The Errorists are at it again

At some community radio stations in Portland, Ore. the bar seems to be set very low for what constitutes “expert analysis.” Recently, one such station welcomed anti-nuke-for-hire Arnie Gundersen to talk about Columbia Generating Station.

Columbia Generating Station.

Columbia Generating Station.

Columbia, a 1,170-megawatt boiling water reactor located near Richland, Wash., recently finished a long, breaker-to-breaker run of 683 days, and then had a refueling outage (one of our safest ever). After the outage, Columbia’s return to full power was delayed by a stuck, non-safety related, isolation valve in one of its reactor feedwater loops, limiting Columbia to 65 percent power until that valve was fixed.

Gundersen didn’t even know that much information.

Yet he manages to speak for four minutes on the outage and the causes of the delay in attaining full power.

When you need an anti-nuke who can claim to have a nuclear engineering degree, Arnie is the go-to-guy, ready at a moment’s notice to offer “expert analysis.” He offers analysis whether or not he knows any actual facts. Here’s his opening line on the radio show: “…it’s hard to tell what’s going on because Columbia has not released much information…”

Isolation valve that stuck closed. The non-safety related valve was opened July 22.

Isolation valve that stuck closed and the apparatus used to open it. The non-safety related valve was opened July 22.

That line would be a tip-off to most interviewers that the person being interviewed may not know what they are talking about. Also, Columbia is run by a public entity, Energy Northwest. The agency has informed local news media, regional trade press and members of the region’s Public Power Council about Columbia’s work to fix the stuck valve. Furthermore, when the community radio station called us to inquire why Columbia was at 65 percent power, they were told. Only Gundersen seemed to be out of the loop on what happened.

Rod Adams of the Atomic Insights blog has written extensively about Gundersen’s history and credentials. It’s not flattering. Meredith Angwin, who often blogs here, debated Gundersen at the University of Vermont, and wrote a blog post about his statements about fish. Gundersen claimed that there were only 16 shad in the Connecticut River, and that this precipitous decline in the shad population was caused by the operation of Vermont Yankee. The Connecticut River shad runs have been declining due to overfishing, yet the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 244,000 American Shad at Holyoke Dam in 2011. That’s a long way from “16 fish.”

Back to the interview

Gundersen misspeaks (to be kind). He said Columbia had not started up. Not true, of course. Then he speculated that “deferred maintenance” was to blame for not reaching full power. Remember, that he is describing a “deferred maintenance” issue for a piece of equipment whose existence is unknown to him.

The valve in question is a non-safety related motor-operated isolation valve. There is a preventative maintenance program for the valve motor – and there are no issues with that program. However, the valve internals are handled on a condition-based maintenance regime. This is an industry-wide practice for such valves at thermal plants (nuclear, coal, gas combined cycle). One doesn’t just go about opening up 12,000 lb. valves, especially valves that are only operated twice every two years (closed for refueling; opened for operating). These valves are opened up for maintenance only when there is a reason to believe they need maintenance. On the other hand, the motor that drives them is maintained regularly.

Without any knowledge of the situation, Gundersen doubled-down on his guess-work, claiming repairs should have been done to a piece of equipment that he still hasn’t named. He then begins a wandering analogy about car tires.

His conclusion is that “Columbia isn’t making any money….” Well, this is another place he shows his ignorance of the facts on the ground. Gundersen seems unaware that Energy Northwest is a public power agency that sells all of the power its produces at Columbia, and its other assets, at cost.

Then he goes on to say that Bonneville Power Administration, which buys all of the at-cost power from Columbia, is “not doing the needed repairs at Columbia in a timely fashion…” He might have noticed that Columbia’s capacity factor and reliability have steadily increased over the past five years: not a sign of “not doing repairs.” Three straight annual generation records! Columbia availability last year: 100 percent!

Once again, his statements are complete hogwash – particularly when he makes those statements just after Columbia completed a refueling and maintenance outage that had a $100 million budget. And the outage began, as noted before, after the best and longest continuous run in Columbia Generating Station’s history.

Seems to be his MO

As we have noted in previous posts, anti-nuclear energy activists appear to have created a bubble of anti-science, anti-fact existence. Gundersen, through his family business (their tagline is “moving energy education forward”), even tweeted that his interview was available on line. Why would you tell the world (or a very small fraction thereof) that it can listen to you talk about something you know nothing about?

Spent fuel removed at Fukushima Daiichi. (Japan Times photo)

Spent fuel removed at Fukushima Daiichi. (Japan Times photo)

This was the case following Fukushima. He has made a cottage industry of scare stories about Fukushima. For example, before Tokyo Electric Power began the work to remove spent nuclear fuel rods from spent fuel pool #4, Gundersen made these bold statements:

“I suspect come November, December, January we’re going to hear that the building’s been evacuated, they’ve broke a fuel rod, the fuel rod is off-gassing.” (Never happened).

“I suspect we’ll have more airborne releases as they try to pull the fuel out.” (Never happened).

“I think the racks have been distorted, the fuel has overheated — the pool boiled – and the net effect is that it’s likely some of the fuel will be stuck in there for a long, long time.” (Nope. All the fuel has been removed. Safely.)

As long as people like Gundersen remain on the fringe, perhaps it won’t matter that their “expert analysis” is all wrong.


(Posted by John Dobken)

Small Modular Reactors and the Northwest

Post by Meredith Angwin

Washington state is going to be looking at the best places to site a small modular reactor. According to the recent budget agreement signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is allocated $176,000 to conduct a study of the siting of SMRs. (The state’s Nuclear Energy Task Force also received funding to continue its work).

Gov. Jay Inslee signs two-year budget for state of Washington. Photo courtesy AP.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs two-year budget for state of Washington. Photo courtesy AP.

The siting study is due to the legislature and governor by Dec. 1. The language also provides the opportunity for EFSEC to hire consultants for the purpose of performing this study.

It is clear from the bi-partisan support for this measure, and other nuclear energy related bills, that there is much support for Washington state as a center for small modular reactor construction. Washington is the home of many nuclear research facilities (in the Tri-Cities area) and the home of Boeing Aircraft. (Boeing builds an important and complex modular product. See our earlier post).

Washington state is well qualified to be the state that builds modular reactors.

NuScale Power

Energy Northwest has a teaming agreement with one of the most promising of the SMR companies: NuScale Power.

  • NuScale’s reactor design is based on a concept pioneered at Oregon State       University.
  • NuScale has funding from the Department of Energy and from Fluor.
  • NuScale has an agreement with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to build a set of reactors somewhere in the West, quite possibly within the Idaho National Laboratory complex.
  • Energy Northwest will operate the NuScale reactors, once they are built.

NuScale and licensing

Developing a new type of small reactor is only part of the battle. There are many small reactors on naval ships, all over the world. Most people would say that the hard part of SMR development is getting a design certification and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC is famously conservative. Receiving a license for a new type of reactor is not a trivial matter.

However, the NuScale reactor is based on well-understood Pressurized Water Reactor designs, but smaller and with passive-safety features.

A NuScale reactor module. Photo courtesy NRC.

A NuScale reactor module. Photo courtesy NRC.

This will ensure a safe, practical and economic reactor. This blend of old and new should also aid in the licensing process.

NuScale recently released its planned licensing schedule:

  • Design certification application to the NRC by the end of 2016
  • Combined Operating and Licensing application to the NRC by the end of the first quarter of 2018

Clearly, NuScale has an aggressive but achievable schedule for getting the applications to the NRC. But what happens after they submit the applications? When can NuScale reasonably expect the NRC to act on the license?

I learned more about this at a recent meeting in Boston.

Bloomberg and Nuclear Matters and NuScale

Bloomberg BNA (part of the huge business-information group) and Nuclear Matters (a pro-nuclear advocacy group) have teamed up to give a series of events called Nuclear Going Forward. These events cover the issues and the promises for current and planned reactors.

I personally love this unified approach, and I am so glad to see these two institutions doing whole-industry seminars. In my experience, people who operate existing reactors can be scornful of new types of reactors (“paper reactors”) while people developing new types of reactors can speak of well-functioning older reactors with equal scorn. In a blog post several years ago, I suggested that the two groups might actually consider talking to each other (and listening to each other) instead of jumping to conclusions.

The latest Nuclear Going Forward meeting was in Boston in late June, and I was happy to attend. You can see videos of the entire meeting at this website.

The Boston meeting and NuScale

Jay Surina of NuScale was one of the speakers at the Boston meeting, and I recommend you watch the video of the second panel at the Boston meeting.

Licensing was a main subject of the discussion.

A panel discussion at the Nuclear Going Forward meeting in Boston.

A panel discussion at the Nuclear Going Forward meeting in Boston.

In a way, the panelists ranged from “innovative, but not that different from current reactors” to “really different from current reactors” (molten salt, or natural-gas-nuclear-reactor hybrids.) Briefly:

  • Lightbridge proposes a new, metallic fuel for existing reactors or new reactors
  • NuScale proposes a SMR based on existing light water reactor technology
  • Terrestrial Energy proposes a reactor based on Molten Salt technology
  • MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle project proposes a natural-gas-hybrid reactor

Licensing the reactors

Each of these companies assessed their coming interactions with the NRC, and how likely they were to be licensed in a timely fashion.

Lightbridge is confident of being approved by the NRC in a relatively short time frame: They are making a safer, more efficient type of fuel that can be used in existing reactors. They are working with several utilities that would like to use their fuel.

NuScale technology is also similar to existing technologies, and they are also working with two utilities (Energy Northwest and UAMPS). They expect reasonably fast licensing, with a first plant to come on-line in the 2023-24 time frame.

Terrestrial Energy considers its technology “too different” to be worth attempting an NRC license. They plan to be licensed through the Canadian regulatory system, which is principled-based rather than rules-based (36 minutes into the video).

Similarly, MIT considers that NRC is only set up to license light-water reactors. Their own reactor is at such an early stage of development that it not clear what path they will choose for licensing it.

NuScale for the future

When I left the Nuclear Going Forward meeting, I had concluded that NuScale was indeed in a sweet spot for obtaining its license. The reactor is innovative, but not TOO different from existing reactors. The company has strong backing from its parent (Fluor) and the Department of Energy, as well as initial agreements with utilities.

In other words, with the NuScale plans for reactors in the West, it is reasonable that the Washington legislature may well encourage building SMRs in Washington state. Broad state support could sweeten the sweet spot in new reactor design, and bring the manufacturing to Washington state.

Extra reading: Two blog posts on the Nuclear Going Forward meeting:

Yes Vermont Yankee

Atomic Insights