different situation than others, that they could not “raise their rates” to cover the proposed fees. Their response was always something like, well, just go to your Dean and ask for a bigger budget. Well, yeah, you could do that, and he’ll listen and say, you’re not getting a bigger budget, you’re getting a smaller one, so pay your fee from that and don’t pay your staff (which is a back-door way of shutting the reactor down, which sounds awfully familiar).

  4. Somebody needs to do a study to identify the cost of a partial decommission so that the aging plant in question can be replaced by a gen III or gen IV reactor. Such a scenario would be the best outcome for everyone. Assuming if course the plant would not be eligible for refurbishing.

    1. The conversion of a PWR to a High Pressure BWR would seem like a natural transition. Also, a BWR to an AGR-type GCR (perhaps using Zirconium Hydride as the moderator) might be a good fit.

      1. Here’s an actual example of a successful BWR conversion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Zimmer_Power_Station
        The actual lesson to be learned is not specifically stated in the wiki article, but is still appropriate to new builds today. As usual the “devil is in the details”, but note this plant was being built during the explosive growth period of the nuclear industry during the late ’70s, and then got caught up in the period of increased regulatory oversight of post TMI2. Note also the specific nature of the “problem”; nothing says the plant had any actual construction flaws (as in it was built badly), rather they “couldn’t prove it.” Never underestimate the power of a failed QA program to derail a nuke plant construction project. QA is the rule we play by. It is the second vital part of “how do you know they are safe”? The first part is they are designed (on paper) to an approved Safety Analysis Report. QA proves they were built that way.
        Note they picked an inexperienced contractor, or IMO they deviated from normal good practice. Most likely this was because of a schedule concern, as in the experienced ones were busy during the rapid growth period. But even the experienced ones of that growth period got diluted by the rapid expansion. If you know the history all of the plants cancelled mid construction, after $millions were spent, they all had QA problems.
        There is another way experience can get diluted. Not building any plants for 30 years. My comment is getting too long, my message is for anyone building a nuke plant today. Don’t think QA is a “paper” problem, it is a show stopper. And if you are having QA problems, you better go find people for advice that understand the rigors. Stop thinking the newbies can solve their own programmatic problems by reshuffling management positions! Here’s a hint: they will be old.

        1. So — is a never-used RPV just sitting there? If so, why haven’t they sold it? Too hard to move? They got it there in the first place, after all.
          I know of a completely unused BWR plant in Austria (completed just in time for a 1978 referendum banning electric power production in Austria using fission).
          That plant is right on the Danube — it would be (relatively) easy to move parts downstream to nuke-friendly countries on the river (Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria).
          Same with this Zimmer plant — right on the Ohio.

          1. Likely the RPV is for a plant design that is particular to the site and could not receive approval today, even if it was (could be) moved elsewhere.

  5. Unless and until there is a working national spent fuel repository, the concept of decommissioning has no real meaning and carries undefinable costs. Currently there are scores of sites which are potential candidates for an ISFSI, temporary spent fuel storage facility, normally collated next to a nuclear plant. Each is a prime target for a terrorist attack, at some unknowable hour. The active detection systems, coordination and timely human response to this act of war and the division of responsibility between the private and public sectors has never been assessed or assigned.

    Yucca Mountain is a testament to DoE’s and the NRC’s failure on a fundamental nuclear safety function, long term secured storage of highly radioactive material. It was scheduled to accept and secure the nation’s inventory of spent fuel “on or before” January 1, 1998. The money was spent, nothing works, and thus decommissioning has no meaning.

  6. @Rod
    Missing from your discussion is effect of the lack of Yucca Mt (any) storage facility. Once all fuel has been offloaded and transferred to the “permanent” storage facility there is no need for operating equipment and “licensed operators.” there will be some radioactive material left, i.e., the irradiated vessel, and other NSSS components that the NRC will still have some regulatory authority over. But this problem is the NRC’s problem (IMHO) as they are the ones who held up Yucca Mt.

    Suggested research project for future article – Look at 10 CFR dated 1960 or so and then todays present 10 CFR. How much has “Safety” been increased? How much as cost been increased? Divide the original cost of the first reactors E.g. Nine Mile or Oyster Creek – $600 Million with todays NPPs – $6 billion. Can anyone really say the new ones are 1,000 (factoring in inflation) times safer? Really? What have these new regulations done for us? If the NRC had spent the same time getting Yucca built on these known consequences of not building it, this would be a nob problem,

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