APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Friday, May 25, 2012

An interesting week, to say the least.

This has indeed been an interesting week for those who follow the news in nuclear energy. Here is a brief recap from my perspective.

NRC CHAIRMAN Gregory Jaczko announced this week that he would be resigning his post -- but only after a replacement was found. This announcement led to widespread glee in Republican-oriented quarters, widespread congratulation for "a job well done" in Democrat quarters, and in many minds an air of suspicion. The suspicion was that there might be something in the upcoming Inspector General's report that would force Jaczko to resign; indeed, there are further (unanswered) letters from the House Oversight Committee (in front of which the whole Commission testified not too long ago) about apparent untruths in Chairman Jaczko's testimony. Jaczko himself denies any such connection, instead indicating that it's time to move on, although that time will only come when a replacement is approved.

After only a very short time was allowed for speculation, the White House announced that its nominee would be one Dr. Allison MacFarlane. I don't think we need to speculate too much on what MacFarlane brings to the table; Rod Adams interviewed her for the Atomic Podcast radio show (I've been on this show twice, folks!) and has kindly provided me with a link. Click here to hear Rod Adams' interview of Dr. MacFarlane from a few years back.

We'll have to wait and see what happens in the confirmation process - but with Commissioner Svinicki up for reappointment, there's bound to be some tradeoff. (I happen to agree with one of the posters at Rod's podcast page - the White House should have picked Dr. Gail Marcus. But what do I know?) Click here for the earlier APR post on Jaczko's resignation; includes some interesting press releases.


In other news, this week Westinghouse made a significant announcement that it had formed an alliance with an engineering firm, and with submarine builder Electric Boat, to work together toward winning some of the DOE funding available for SMR plant construction. With the Vogtle and Summer plant projects underway (as expected) the focus now seems to be shifting toward this chunk of DOE money, and to which consortium can best position itself to wind funding and construct actual hardware. More than one analyst, in more than one pursuit, has indicated to this author that the best bet for the next unit to be built in the United States would be an SMR and not a large commercial station - mainly for economic reasons. (That would have to mean that whichever SMR design gets built would have to be finished before TVA can complete Watts Bar 2 in order to be fully correct, by the way.) You can click here to see the APR post made on that topic this week, with lots of background.


Some time ago, APR made two posts concerning a very serious fire on board a Russian nuclear submarine. Click here to read the first post, and click here to read the second. This week, unfortunately, we have another, more serious fire on a nuclear submarine to report - and this time it was ours.

Apparently the fire began on board USS Miami, SSN-755, at about 5:41 PM on May 23rd. The ship was in a drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine undergoing overhaul / refit; she had been there since March. No torpedoes were on board. The reactor had been shut down for two months, and the fire never threatened any of the systems used to operate or cool the reactor plant. (In other words, the fire remained forward of the reactor compartment's forward bulkhead, or in other words was limited to the operations compartment.) Having said that though the fire burned for an exceedingly long time since no firefighting water was available on board; according to reports this author has read, as many as twelve civilian fire agencies were called to assist. This author believes that the fire must have gotten into hull insulation in order to burn as hot and as long as reports seem to indicate; according to WNCT CBS Channel 9 (local to the area) the compartment was isolated completely and abandoned to cool down after the fire was out, and reentry prevented to avoid reflash. Later, this morning (Friday, 5/25) the ship was ventilated for hours to allow reentry for inspection. In all seven men were injured, and thankfully all have been released.

One would have to wonder if the ship can be economically rebuilt. The determining factors surely will be the cost to repair damage in the forward end of the ship (it appears that a large amount of equipment had been removed for work) balanced off against the amount of time the ship has left on its reactor core before refueling.

Why do I report on these things here? Simple - because these submarines are nuclear powered. Very often the public wants to know what has happened - REALLY happened - when events like this take place. When someone with sub experience says that it's possible to isolate the forward part of the ship so that the reactor plant isn't threatened, it carries weight. (Even though there are numerous stories out there right now repeating the Navy's statement to this effect, sometimes you have to either repeat it, or echo it, one more time.) This fire of course has nothing at all to do with the fact that the sub is nuclear powered and in fact from time to time shipyard fires like this one can and do happen on any and all classes of ship. The Navy has not released a cause for the fire yet, but anyone with experience will guess one thing first - welding. That would potentially cause sparks to jump to combustible material; even though the best possible precautions are ordered, sometimes they're not taken, or sometimes something happens which is totally unforeseen. We'll wait to see whether the Navy decides to rebuild and return the Miami to service, or decommission her and send her to NPSSRP (Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program) early.


Finally for this APR installment... a brief Op-Ed piece by yours truly. It won't take long.

The recent article posted on ANS Nuclear Cafe concerning spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi, which cleared two rounds of peer review, and which also gained the (much appreciated) support and backing of NEI, has continued to receive a great amount of attention by anti-nuclear commenters everywhere ... and some opposition by persons claiming to be pro-nuclear as well. This is the best possible outcome; it has proven that the anti-nuclear crowd knows when it has been presented with fact rather than hyperbole and FUD (which is the anti-nuke's stock in trade) and it fights that whenever and wherever it is seen. Were it proven that the hyperbole and fear spread by paid anti-nuclear activists is based only on a few loosely associated facts, mostly misinterpreted, and strung together in a line of assumptions which taken together are so impossible as to be laughable, the anti-nuclear crowd would be minus its beloved fear .. and worse, perhaps minus its beloved FUNDING. That's right -- there's big money in being anti-nuclear. (We already know of one anti-nuclear activist "expert" that gets paid $82000 a year by a 501(c)3 non-profit; how would YOU like to be paid 82 G a year for being wrong 100% of the time?) Yep - we showed that they don't like being presented with fact. They do what they usually do, which is try to shout everything down in the comments. That's why it's important to get pro-nuclear articles out there and let the comments fall where they may. It's bad policy to try to fight to get our message out when it's buried in a string of hundreds of comments; LEAD with it and it'll get out! (And thanks to one friend, the story did get reprinted in Daily Kos where it gets even more exposure.) I hope all of us who are pro-nuclear bloggers learned something this week. I did.

8:15 PM Eastern 5/25/2012

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