For the past 17 years, the American Nuclear Society has sponsored a utility working conference for members who engage in the demanding, but rewarding work of operating and supporting the fleet of 104 nuclear power plants that provide approximately 800 billion emission free kilowatt-hours each year to the United States power grid. The conference has always been held at the Amelia Island Plantation on the northeast coast of Florida and it is always scheduled during the first or second week of August. A significant portion of the 640 meeting attendees (up from 575 in 2009) bring their families and arrive a day or two early to enjoy the ocean breezes, swimming pools and golf courses.
One of the things that I have always liked about the people engaged in the electricity business – and I have been around them for my whole life – is that they actually enjoy working hard and providing good, stable lives for their families. Though there is a bit more competition in the industry now than there was when my father was working for FP&L, the industry still cooperates to solve issues that affect all of them. The ANS Utility Working Conference is one of the more productive meetings that just happens to allow the attendees to combine work with family style pleasure.
On Sunday evening, the meeting kicked off with a walk around dinner in the expo center. There are 85 exhibitors with manned booths and displays – that is also a signifiant increase since last year, with several first time exhibitors who have never been to any ANS event. It was fun to walk around and chat with people that I have met in Washington wearing dark business suits. At Amelia Island, they wear resort appropriate clothing, even to the receptions and meetings. It was also amusing to see how much some of the children enjoyed dipping strawberries, marshmallows, and pineapple slices in the chocolate fountain. (I shared their enjoyment.)
After starting off my morning with an hour long sunrise walk on the beach with my wife – yes, I am one of the many who invited family to the conference – I made my way to the Grand Pavilion. That venue is actually a permanent tent that often houses wedding receptions or similar events, but it is the only place at the resort with a large enough space to house all of the attendees. The plenary session included a brief ceremony featuring three awards, one each for leadership, technology innovation and operational performance.
Michael Howard, the recently elected next CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, spoke about the need for new nuclear power plants. His institute has developed a number of scenarios projecting energy use and supply patterns out into the 2050 time frame. When constraints are applied to the model to push it in the direction of an 80% reduction in CO2 output at the least cost to society, the model runs produce a distribution of energy sources that is significantly different from the sources supplying the grid today.
Michael highlighted two versions of the output – one that allowed all options and one that constrained the options to prevent new nuclear power plants and to prevent the introduction of carbon capture and storage. The constrained model would only meet the CO2 reduction goal with a reduction in total power output on the order of 40%. In a country where the population continues to grow, that prospect looks very bleak, since power and prosperity are closely linked. Interestingly enough, the model run that allowed all options to be included did not result in any visible contribution from solar energy. You can access and download the publicly available report from EPRI that formed the basis for Michael Howard’s talk. Look in the right hand column for the report titled “The Power to Reduce CO2 Emissions: The Full Portfolio – 2009 Technical Report”.
Marvin Fertel, the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, provided a perspective from inside the Washington, DC beltway about energy legislation. One of the more interesting sections of his talk included a description of how the issue of reducing CO2 emission has opened doors and minds of some key leaders who have previously worked in opposition to nuclear energy.
He spoke about meetings in which “the principle” (the congressman or senator) asked penetrating questions and occasionally overrode ideological or emotionally driven recommendations from staff members in favor of realistic recommendations from knowledgeable nuclear technologists. He specifically described how the issue of climate change has allowed Senator John Kerry and Senator Mark Udall to clearly answer questions from constituents about how they could have changed their minds to now support nuclear. As Marv said, the senators now respond with “how can I NOT support nuclear?”
I attended a technical session that was a discussion about the importance of knowledge management and examples of the ways that the nuclear industry is successfully implementing programs to ensure full capture of the deep experience and operational knowledge accumulated by the generation of workers who built and operated the plants for the past 40 years.
As I exited the technical session and aimed for the buffet line, Scott Peterson from the NEI public relations office asked if I could fill in for a sick colleague at the afternoon plenary session on social media. I was honored to be asked and enjoyed sharing a bit of what I have learned as a blogger, podcaster and participant in numerous online discussions. As many of you know, the electric utility industry is not the most forward leaning industry in the world, but there is a lot of interest in finding new ways to talk to people about energy options, about plant operational issues, and even to answer questions from people who just want to learn more about how their power gets produced and delivered.
The afternoon technical session I attended was a discussion led by David Matthews, head of the new reactor licensing section at the NRC. His assembled set of experts discussed the substantial effort underway to define a process for reviewing any design changes that are deemed necessary during the construction phase after receiving a combined operating license.
This is a rather contentious issue – the 10 CFR Part 52 one step license process that was hammered out over almost a decade worth of work is based on the concept of finality. Once an issue is fully resolved, it should not be subjected to later challenge. The industry representatives involved in the design of this process were motivated by their experiences of interventions injected into the two step licensing process after most of the construction work was already completed. They wanted to design a system that would ensure safe plants, but also prevent a situation where major investments were made only to find out at the very end that there was a safety related objection.
Resolving the objections at that stage of the process would entail major delays and rework before being allowed to operate, sell electricity and generate revenue to pay back the banks and equity investors who have paid for the construction. If the delays occur after construction work is already done, there is a far greater cost because workers are already on site, interest is building up every day on the borrowed money, and correcting already completed work is far more difficult than doing it right the first time.
However, now that companies are getting into the detailed design process for constructing the first of a kind units, they are realizing just how difficult it is to design a complex facility down to the locations of vents, drains, piping bends, accesses, and valve specifications. They are getting counseled by expert constructors that are helping them to understand just how many seemingly minor changes get made to paper or electronic designs after introduction to the real world where metal is bent, real dirt is moved, and real people interpret drawings slightly differently from what the engineer or architect at the CAD/CAM station envisioned.
As Dave Matthews reminded the group as they raised objections to the delays that would be imposed if each one of those changes required an NRC review of the change, there is another option for the industry. The Part 50 two step license procedure remains available where the owner can apply for a construction permit and then apply for an operating license at a point much farther into the construction process.
I am looking forward to day two. It is almost time to head out for that sunrise walk on the beach first.