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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

US Energy Policy and the NRC

This morning I made a post on one of my favorite social media forums, and while much of it was really kind of targeted at a specific point, I'd like to reiterate some of it here for my readers because I think it's important that we think about, develop, and vote on some sort of solid energy plan - better than what we have - in the United States, and that means selecting candidates in elections who understand our energy problems as they really are.

In this embryonic policy idea, I made three points about an energy policy.

-We must continue with nuclear plants under construction or ordered now, and order and build all those presently planned and probably more

-We must get the NRC committed to being in front of the curve on reviewing advanced reactor technology like Gen IV plants instead of waiting to develop review and analysis in parallel with development

-We must place loan guarantees differently depending upon what they are for. As an example, loan guarantees to develop nuclear belong covering owner-operators -- in other words, the utilities -- while loan guarantees for solar should NOT be given to manufacturers but rather to END USERS who will actually install solar equipment on their business premises or homes.

I can add to that one further point.

-We must decide on a national nuclear waste program, whether or not it includes continued on-site storage in dry casks, whether or not it includes centralized (federal) spent fuel storage and/or reprocessing, and if it is to use a repository get the studies done rapidly and the facility under construction. Some unified final plan is absolutely necessary.

Much of this came out of the recent webinar with the NRC Chairman. I have a massive post about this webinar still in the works as a draft, and intend to publish it soon. It is very long, and likely will receive very widely disparate opinions. One part of this I can mention now is the fact that Chairman Jaczko stated that the NRC is really in no way ready to review any Gen IV reactors and that nothing is pending or being discussed at the NRC about these plants. Further, it's clear he killed the Yucca Mountain program fairly single-handedly with no substitute in sight.

Those are problems.

In support of the first point, it's clear that utilities are facing both continued scrutiny on the aging of older plants and concerns following Fukushima Daiichi as well. Considering that roughly one fifth of our energy in this country is nuclear, considering our desire to stop carbon dioxide emissions and acid rain, considering our desire to reduce or eliminate dependence on foreign oil, and also considering our need to develop jobs and improve our electric system infrastructure in this country, how do you not build new nuclear plants? The answer is: You DO build new nuclear plants.

In support of the second point, there are those (this author for one) now who are beginning to wonder whether the NRC Chairman saying that nothing for Gen IV plants is on the horizon is simply a realistic appraisal of the likelihood of near-term application and review work for Gen IV plants or if it's plain obstructionism. In the old AEC days where the agency's job included both regulating and promoting, the AEC was up to speed fully on, say, fast breeders cooled by liquid metal as a result of its own EBR program and the Navy's SIR program (S1G prototype, S2G on USS Sea Wolf.) This made review of the Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant kind of in-step with work already accomplished and underway, and was supposed to have paved the way to what became the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project (later cancelled after AEC breakup) that might have helped close the fuel cycle loop. Since the NRC's purpose now is beginning to look a little more like obstruction than regulation, we clearly need to figure out how to rectify the situation and get the NRC to simply, only regulate without imposing political agendas (for example, "no" on Yucca Mountain, public scrutiny of Westinghouse on the AP1000 containment, deliberate "head in the sand" policy on Gen IV plants) and begin to help open a path toward future technologies. This can't happen when obstructionism is in place.

[EDIT: OCTOBER 14. Speaking of obstruction, the NRC has now announced a holdup of licensing for AP1000 and ESBWR plants until the Fukushima review is complete.]

To the third point... It's clear now that federal funding of Solyndra was both a mistake and an affront to the American people. It is my position that different loan guarantees for solar, or for nuclear, should be handled differently; as my example, I can say clearly that the trend now is for large central station nuclear plants to be planned and built, by and large, not small modular plants - so that loan guarantees are being issued to the utility companies who will build and operate the plants. However, no one is trying to build large solar power stations and won't in the near future - so that funding, say, solar panel equipment manufacturers such as Solyndra is a mistake. You must entice the end users (homeowners up through business owners, building owners, and maybe small communities at most) who will install solar equipment to attempt to reduce overall energy billing and come out ahead once the equipment is paid off and any maintenance is taken into account. It is that kind of user most likely to benefit from solar, and it is that kind of user that might be prompted to buy knowing that loan guarantees were available to the lenders they'd do business with. The two are different (nuclear and solar) and the loan guarantees if given must be handled differently. This will create jobs in the nuclear field in larger numbers while stabilizing our energy infrastructure, while in terms of solar will actually have effect on energy use bit by bit and create jobs that will stay instead of having a company like Solyndra hire a load of workers, then have to fire them all when it goes broke.

As to my fourth point... The Chairman expressed his view that storage of spent fuel on site (at sites where nuclear plants are operating, or else where there were plants in the past that are now shut down) could reasonably last safely far longer than previously predicted and might be safe for a hundred years. That's very refreshing - I happen to agree. What's troubling is the still existing federal mandate to provide spent fuel storage. We need to adjust the letter of the law, and the focus of the country, on a realistic spent fuel program in terms of on site, off site, centralized storage facilities and any future plans for reprocessing. We also need to discuss any attempts to further develop breeders if there is enough consensus in the industry to build and operate them (again.) While this fourth point is not as pressing as the others it's vital.

I would like to invite commentary on these views. Please either use the comment feature on the blog, or else the e-mail link on this site.

10:45 AM Eastern Wednesday October 12, 2011


  1. As a complete non-expert, my main question is, wouldn't providing loan guarantees to solar purchasers rather than solar manufacturers be likely to lead to importing more solar panels rather than manufacturing them domestically? Solar power through imported panels is probably better than more fossil plants, at least in terms of climate change. But it's a distinctly sub-optimal situation, particularly in terms of the political "optics."

    Also, it seems like the obvious solution to long-lived nuclear waste is burning it in Gen. IV fast reactors. That would not be a quick fix, even with government backing, but surely we can keep the stuff safe for a few decades - we already have, after all. But, as I said, I'm a complete non-expert, and may be being misled by overenthusiastic fast reactor enthusiasts.

  2. I expect loan guarantees to users of solar power will be very unpopular, because they don't address the real problem: that payback times are infinite. Solar power only makes financial sense if the costs are artificially reduced (e.g. with tax credits) or the benefits are artificially increased (e.g. by forcing utilities to pay higher than the market rate for the electricity).

  3. One way to do an 'end run' around the NRC, at least in the beginning, would be to build the Gen IV prototypes on government reservations such as Savannah River or Idaho National Lab. These facilities are not regulated by the NRC. Then, once the prototypes are in operation and any bugs worked out, the NRC would be in a better position to license a standardized plant.

    Dan Yurman explored these issues in a post at the Energy Collective. The Friends of the Earth are trying to force the DOE to obtain NRC licensing anyway, even for DOE prototypes.

    B&W and TVA are apparently going with the old Part 50 two-step licensing process with its mPower prototype at Clinch River