Nuclear Reactors 273 - Washington City in Utah Considering Participating in Small Modular Reactor Project

         One of the big selling points of nuclear power is that it produces huge amounts of electricity. Reactors that generate over a billion watts of power are common. The smallest commercial power reactor in the U.S. is located at Fort Calhoun in Nebraska and it generates over five hundred megawatts. There is a movement now towards smaller reactors called "small modular reactors" (SMRs) that produce three hundred million watts or less. The supporters of this trend say that these reactors can be constructed on a production line and shipped to where they will be installed and operated. This is supposed to benefit from standardization of components and less costly onsite work. Critics say that it is unlikely that three of these reactors could be built and installed for less money than a single big reactor that would produce more electricity.

         Washington City is located in Utah. Its population is about eighteen thousand people which makes it the thirty fifth largest city in Utah. This week the City Council agreed to consider the possibility of nuclear power generation as an alternative to a coal power plant. They are going to research sites for a local nuclear power plant. Washington City only needs eleven megawatts of electricity from a new plant. One of the reasons for the interest in the nuclear option is the fact that the city has developed a "Carbon Free Power Project" in order to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by the production of electricity.

         Washington City is teaming with NuScale Power which is an Oregon-based company. NuScale is one of the companies working on the SMRs. They have publicized plans to work on reactors for municipalities who may need as little as fifty megawatts of electricity from a nuclear power plant. They say that twelve of these SMRs could be linked together to produce six hundred megawatts of electricity which is comparable to the low end of the existing big nuclear power reactors. NuScale is working on such a system to be constructed near Idaho Falls. They hope to have the system in operation by 2024.

          Washington City has agreed to provide an initial twenty thousand dollars in conjunction with contributions from other nearby municipalities for Phase I of the exploratory process. Phase II calls for spending between one million three hundred thousand dollars and two million six hundred thousand dollars. The higher number would be required if the Utah Associated Municipal Power System partners with NuScale. NuScale will provide half the funding if the UAMPS comes in on the project. The federal Department of Energy is ready to provide a two hundred and fifty million dollar grant for Phase III to help with the development of SMRs.

         The DoE has been working with several different companies to stimulate the development of SMRs. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of interest from potential customers and potential investors in SMRs which has slowed down the development work. Time will tell if this alternative to the gigawatt plus big power reactors is viable.

Washington City Community Center:

Geiger Readings for Jul 27, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745

Ambient office = 117  nanosieverts per hour

Ambient outside = 130   nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 114  nanosieverts per hour
Carrot from Central Market = 102  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 59  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 51  nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for Jul 26, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 88  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 104   nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 128  nanosieverts per hour
Crimini mushroom from Central Market = 125  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 95  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 90  nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for Jul 25, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 89 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 126  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 127 nanosieverts per hour
Beefsteak tomato from Central Market = 111 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 100 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 95 nanosieverts per hour 
Pacific Cod - Caught in USA = 107 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 272 - Old Iron Curtain Divides Modern Europe With Respect To Nuclear Power Plans

         I have talked about nuclear issues in Europe in general and in specific European nations before. Today I am going to blog about a major division between European nations over the need to utilize nuclear power. Twenty five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed, releasing Eastern European countries from their bondage. The Soviets built a lot of nuclear reactors in the part of Europe that they controlled. Now, what was once called the Iron Curtain, seems to be dividing European countries that are moving away from nuclear power from those who are rushing towards it.

       Germany and Austria have rejected nuclear power altogether. Germany made the decision to shut down all nuclear power plants in Germany by the year 2022, partly because the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Austria halted their nuclear power program after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Their reasoning is that the danger of a nuclear accident and the damage that it could cause far outweigh any of the supposed advantages of nuclear power. Austria is launching legal challenges against other countries in the European Union (EU) over nuclear plans.

        The government of the Czech Republic released a report last month that details their plans for an expansion of nuclear power in the Republic in the coming years. By 2040, they want to be producing half of their power from nuclear reactors, up from about a third of current electricity generation.

        One of the new Czech reactors is going to be built thirty miles from the border with Austria at the Temelin nuclear power plant which already has two nuclear power reactors. There was a fierce dispute between the Czechs and the Austrians over the construction of the first two reactors at Temelin which began in 1980 and a new dispute over the new reactor project is heating up between the two countries.

        The Austrians tried to force the Czechs to shut down Temelin power plant as the price for allowing the Czech Republic to become a member of the E.U. An Austrian official is threatening to take legal action in E.U. courts to block construction of the new reactor at Temelin. One of the concerns expressed by the Austrians is that the financing for the new Temelin reactor has not been resolved. They say that without subsides or state involvement, construction of the reactor could bankrupt the builder and force taxpayers and electricity customer to make up the cash shortfall. The Czechs have responded that they have confidence that the construction company has the resources to finish the project.

        Hungary and Slovakia which were once communist nations are now member of the E. U. They are both constructing new nuclear power reactors. Poland is considering setting up its own nuclear program for power generation. They respond to pressure from Western European members of the EU who criticize nuclear power by saying that they consider nuclear power to be safe, inexpensive and low-carbon. They say that they should have the right to choose their own power sources. The nuclear skeptics in Western Europe respond that the danger of accidents is too great and damage would spread across the borders of the counties building the reactors to other European countries.



Geiger Readings for Jul 24, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 114 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 62  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 73 nanosieverts per hour
Vine ripened tomato from Central Market = 136 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 119 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 113 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Fusion 20 - ITER and New European Fusion Road Map

         I have blogged about the ITER project (International Thermonuclear  Experimental Reactor) here. This twenty billion dollar experimental fusion reactor is being built at Cadarache, France by a consortium of nations. The basic design concept for the ITER is a tokomak which is a donut shaped chamber surrounded by magnets which confine and heat a plasma to the point where nuclear fusion occurs.

       In order to achieve nuclear fusion, a plasma of fusion fuel has to be compressed and heated to at least one hundred and fifty million degrees Centigrade. Powerful magnets, microwaves and particles beams are being used to create these conditions. To date, no fusion reactor has ever produced more energy than it consumed. This is called the breakeven point. When fully operational, ITER is expected to produce five hundred megawatts from an input of fifty megawatts for several minutes.

       ITER is not designed to produce any electricity. If and when ITER is successful, a prototype power generating fusion reactor will be built called DEMO. Design work is just beginning on DEMO but it is unlikely that it will be an international collaborative effort like ITER. Current plans call for it to be funded and constructed  by the European Union. Korea is now working on its own fusion power reactor called K-Demo. China is working on its own fusion reactor which would an intermediate step between ITER and Demo. The Chinese project is called the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor. Other nations are also working on experimental fusion reactors. 

       The budget for ITER has already tripled over the original estimate. The schedule for completion has been extended from 2016 to 2019. Officially, the first plasma generation is supposed to happen in 2020, but a British expert involved in the project recently said it would be 2025 before the first plasma generation and 2030 before it generated more energy than was being fed into it.

      Eurofusion, the European agency which is responsible for fusion research in Europe, has recently published a "road map" of how to move from the ITER project to the DEMO commercial prototype for a fusion power plant by 2050. Although successful generation of the first plasma at ITER slated for 2020 will be a major breakthrough for fusion research, the road map lists a challenging series of technical problems that must be solve before commercial fusion power can become a reality.

       One of the biggest challenges for fusion reactors is how to remove the heat from the reactor. Tokomak fusion reactors have a device called a diverter at the bottom of the plasma chamber that removes spent fuel. The diverter is the only place in the reactor where the hot plasma actually touches a surface so it has  to be able to withstand enormous heat. The ITER diverter is constructed from stainless steel and coated with tungsten. While this may work for ITER trial runs of a few minutes, DEMO will run continuously producing gigawatts of energy and the ITER diverter will not be able to take the continuous high temperatures. New designs will have to be developed and tested.

      Another technical problem has to do with what is called the "tritium blanket." This is a section of the plasma vessel's wall where neutrons generated by the fusion process convert lithium to tritium which is one of the fuels for the reactor. This will also require more research, development and testing.

       As a backup plan in case ITER does not deliver the results expected, the road map calls for continuing work on fusion reactors other than the tokomaks. Germany is working on the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator which will be finished in 2016. There are plans to use what is learned on the stellarator to create a power producing reactor which will be called HELIAS.

Artist's concept of ITER:

Geiger Readings for Jul 23, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 66 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 72  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 66 nanosieverts per hour
Peach from Central Market = 95 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 97 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 88 nanosieverts per hour 

Nuclear Reactors 271 - Brattle Group Produces Biased Economics of Nuclear Power Report for Nuclear Matters

     The Brattle Group (BG) "answers complex economic, regulatory, and financial questions for corporations, law firms, and governments around the world." Recently, the BG prepared an economic analysis of the economic impact of nuclear power in the United States for a group called Nuclear Matters (NM). The mission of NM is " to inform the public about the clear benefits that nuclear energy provides to our nation, raise awareness of the economic challenges to nuclear energy that threaten those benefits, and to work with stakeholders to explore possible policy solutions that properly value nuclear energy as a reliable, affordable and carbon-free electricity resource that is essential to America’s energy future."  

       The report claims that nuclear power in the U.S. supplies ten billion in tax revenues to the federal government, reduces carbon dioxide emissions and provides jobs. The most contentious claim in the report is that nuclear power reduces wholesale electricity prices by ten percent and retail electricity prices by six percent. Critics of the report point out that nuclear power accounts for about nineteen percent of the electricity in the U.S. If nuclear power is reducing the price of electricity by ten percent, that would mean that it would have to be about half the combined average price of coal, gas, hydroelectric and renewables which is around twelve and a half cents per kilowatt hour. That would make nuclear generated electricity around  six cents per kilowatt hour. Skeptics of this claimed price advantage say that nuclear plants are notorious for consuming a lot more time and money than original estimates.

      The price for nuclear power cited in the BGreport is not based on the cost of producing a kilowatt hour. Instead, it is based on the price of electricity at a given moment in time. A serious shortcoming of the report is that fact that it does not take into account the capital costs of building a nuclear power plant or operating costs such as recurring maintenance costs and long-term employment of staff. It bases its cost estimate for generating electricity on short-term costs such as fuel and immediate operating costs. When comparing levelized costs for electricity which take into account multiple factors, nuclear power is exactly average in price.

       One of the authors of the Brattle Group reports explains their approach by saying, “We’re not trying to evaluate the economics of nuclear or any other supply source in this study; we’re trying to see how it affects market prices, so that we can estimate the effect on customer costs and thus the economic impact. A nuclear producer might be losing money overall, but that considering just short-term costs, it is cheaper to operate than a peaker.  Of course, this is how the power market works and how plants are actually operated." 

       Peakers are power plants that are only run when there is high demand. It makes sense that they would be more expensive to operate than a plant that produces a steady level of electricity. On the other hand, steady producers like nuclear power plants are inflexible and it is difficult to moderate their output to match changing demand.

       The BG reports seems to be tailored to say something nice about nuclear power. It achieves a favorable comparison with other power sources by cherry picking the metrics that are being used to the advance of nuclear power. It does not seem to me that this report really adds any important information to the debate over the best major source of electricity.