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Friday, July 15, 2011

Nuclear in Japan / USA / Around the world: July 15

We find ourselves today at a point both roughly four months after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident began and at which we find nuclear energy at a defining moment conceptually around the globe. It is not difficult to figure out where the battles are, or who is on which side.

In Japan, TEPCO and NISA continue to work steadily in bringing the Fukushima Daiichi plant situation under complete control. TEPCO's deadline of July 17 for various functions to be in operation or restored fast approaches, and we find today that TEPCO is indeed injecting nitrogen into all three pressure vessels wherein there are damaged reactors at the site; however, while the operation at No. 1 is optimal, dry well pressure showed a sharp 5 kPa drop on No. 2 plant after rising acceptably and with less than 24 hours of nitrogen injection having occurred at No. 3 plant the dry well pressure reading hasn't changed at all. It is indeed possible that there is damage at all three plants to the integrity of the dry well; it's virtually assured at No. 2 plant. However, the nitrogen injection accomplishment does meet the letter of the requirement - and readers of this blog know all too well the trouble TEPCO has encountered at each turn at each plant in all preparations for any actions. Thus, on the balance, the setbacks are annoyances and delays surely but not failures.

Similar shaded conditions of success seem to be the story with all other site functions at this time; while the goals of all the plans are being approached, with the accomplishments now in sight, the actual processes are proving riddled with delays and complications foreseen and unforeseen. Maintenance of temperature of the three damaged cores seems stable enough, as one example, but the injection rate to No. 1 plant keeps fluctuating causing TEPCO to increase injection to avoid any temperature rise. Similarly, the water decontamination / desalination plant continues to fail almost daily or every 36 hours.... but TEPCO has not, in the last 48, run out of cleaned water for reactor core injection even with the system going down. So goes the entire story of the activity at the plant site.

Meanwhile, the political debate begins to really light up in Japan for that country's energy policy future. The Genkai debacle, wherein employees of the owner-operator and its suppliers have now been found to have been 'stuffing the ballot boxes' as it were in a recent poll, has ignited further anti-nuclear furor in the country. (This problem was totally avoidable, the action by the utility completely unnecessary, and the position it puts the utilities in is completely defensive.) The Prime Minister recently said he'd like to see a totally non-nuclear Japan. However, amidst reports of rolling blackouts, requests for energy conservation, estimates of massive expenditure required to go "green-renewable" and major reductions in GDP due to the cuts and costs, first Cabinet Secretary Edano "clarified" Kan's remarks and then Kan restated his position, calling it somewhat of an idealized, and personal (i.e. non-governmental) position. Further reporting by NHK shows that Japan would muddle its Kyoto Protocol obligations and raise annual CO2 gas emission by 210 million tons were it to quickly go non-nuclear.

Somewhat on the flip side, four utility companies in Japan recently voted down shareholder attempts to ban nuclear from the companies' generating assets, and two reactors have been undergoing tests (very prolonged tests, that is) for four months or roughly thereabouts since the NISA inspection process has been stalled but are ready to go on line producing power as soon as certified.

Those reactors may or may not be subjected to shutdown in light of the recently adopted IAEA style "stress tests" that Naoto Kan announced the country would undertake, right after another minister loudly proclaimed everywhere that the plants that were shut down were safe and were ready to start back up after meeting quake and tsunami mitigation requirements newly stipulated. The muddled political position in Japan is quite in opposition to the position of its nuclear establishment but frankly is simply responsive to both public outcry and a desire to remain in office. Many had called for Kan to step down; now, he has taken a nebulously anti-nuclear (but not now) stance in some attempt to remain in power. His indecisiveness and willingness to confuse the public by adoption of further IAEA stress testing is the single most complicating factor in the regulatory / governmental response to the nuclear portion of the (much larger) natural disaster.

Elsewhere, such as Germany, the political response is not nebulous at all; it's "no more nuclear." This will have to be tempered a bit though as newly released details indicate that one or perhaps two nuclear plants will have to be restarted and put on line in the winter for two years until sufficient alternative electricity supply (solar, thermal, natural gas, coal, nuclear from France) can be obtained.

In the entire span of nations we find ourselves here in the United States in probably the best position -- that is, if you are pro-nuclear. For starters, Japan has announced that it will terminate all governmental talks with other nations about the export of nuclear technology. That means essentially no Japanese-built reactors in emerging nuclear energy nations. While this leaves the door wide open for South Korea, it's a prime opportunity for the US to attempt to get into this market.

A number of nuclear projects continue in this country essentially as before, and the Westinghouse AP1000 licensing process is still moving. Further good news is the Generation mPower project (TVA-B&W-Bechtel) that will bring nuclear power to the Clinch River site and prove out modular reactors here in the US.

Quite a bit more wide-ranging and vastly more impactful is the newly released 90-day report of the NRC task group on Fukushima Daiichi. While it is important to note that this document is essentially the 90-day update on the NRC's running dialogue on the implications (if any) that Fukushima Daiichi has on the wide range of US nuclear plants, and that the document is by no means directly indicative of what the final regulatory promulgation will be, it does give a fairly clear set of indications on a number of topics. I will not reproduce them here. Having read the document, and having been fortunate to listen live to the teleconference on Tuesday by NEI on the subject, I can offer my further personal observations:

-It is of interest that the panel did not go all the way toward some of the perceived causes of damage at Fukushima and produce at least some recommendations thereon. For example, the panel report indicates that the cause for the explosion damage at No. 4 plant is not known, but in point of fact, TEPCO, NISA and JAIF have all indicated at one time or another that it's probable that hydrogen leakage into No. 4 building through the common vent stack piping -- having originated in No. 3 plant -- is the most likely and probable source. Considering the panel's considerable attention to multi-plant sites with events occurring at multiple plants on site, this seems odd.

-The panel report is fairly more complicated than perhaps required, and more than can be taken in easily by the layman due to the panel's desire to qualify the recommendation for rule formation and legislation with wandering comparison to the history of the NRC's regulatory history, even back to the days of the AEC and the pursuit of the DBA as the ultimate accident. People in the know are already well aware that the DBA scenarios are unlikely but still designed out, and that complicated strings of events such as at TMI which combine equipment and people problems are the only way to defeat the design / operation and defense in depth. It seems likely that if the NRC wishes to keep its mission clear to the vast majority of people in the USA, it should produce something more clearly readable and linear so that the layman can understand the foundation of regulatory approach today. Not that there's a problem with the regulatory approach today, at least in terms of procedure -- unless we begin talking about making derogatory statements about reactor vendors in public instead of simply reviewing and licensing and regulating.

-As pointed out clearly by the NEI Chief Nuclear Officer the NRC improperly and self-deprecatingly makes reference to the body of regulative legislation in place today as "patchwork." This would perhaps not be so glaring except for the fact that the statement is made on the first page, in the fifth paragraph of the Executive Summary of the panel report.

-Immediately after this paragraph the panel makes perhaps the most important statement of the entire report, which I will reproduce below:

The current regulatory approach, and more importantly, the resultant plant capabilities allow the Task Force to conclude that a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States and some appropriate mitigation measures have been implemented, reducing the likelihood of core damage and radiological releases. Therefore, continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety.

Taking the first sentence in order is important- it finishes with the wrong part. This paragraph would have been better worded as such:

"Core damage and / or radiological releases of significance are highly unlikely at US nuclear plants. The panel finds that the current regulatory approach, and more importantly, the resulting plant capabilities (enhanced by some appropriate mitigation features) indicate that a sequence of events such as occurred at Fukushima Daiichi is unlikely to occur in the United States. Therefore, continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health or safety."

The above wording is clearer, is delivered to ensure that the first sentence does not end with 'scare words,' and less self-deprecating by a hair. And also completely, totally true. Having performed this exercise, though, I still wish to point out the CORRECTNESS of this information no matter which way it's worded - and this part of the NRC paper is that very part most UNlikely to get reprinted in the mainstream media.

-The NRC, owner-operators, and vendors should prepare themselves for a renewed multi-media onslaught against reliable hydrogen venting and also against Mk I pressure suppression containments by the press in general and by the anti-nuclear forces in particular, because these again receive serious attention in the panel report. This author has wondered before, and does so again now, if there will be a day when any sort of suppression / condenser containment is disallowed and high-volume dry containments are mandated. Surely this expensive feature would be a sound investment in the public eye; this author has spent an inordinate amount of time since the accident on this blog explaining suppression containments. One of the suppression containment videos has received enough hits on the APR YouTube channel that it was very quickly made eligible for revenue sharing, further pointing up the curiosity of a more-informed-by-the-day public on the actual design of plant features .. and helping underscore the assertion I make that an inordinate amount of commentary and e-mail has been devoted to this topic.

I could continue for hours on the coverage of this 92-page report, but many others have, and continue to and so for now will withhold. What is most important to understand about the report is the fact that it appears not to be too over-reaching or overly reactionary, which is encouraging.

So today, we find ourselves -- and that is 'ourselves' almost anywhere we are -- in some sort of transitionary mode vis a vis nuclear energy. The back and forth has begun in earnest on all sides in all countries with nuclear energy. We here know we cannot abandon it, and are preparing to license and build new-generation LWR plants in a deliberate, calm and safe fashion. We are avoiding the crash nuclearization seen in some nations and the crash denuclearization seen in others, and attendant potential and real problems. Although the late 60's appear to have been the halcyon days for nuclear energy both as business venture and technological endeavor, it is likely the next few years that will prove definitive in the overall history of nuclear fission energy on Earth. Frankly, it is a process I cannot wait to detail.

5:45 PM Eastern Friday July 15, 2011

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