Why Do They Listen to Alvarez?

Why do they listen to Alvarez?

Since I am a blogger on the Northwest Clean Energy Blog, the company sends me (and other interested people) links and public documents about Energy Northwest. I receive links to newspaper articles and TV shows that mention the company. I also have a Google alert set for Energy Northwest, which means I often get the same links twice in a day.

Recently, I received a link about Robert Alvarez writing a report about the safety of the used fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station, and the (imagined) catastrophes that lay in store. And I thought: OMG, here that guy goes again!

Now, before I go further with this post, I want to make it clear that this is my very own opinion of Alvarez and his writings. He wasn’t even on my radar until he came to Vermont and testified in front of a legislative committee… But I get ahead of myself…Let’s start with Alvarez in Vermont.

Alvarez in Vermont

Robert Alvarez came to Vermont and testified in front of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He claimed that the spent fuel at Vermont Yankee was very dangerous. He talked about the spent fuel pool at Fukushima 4 burning and releasing radiation. “When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation.” (From Vermont Public Radio)

However. The fuel in the fuel pool didn’t burn and it didn’t release radiation. It didn’t warp and it didn’t bend its support racks. As a matter of fact, Fukushima #4 fuel pool has recently been completely off-loaded of its used fuel.

I was at the Vermont committee meeting with Howard Shaffer, a registered professional engineer. We both knew that Alvarez was telling…umm…he was making incorrect statements. To see more of his quotes at the committee meeting, see my blog post Shaffer Knows About Spent Fuel, Alvarez Talks About It (April 2013)

As you can see by the graphic (a photo I took) the committee room was packed with people. I listened to these incorrect statements while sitting in very close quarters. Indeed, I began to feel slightly claustrophobic as the overloaded room heated up, physically and emotionally. When I left the room, I had two strong desires: a drink of cool water, and to know who the heck this guy Alvarez was, and how he could get away with this stuff.

Alvarez in committee

Alvarez in committee. He is seated at the head of the table, wearing a blue shirt.

Who is Alvarez?

Basically, Alvarez is a traveling nuclear opponent, going from place to place, telling everyone that fuel rods are just too dangerous. But who is he and how did he get such a gig?

First of all, Alvarez has no technical background in nuclear energy or engineering. As Rod Adams reported in Why does anyone trust Robert Alvarez’s opinions about nuclear energy? (June 2013), Alvarez went to college as a music major, but did not complete his degree. He was a political appointee to the Department of Energy for six years, and claims that he is a “former, I guess you would say, nuclear insider.” He then went on to say that knowledgeable people at the Department of Energy “weren’t candid” about dangers because “we can’t scare people.” In other words, people who work in nuclear can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Supposedly, however, Alvarez, a political appointee and dropout, is trustworthy. (Quotes from the Adams blog post above)

Maybe.  As reported in the Washington Post on November 20, 1999, Alvarez unceremoniously lost his job at DOE.

Okay. So now you know why I am not impressed with his qualifications.  But how did he get a gig as a “senior scholar”?

Looking at the gig

Alvarez worked at DOE, and political appointments tend to come with impressive, high-level titles. He now works (volunteers?) at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank. Their projects are designed to end extreme income inequality, support “peace economy” transitions, and so forth. In short, this Institute is not an engineering organization. As far as I can tell from the organization’s nuclear page, it opposes storage of used nuclear fuel—basically anywhere. That’s a policy, all right. It’s not exactly an engineering solution.

I suspect this think tank would have a hard time finding licensed professional engineers to work with them on their anti-nuclear agenda. They brought in Alvarez as their anti-nuclear leader.

Looking at the Report 

So, Alvarez wrote a report about Columbia Generating Station. What was this report like? Well, same-old, same-old—just like Alvarez in Vermont.

Energy Northwest sent me his report, a 61-page document that is heavily padded with elaborate descriptions of standard operating procedures at nuclear plants. I think that these sections give him credibility with his admirers, though not with anyone who works in the nuclear industry.

His report throws everything at the wall against Columbia Generating Station, hoping something will stick. For example: he places italics on his statement that The (fuel) pool does not have its own back-up water or power supply. (page 14 of his report). Indeed, the pool shares multiple redundant back-up water systems (3 of them) and back-up power supply systems (4 of them) with other protected areas within the plant. This type of redundancy is often called “defense in depth.” Apparently, Alvarez would prefer to see the pool have its very own, rarely used backup system. I’m a chemist, not a nuclear engineer, but I don’t think having a single back-up system for the pool would be as safe as the systems they have now.

And of course, he exaggerates the dangers of the fuel pool. For example, he says that the fuel pool was “originally designed to maintain the system at a temperature less than or equal to 125 degree F during refueling outages.”  He then goes on to say that the power uprate has resulted in an increasing heat load in the fuel pool, and that the pool is now allowed to run somewhat hotter, up to 150 degrees.

To which I say—and? and?  What is Alvarez saying? Is he claiming that the fuel pool is running at a higher temperature than permissable? If so, what is his evidence or where is his calculation?

But of course, he has no evidence and he isn’t an engineer, so asking him for calculations is not reasonable.  What he can do, however, is innuendo—“it was designed for this but things have changed.”  The implication is that the situation is out of control because Columbia Generating Station engineers would never have noticed this change or made allowances for it, without Alvarez pointing it out. (sarcasm alert).

His favorite numbers, often repeated, are curies of radiation that “could” be released. He likes big numbers. He doesn’t say how the radiation would be released, but the word “could” plus a big number is suitably scary.

Alvarez also has a whole report section about the Hanford 300-618-11 burial ground. This area is quite near the plant. Everybody at the plant knows about this area. Everybody at Hanford knows about the plant. Everybody is taking both the burial ground and the plant into consideration when planning the burial ground clean-up.

Why does Alvarez mention it? Because it is scary. Nuclear waste, right by the plant. More curies! I think he can’t avoid mentioning something with more curies!  Even though it has nothing to do with the plant. His report is a compendium of fear and innuendo, with very few facts.

What is really scary

What scares me, actually, is that a man with no credentials in engineering or science  can be so worshiped by nuclear opponents. I noticed this first in the committee room in Vermont, where everyone deferred to Alvarez.

I don’t get it (as I titled this post: Why do they listen to Alvarez?) Or maybe I do get it.

If I get it, it’s something like: For the big rewards, tell people what they want to hear. For the big heartaches, tell the truth.


Posted by Meredith Angwin

Fishing for issues, but not all issues scale

A good read on nuisance lawsuits being filed against nuclear energy facilities across the country.

Neutron Bytes

With spent fuel off the table for the moment as a way to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, environmental and economic tactics are being used to seek closure of operating reactors.

  • flounderGreen groups seek leverage over future of power stations in NJ, NY & WA  with focus on water quality permits promoted as a means to save fish
  • NRC calls issue of minor concrete cracks in secondary containment at Davis-Besse “irrelevant” for 20 year license extension

For years anti-nuclear groups have used the tried-and-true tactic of throwing as many political, economic, regulatory, and technical issues they can find against the wall in an effort to make one or more of them stick. The objective is to reach the point where a utility throws up its hands and walks away shutting down the reactor in the process.

This tactic worked in Vermont where Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, a profitable…

View original post 1,048 more words

Columbia Generating Station sets personal best for longest generation run

As of 1:47 a.m., Columbia Generating Station has been producing clean, nuclear energy for the Northwest power grid for 506 consecutive days, beating the previous record of 505 days set in April 2011. During this time, Columbia produced more than 13.25 million megawatt hours of electricity while achieving a 96.85 percent capability factor.

The current run began after the plant was restarted following Columbia’s 2013 refueling 506 and Countingand maintenance outage, which ended June 25, 2013. Columbia’s next refueling outage is scheduled to begin May 9.

“This record is attributable to the organization’s alignment around operational excellence,” said Brad Sawatzke, vice president, Nuclear Generation and chief nuclear officer. “From Operations to Maintenance to Engineering and all the support teams, we’ve had tremendous focus on operating safely and at a high performance level.”

Columbia this month marked five years without an unplanned shut-down. Employees and contractors also recently surpassed 13 million hours worked without a lost-time accident.

“I am very proud of the team for this achievement and continued pursuit of performance excellence,” said Mark Reddemann, Energy Northwest CEO. “This demonstrates one of the reasons Columbia remains a vital part of the Northwest energy mix – a reliable, baseload resource.”

Columbia Generating Station is the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear energy facility, generating 1,170 megawatts of electricity, which is sold at-cost to the Bonneville Power Administration. Ninety-two Northwest utilities receive a percentage of its output. In December, Columbia will mark 30 years of commercial operation. Columbia set power generation records in 2012, 2013 and for fiscal year 2014.

(Posted by John Dobken)

State Sen. Sharon Brown Endorses SMRs for a Clean Energy Future

(From a news release)

Washington State Sen. Sharon Brown today called on Gov. Jay Inslee and members of both political parties to work together on bringing Washington closer to achieving its carbon-reduction goals by embracing emerging technologies, including development of small modular reactors (SMRs).

“The goal is to create a Washington that isn’t reliant on fossil fuels,” Brown said. “There is no reason we cannot all work together to achieve that goal, but we must do so in a way that uses a balanced, all-of-the-above approach, one that doesn’t harm working families and our economy, but actually helps create the high-paying family-wage jobs they need.”

On Friday, Brown, R-Kennewick, joined fellow members of the Washington Joint Select Task Force on Nuclear Energy for a tour of NuScale Power’s headquarters in Corvallis, Ore. The tour featured some of the cutting-edge work being conducted to design the next generation of SMR plants, which take less time and money to build, and are scalable and safer. The innovative reactor and plant design includes a module that can generate 50 megawatts of electrical power, with the ability to add modules as electricity demand grows, plug and play.

“As our population grows, getting affordable, clean energy to homes and businesses is a top priority,” said Brown. “Washington is fortunate to get 73 percent of its energy from hydropower. It’s clean, inexpensive and renewable, but that’s only part of the solution. It will take every energy source we have – and then some – to keep up with demand, including wind, solar and carbon-free nuclear power.”

Sen. Sharon Brown visiting NuScale's facility in Corvallis, Ore. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Washington State Legislature

Sen. Sharon Brown visiting NuScale’s facility in Corvallis, Ore.
Credit: Photo Courtesy of Washington State Legislature

Brown also pointed out that there is broad bipartisan support for SMRs, here and in Washington, D.C. On Aug. 6, 2013, Inslee wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy regarding his support of SMRs:

“The Tri-Cities community in Eastern Washington is an ideal partner for the USDOE in this initiative. As you know, the Tri-Cities is home to USDOE’s Hanford Site — formerly a key component of our nation’s defense weapons complex, and today host to the nation’s largest stockpile of nuclear waste.

“Cleanup of the Hanford Site is one of my highest priorities. By siting an SMR plant at Hanford on land leased by Energy Northwest, we can help meet the growing power requirements for the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, himself a nuclear physicist, recently called “…acceleration of the timelines for commercialization of small modular reactors through cost sharing arrangements with industry partners…” one of his key goals.

Brown, whose 8th Legislative District includes the Columbia Generating Station, the Pacific Northwest’s only commercial nuclear-energy facility, has been instrumental in promoting nuclear energy in the Legislature, including securing a $500,000 state Department of Commerce grant to study the issue. The grant, awarded to the Tri-City Development Council last year, funded a site analysis of Hanford as a possible location for a new federal SMR.

The study found that siting an SMR at the Washington Nuclear Power Plant Unit No. 1 site at Hanford would benefit from existing infrastructure and licensing documentation, including a previously-issued Nuclear Regulatory Commission construction license. The study also highlighted that a “SMR would offer a carbon-free base load alternative to offset generation fluctuations associated with wind energy and future solar plants.” The region’s nuclear-trained workforce would also be a plus.

Brown believes becoming a leader in clean-energy technology offers tremendous economic-development gains for Washington.  “If we don’t act now other states and countries are poised to take the lead in SMR development and Washington will lose out on all of those good paying jobs,” said Brown.

According to NuScale Power, establishing Washington as a key partner in SMR deployment would:

  • Make Washington a potential “desired location” for NuScale supply chain members;
  • Create approximately 1,000 construction jobs at peak, for a duration of 2-3 years;
  • Produce 360 full-time plant operation jobs at average annual salaries of $85,000; and
  • Result in indirect economic benefits and associated job multipliers.

“If you’re looking for green jobs; we’ve found them,” said Brown. “SMRs have great potential to provide affordable, clean energy for the state and more jobs for the people of the Tri-Cities. By working together, we can achieve a win for employers, a win for consumers and a win for the environment.”

(posted by John Dobken)

From Jim Conca at Forbes… Examining Clean Energy Choices

Jim Conca has written another fascinating piece over at Forbes.com looking at the Ivanpah solar facility in California – and its lackluster performance.

There is always the possibility the sun will begin cooperating down there in the California desert, but the larger point Conca makes is worth highlighting:

“At this level of operation, over 20 Ivanpahs (at a cost of $50 billion) would be needed to produce the 9 billion kWhs that a single nuclear reactor produced last year.”

He’s right.

According tBeastModeo the US EIA, Ivanpah produced 254,263 megawatt hours of electricity between January and August. Columbia Generating Station produced that much in nine and half days last month, with a much smaller carbon footprint.

Nuclear’s clean energy benefits and 90%+ capacity factor are essential to meeting ANY future carbon reduction goals.

Read Jim’s piece here:


(Post by John Dobken)

Environmentalists need to decide if science matters or not

On Thursday, three anti-nuclear environmental groups filed a petition questioning the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit issued to Energy Northwest for Columbia Generating Station by EFSEC, a Washington state agency. The previous NPDES permit was issued in 2006.

Columbia TMU Pumphouse

Columbia Generating Station’s tower make-up pumphouse as seen from the middle of the Columbia River.

In the petition there were many serious allegations, including “Petitioners believe the evidence shows that discharges from the plant will adversely impact water quality in the Columbia River.” (Italics added). And this: “The cooling water intake structures that remove water from the Columbia River may have resulted and may continue to result in the impingement and entrainment of fish.” (Italics added).

Generally, people use words such as “believe” and “may” when they are unsure, i.e. they don’t know. That seems to be the case here. Even though more than 4,000 pages of documentation was submitted by the petitioners during the review process, none of the information relating to any existing, specific ecological harm made it into the appeal. Strange.

Fortunately, we can be certain we are in regulatory compliance because we monitor, test and validate our environmental impacts. So let’s take these anti-nuke points one at a time.

Water Quality in the Columbia

Columbia Generating Station has no effect on the Columbia River. The anti-nuclear groups suing the state say Columbia Generating Station pulls 22 million gallons out of the Columbia River daily. It’s insignificant. About 35 – 40 million gallons of water pass by our intake point every minute. (After the Snake and Columbia join together, about 85 million gallons flow past The Dalles every minute.)

Of the water we take from the river, an average of 1,700 gallons per minute is returned to the river.Clean Columbia Water

What’s in that water?

All you have to do to find out is look at the monthly Discharge Monitoring Report that is submitted by Energy Northwest to EFSEC.

In the September 2014 report, pH levels were within limits; halogens were near undetectable at less than or equal to 0.1 micrograms per liter; Copper was at 8 micrograms/liter against a permit level of 345 micrograms/liter; and Chromium and Zinc were at 1.3 and 17 micrograms/liter, respectively. In the current permit, there are no requirement levels associated with these parameters. That actually changes in the new permit. The acceptable levels for both are 8.2 micrograms/liter for Chromium and 53 micrograms/liter for Zinc. So we are still well below even the new standards. The existing and the new permit set a zero standard for PCBs and a non-detection standard for 126 priority pollutants.

Energy Northwest remains in full compliance with all environmental regulations related to our circulating water discharge. Period.

So when Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, says “This nuclear reactor is one of many sources of toxic chemicals that are contaminating the fish and wildlife of the Columbia River…”, one has to wonder what scientific study is informing her opinion?

We have environmental testing that informs our opinion. We did biological assessment testing as part of our existing permit and will do even more with the new permit. That testing told us our circulating water outfall has no impact on the river ecology. The testing under the new permit will take place quarterly.

Intake Structure

Columbia Generating Station gets its cooling water from the Columbia River “through two 42-inch diameter inlets perforated with 3/8 inch diameter holes, each approximately 20 feet long and placed parallel to river flow approximately 350 feet offshore at low water. Water flows by gravity to the River Pumphouse. The intake structures for CGS were designed and constructed in the late 1970s.” (CGS-NPDES Fact Sheet p.20).

As the fact sheet points out, the intakes were designed “to minimize the impact of make-up water from the Columbia River, with particular emphasis on salmonid fry.” And that’s what it has been doing for 30 years.

How do we know this? From the two studies that were conducted, pre- and post-operational.

Artist's rendering of the Columbia Generating Station water intake structure.

Artist’s rendering of the Columbia Generating Station water intake structure.

In the 1985 study the monitoring program looked at both impingement and entrainment between April and September. No juvenile salmonids were found to be affected. None. This monitoring program was undertaken with study-plan review by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Indeed, the anti-nuclear activists seem to hang a big part of their petition on the NMFS opinion, an opinion that has now been found to be without merit twice (the first time being Columbia’s license renewal where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found their argument uncompelling).

In part this is because the NMFS design criteria for intake structures pertains to models not utilized by Columbia Generating Station. As Dr. Charles Coutant wrote in his discussion paper prepared for a meeting with the agency in 2013: “NMFS does not have design criteria specifically for cylindrical screens oriented parallel with the current in flowing water…” That’s a biggie.

Still, EFSEC wanted to address the NMFS concerns. So in the new permit a new study will be undertaken to update the entrainment data from the 1985 study that found zero impact on fish.

Again, the science will inform us.

In the meantime, Washington ratepayers will once more be on the hook for big bucks for a frivolous legal action by Oregon anti-nuclear groups.

For more documents related to the Columbia Generating Station NPDES permit, visit the EFSEC website here.

(Posted by John Dobken)