Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Deep sea fission

Has the world gone completely crazy?

20 January 2011

Global moves to deploy small reactors have led to a new concept unveiled today by France's DCNS - a small offshore nuclear power plant called Flexblue.

Akin to the submarines that DCNS has been making for the French navy for 40 years, Flexblue is a cylindrical unit 100 metres in length and 12 to 15 metres in diameter. Inside would be a small nuclear power reactor and well as steam generators, turbines and a generator to produce 50 to 250 MWe.

We need to go deeper

The vision is for such a unit to be installed on the seabed under 60 to 100 metres of water, several kilometres from a centre of power demand such as a city, industrial base or remote community which it would serve via underwater cables.

A video released today depicts the unit's deployment under naval guard. It is transported to sea on a heavy lift ship which lowers itself to allow Flexblue to maneuvre under its own power. Descent occurs under the watch of divers before a cutaway view reveals four stories of plant within the hull. The structure is then covered by a net and power is transmitted by cable to shore.

DCNS said it had been working on the Flexblue concept for over two years. It said that both Electricité de France and Areva had "expressed interest in Flexblue's modularity and standardisation." The three companies as well as the CEA are now to begin the next two-year phase of development. Areva-TA already works with DCNS to make small reactors for the French navy.

Awaiting further attention are technical and production options, market potential, competitiveness analyses, proliferation studies as well as safety and security. DCNS wants to demonstrate Flexblue to have a level of safety comparable to Generation-III reactors.

Today's mainstream nuclear power plants produce 600-1200 MWe, while the largest new units reach about 1700 MWe. These are in demand to supply the large grids of advanced economies, but a market is emerging for much smaller units. These could be factory-built, transported whole to the place of use and returned complete with used fuel for management by the vendor.

An offshore nuclear power plant is mid-construction at a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, Russia and destined to power Vilyuchinsk in the country's far east. This is a surface vessel named the Akademik Lomonosov that would host two small reactors based on submarine units and transmit 64 MWe via a purpose-built jetty.

There are also moves to demonstrate land-based small reactors in the USA. Tennessee Valley Authority is considering Babcock & Wilcox's mPower unit for the Clinch River site, while the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site could host a range of small units including Hyperion and GE-Hitachi's Prism.

A nuclear ENRON in India?

Praful Bidwai

The Indian government is imposing upon Jaitapur grossly inappropriate and super-expensive nuclear reactors that are based on an untested design.

A ferocious state response to a protest against the Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, on December 4, 2010.

THE government has embarked on an ugly, potentially violent, confrontation with the people of Ratnagiri district on Maharashtra's Konkan coast by trying to railroad through the world's largest nuclear power project. The public opposes the project, which is unjustifiable on economic, energy-planning and ecological grounds.

The proposed nuclear “park” at Jaitapur, with six reactors, each of 1,650 megawatts, made by the French company Areva, will displace thousands of people, affect thriving agriculture, fruit cultivation and fishing activities, and permanently harm the region's vulnerable ecosystem. Ratnagiri is home to the world's best-known mango, the delicate and rare Alphonso, and to cashew, jackfruit, coconut, arecanut and kokum. It lies in the Sahyadri mountains, one of India's biodiversity hot spots, with stunning lush natural beauty and stupendous plant and animal genetic resources.

The Sahyadris are one of India's great water towers, the source of the Krishna and the Godavari and of streams vital to life in the surrounding valleys. The plateaus around Jaitapur are extremely biodiversity-rich. According to the Botanical Survey of India, they are, for their size, India's richest repository of endemic plant species. It would be criminal to destroy these in the name of “development”.

As I write this after a field visit to the area, the Maharashtra government is about to hold a public hearing on the project, not in Jaitapur/Ratnagiri but in Mumbai. The local people's organisations will boycott it. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's attempt to use the public hearing to win a semblance of legitimacy for Jaitapur, and project a more reasonable face of officialdom than the repressive one that the people have seen so far, is certain to fail.

If the government does not heed people's safety and environmental concerns and tries to ram through the project with violence, that will be a mockery of the norms of consultation, popular participation and accountability that are central to democracy.

As I found during my visit, the popular concerns in this highly literate region are based on familiarity with the nuclear facts of life. The people of villages such as Mithgavane, Madban, Niveli and Nate know that ionising radiation is harmful in all doses; that it is liable to cause cancer and genetic disorders; that nuclear plants routinely emit radionuclides even while not undergoing a catastrophic accident; and that many Indian nuclear installations have had safety failures and mishaps, including exposure of hundreds of people to radiation doses beyond the officially stipulated limits.

Local doctors can tell one a thing or two about the recent tritium leak at Kaiga, the health effects of uranium mining at Jaduguda, the dangers of excessive exposure to diagnostic X-rays, Delhi's cobalt-60 episode, and the poor state of nuclear safety regulation in India. Everybody knows what happened at Chernobyl.

The local people also know of the sad experience with rehabilitation faced by the repeatedly uprooted population of Tarapur, the site of India's first nuclear reactors, for which land was acquired in the early/mid-1960s. Tarapur is not far from Jaitapur, and there has been exchange of information between the people. Tarapur once had flourishing fisheries. Now, these are crisis-ridden because of a drop in the catch around the plant's hot-water outflow channel into the sea. Three fishing harbours have vanished altogether as have hundreds of livelihoods.

Once prosperous farmers and fisherfolk around Tarapur have become casual menial labourers often tasked with hazardous jobs, such as removing leaked radioactive water from reactor buildings. The plant authorities claim to monitor the local people's health but refuse to give them their medical records.

Nobody I met supports the Jaitapur “park” or is sanguine about nuclear power. Those whose lands were acquired for the 938-hectare site know their livelihoods stand imperilled; nothing can heal the damage if the local ecosystem is destroyed, which the project will assuredly do. The overwhelming majority of the nearly 2,400 families who lost their land have refused to take compensation “packages”. Less than five per cent have accepted compensation – mostly absentee landowners, say the local people.

The term “package” evokes disdain and anger from farmers and horticulturalists, who put an economically unmmeasurable value on their land. Fishermen of the village of Nate, a good proportion of them Marathi-speaking Muslims, when promised “gainful employment” in return for displacement, retort: “Will the government give us another Arabian Sea?” This comes from a long tradition of seafaring and a certain confidence in the village's fishing economy, which sustains 500 boats, a handsome catch, and a daily wage of Rs.300-400, surely remarkable in India.

Even the region's middle-class elite, including lawyers, teachers and other professionals, are dead opposed to the nuclear plant. Some are bitter about their recent experience with private mining, industry and power projects. Nearly all of them regret having sold their land only to see it being devastated by mining overburden and assorted toxins.

One of India's largest concentrations of pesticides factories is close by, at Lote Parshuram. When I visited Lote 15 years ago, I was horrified at the labour and chemical-disposal practices, including the use of bare hands to transfer volatile phosphorus, a defective common effluent treatment plant without adequate capacity, and the dumping of toxic wastes into nearby streams and ponds.

Jaitapur will come on top of more than 15 power, chemical and mining projects in Ratnagiri and adjoining Sindhudurg, which have inflicted irreversible damage upon the environment. This has been documented, among others, by the eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Writes Gadgil in a recent report ( “The current energy requirements of these districts are 180 MW, while the current production is 4,543 MW…. So these districts are more than meeting their own requirements and contributing to the national pool.

“If Mumbai has huge requirements, one may reasonably propose that a giant coal-based power plant be located on Malabar Hill, which offers a topographical situation identical to the current site.… Such location will have the further huge advantage that the power will not have to be transmitted over huge distances, greatly reducing transmission losses, and the huge losses of horticultural production under power lines in Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg districts” (also see moef. nic . in/ downloads / public-information/ Mom-7-Western_ghats.pdf).

This argument applies a fortiori to the Jaitapur nuclear project. The profound irrationality of locating the arguably more hazardous nuclear park there is further underscored by the Maharashtra government's zeal in acquiring land in 2006-07 – years before a proper agreement with France was signed and a detailed project report drafted, and almost four years before the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was written.

The public hearing in May 2010 was held in the presence of a huge police force. The EIA was to have come up for discussion after copies of the report in Marathi had been circulated at least a month in advance in all the six affected villages, as is the norm. But only one village got a copy – four days earlier. Meanwhile, all the local gram sabhas and panchayats passed unanimous resolutions opposing the project. These were ignored. So much for the much-touted official commitment to panchayati raj and local democracy.

Jaitapur received a “conditional” environmental clearance only on November 26, 2010, less than 10 days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to India. What a coincidence!

But as Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh confessed to the Konkan Bachao Samiti, there were “weighty strategic and economic reasons” for clearing it in undue haste. But citing “strategic” and “economic” considerations over ecological ones is incompatible with the MoEF's mandate. The EIA prepared by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) is deeply flawed. It ignores the local ecosystem's unique specificities and carrying capacity, the vital issue of biodiversity, and the cumulative environmental impact. NEERI self-confessedly lacks the competence to assess radiological hazards and their impact.

It does not even mention the crucial issue of storage and disposal of radioactive waste, which remains hazardous for centuries. Nor does it address the project's nuclear-specific safety issues. (This Column has repeatedly highlighted them, including nuclear reactors' unique potential for catastrophic core meltdowns.)

The EIA also certifies that the temperature of the plant's discharge, which is 5° Celsius higher than the sea temperature, is safe. The claim has been convincingly demolished by the well-respected Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which argues that even a 0.5°C rise would seriously harm marine life, including fish, mangroves and micro-organisms. This fits the pattern of most EIAs conducted in the Western Ghats, which, Gadgil says, are flawed “almost without exception”.

Jairam Ramesh's “conditional” clearance too was flawed. Quite simply, it converted objections raised by environmentalists and affected people, which constitute weighty grounds for rejecting the project, into “conditions”. Most of these are vague and do not address the flaws and deficiencies in the Areva reactor design.

No official agency in India, including the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), has the competence to evolve and stipulate generic safety standards for nuclear reactors. India imported designs from the United States and Canada and replicated them with minor modifications. Nor has the MoEF a remotely reliable way of monitoring compliance with clearance conditions.

As if this was not bad enough, Areva's design of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is to be installed at Jaitapur remains untested and uncertified by any nuclear regulatory agency. It uses 5 per cent enriched uranium as fuel instead of the normal 3-3.5 per cent (or optionally, mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium, never tried in a large-sized commercial reactor).

This will almost double the EPR's burn-up rate, according to former AERB Chairman A. Gopalakrishnan, leading to “much higher toxicity of the radioactive waste, with the production of a larger ‘immediate release fraction' of radioisotopes.… EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine, caesium, etc., compared to ordinary PWRs….”

“Consequently,” says Gopalakrishnan, “radiation doses to the workers and general public could also be correspondingly high, in case of radiological releases. These problems will persist during spent-fuel transfer, storage, reprocessing and waste disposal. Furthermore, it is reported that the higher burn-up in EPR will result in thinning of the fuel cladding, making it prone to early failure and fission product release.”

Part of the EPR's problem arises from its “complexity”, notably its power level, containment, the core, core-catcher and system redundancy, according to Francois Roussely, former Chairman of Electricité de France, who was asked by the French government to evaluate its status. Roussely argues the design must be “further optimised”. This will further raise costs.

The EPR has run into serious difficulties in the world's first “market-based” nuclear project, at Olkiluoto in Finland, the first nuclear reactor to be erected in Western Europe after the Chernobyl disaster (1986). The reported flaws include poor fabrication of the pressuriser and reactor vessel, cracks in base concrete, and defective welds in containment shells.

Olkiluoto was to be completed by 2009 but has been delayed by at least 42 months and is 90 per cent over budget. Finnish, French, British and U.S. nuclear regulatory authorities have raised 2,300 safety issues about the EPR, including many about its instrumentation and control systems. The Olkiluoto fiasco has tangled Areva and the Finnish operator in bitter litigation and led to a walkout of the German engineering company Siemens from the construction consortium. The United Arab Emirates has just dropped Areva's EPRs for South Korean reactors. Areva now needs a capital infusion of two billion euros to stay in business.

If Olkiluoto is abandoned, as may well happen, that could mean the end of nuclear power expansion in Europe, where about one-half of the existing reactors are due to retire in 10 to 15 years.

It is this design that India has contracted to buy for Jaitapur. Its quoted capital costs are much higher (Rs.21 crore/MW in Finland, Rs.27 crore in the U.S./South Africa, and Rs.59 crore in Canada) than those of Indian CANDU reactors (Rs.9 crore). This will mean unit generation costs of the order of Rs.5 to Rs.8.50 – a sure recipe for disaster in India's electricity sector, probably worse than Enron, which was also located in Ratnagiri. Jaitapur could become the nuclear Enron.

Yet, the government is blindly pushing Jaitapur through by crushing popular opposition. It arrested 1,500 people on December 4, in addition to several hundreds over four years. It has filed false charges, including attempt to murder; issued externment notices against peaceful protesters; and prevented eminent citizens, including A.B. Bardhan, the former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant, and the former Navy chief L. Ramdas, from visiting the area.

It even detained the former Bombay High Court judge B.G. Kolse Patil for five days and failed to produce him before a magistrate within the mandated 24 hours. Gadgil documents the imposition of prohibitory orders under the Bombay Police Act for 191 days between July 2007 and October 2009.

Jaitapur has witnessed a mockery of democracy and rationality. This can only be stopped if senior political leaders and concerned citizens intervene to halt the nuclear juggernaut.

SOUTH ASIANS AGAINST NUKES (SAAN):  An informal information platform for activists and scholars concerned about the dangers of Nuclearisation in South Asia

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Bradwell nuclear power station hit by fire

A fire has broken out at a disused nuclear power station in Essex.

Twelve fire crews were called to the blaze in a condenser unit, measuring four by six metres, at Bradwell Power Station at about 1230 GMT.

Assistant Divisional Officer Neil Fenwick, of the Essex Fire and Rescue Service, said titanium rods were being broken down and caught fire.

An Essex fire service spokesman said the blaze was brought under control by 1430 GMT.

A spokeswoman from Bradwell Power Station said: "The immediate vicinity was made safe and evacuated and the emergency services called who then promptly extinguished the fire.

"A full muster of the site was undertaken. All staff and contractors on site have been accounted for.

"There were no casualties and there was no release of radioactive materials.

"The situation is now under control and a thorough investigation will be undertaken."

The power station stopped operating in 2002.

Monday, 17 January 2011

EDF wants to become a member of Somerset Wildlife Trust!

I can't for the life of me understand why some of you want to boycott clean, green and safe EDF Energy, which obviously loves wildlife in Somerset (and everywhere) - badgers, bats, wading birds, etc. OK, it may be true that clean, green and safe EDF Energy wants to build two new nuclear reactors in the vicinity of a RAMSAR site, plans to trash 430 acres of pristine natural coastal habitat well in advance of any application to build any new nuclear reactors on these greenfield sites, and to subject the countryside, wildlife and people for hundreds of miles around to the spectre of a future nuclear catastrophe; but at the end of the day, it is you nasty anti-nuclear people that are really going to kill the wildlife with your irrational opposition to clean, green, safe and too-cheap-to-meter nuclear energy.

I see that now you have even gone so far as to object to clean, green and safe EDF Energy becoming a platinum corporate member of Somerset Wildlife Trust.

"Petition to ask Somerset Wildlife Trust to remove the privilege of Corporate membership from EdF energy"

Are there no depths that you won't plunge to in your senseless, planet-destroying campaign to deprive this great country of clean, green and safe nuclear power, and so force the lights to go out?

Yours disgustedly,
Andrew Brown

Decision by UK government soon on whether to build a new mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear plant

14 January 2011
A decision by the UK government on whether to construct a new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel plant to replace the existing one at the Sellafield nuclear complex is expected to be made before the end of 2011. 
 A cost-benefit analysis of a new MOX plant has been commissioned,
Lord Jonathan Marland, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) parliamentary undersecretary of state, told the House of Lords Grand Committee. It comes as the country prepares to face other questions concerning the back-end of the fuel cycle. (I.e. what to do with the radioactive waste)
Speaking on 13 January during a debate on the UK's national policy statement on nuclear power, he told the committee: "If we have the biggest plutonium stock in the world, we must turn that liability into an asset." Marland added, "We have already had a write-round to the cabinet to ensure that we can perhaps go further on that plant. I hope that I will be able in the next few months to give much stronger assurances as to its prospect. It is madness to have it sitting there if we can make it a non-cost exercise."

(How can they talk about non-cost, when they have to build a whole new nuclear power plant in order to use up the plutonium?)
Marland said that the issue of the new MOX plant "can be resolved easily within this year - I hope within the first half of it." He noted, "A huge amount of work is going on. You do not do a cabinet write-round, as far as I understand, unless you are fairly committed to making something happen."
MOX nuclear fuel allows uranium and plutonium to be recycled as part of what is called a closed fuel cycle strategy that reduces waste and prolongs fuel supplies. The reprocessing that separates re-usable uranium and plutonium from wastes takes place at Sellafield's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp). 

Referring to the existing Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), Marland warned, "We must remember that we have failed at this once already. We have a MOX plant that was not fit for purpose, so we must get it right - it is very important, with new technologies, that we do that." He added, "The next generation of nuclear waste reprocessing has to carry us forward for years to come as we replace the current existing plant."
The construction of the existing MOX plant at Sellafield was completed in 1997 but, due to a lengthy justification process, operation did not commence until 2001. The plant produced its first fuel assembly suitable for export in 2005, but was then downrated to 40 tonnes per year from its 120 tonne design capacity. In August 2009, it was reported that SMP had produced only 8 tonnes of fuel (24 assemblies) in eight years.
However, in 2010, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and ten Japanese utilities agreed on a plan to refurbish the SMP, and this work is being undertaken over three years by Sellafield Ltd, using technology from France's Areva. A new rod manufacturing line is being installed at the SMP which, as well as improving overall performance, will ultimately replace the existing one.
The NDA's Sellafield site – including the SMP - is managed by Nuclear Management Partners, a consortium of URS of the USA, AMEC of the UK and Areva.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan, who is also chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, commented: "It should be stressed that at least some of the constituent members of the nuclear management partnership which is currently responsible for a large part of the waste management at Sellafield have considerable experience of running successful MOX plants elsewhere in the world." He added, "One of our problems was that we wanted to have a plant with a Union Jack wrapped round it when we built it. We did not quite get it right and it never operated, but there are people close at hand who can do the job if they get the right deal."

To this Marland responded, "As the noble Lord will know, I have enjoyed the fine wines of the south of France while visiting the MOX plant down there to make sure that we do this properly. Of course, part of our discussions involved meeting the Areva board to do that."
As well as the fate of the 100 tonnes of civil plutonium in the UK and its potential inclusion in MOX fuel, discussion continues over the future of Thorp. In short, the country's entire strategy on the back-end of the fuel cycle is up for review.

A document released in March 2010 highlighted that Thorp would require refurbishment or replacement to handle the complete inventory of used nuclear fuel it was built to process - all that coming from the fleet of Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors as well as international contracts. Some 6600 tonnes of AGR fuel remains outstanding, with options for storing it unclear until a permanent repository is available in about 2075.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Green investment bank could help to build nuclear reactors

The Conservatives' pre-election manifesto promised that the bank would finance 'new green technology start-ups'
  • leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas London 2009
    Green MP Caroline Lucas said funding for new nuclear reactors made a mockery of the idea of the Green Investment Bank. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian The government's Green Investment Bank could fund the building of new nuclear reactors, it has emerged. It is the latest form of public financial support on offer to the industry from the government which continues to insist that the industry will not receive any more subsidies. The Conservatives' pre-election manifesto promised that the Green Investment Bank – which was also in the coalition agreement – would finance "new green technology start-ups". But documents issued before Christmas by Vince Cable's business department list new reactors, along with offshore wind farms and new electricity grids, as one of the three proposed "target sectors" on which the bank would initially focus. Justine Greening MP, the economic secretary to the Treasury, appeared before the Commons environmental audit committee yesterday and denied that financial backing from a publicly funded bank would amount to a subsidy for the nuclear power industry. Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP who sits on the committee, said: "Nuclear is not green in my view. But it's not new in anyone's mind. Funding nuclear makes a mockery of the whole idea of a Green Investment Bank and even indirect support – such as cheaper taxpayer-backed loans offered by a bank – still amounts to a subsidy." Greening also dodged questions about whether the bank would be able to make billions of pounds of cheap loans or act as a more limited fund. The Treasury is concerned that borrowings would add to the government's deficit. "I am not going to be hung up on semantics," she told the committee, telling them that a decision had not yet been made and that there were also other ways to encourage green investment. She also refused to be drawn on how much more effective a fully functional bank would be in encouraging the estimated £450bn investment needed by 2025 for the UK to meet ambitious carbon reduction and environmental targets. Senior coalition sources said civil servants who wrote the documents decided to include nuclear as a low carbon form of generation that could potentially receive funding in order to be thorough. They had not been instructed to do so by ministers, it is understood. A spokesman for the business department insisted that no final decision had been made on whether the Green Investment Bank would provide financial support for the nuclear industry. If it did, it would add to a growing list of government help for the industry, including guarantees of a minimum carbon floor price, caps on nuclear waste liabilities and a possible new "low-carbon obligation" which would guarantee a higher price for the electricity reactors generate. In an interview with the Guardian last month, Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary, maintained that there will be no "support specific for nuclear for the very simple reason that it is an old and mature technology". He added: "The economic rationale for providing extra subsidy for something relies on it being an infant technology which has not come yet to commercial scale." Greening said that the model for a Green Investment Bank should be decided by May and that it would be operational in 2012. Ernst & Young estimates that traditional sources of capital such as energy companies and infrastructure finance could only provide up to £80bn of the £450bn investment needed by 2025, arguing that only a fully operational bank can fill the gap. Huhne, who together with environmentalists is pushing for a bank which can borrow and lend, admitted last month that" a fully fledged bank will take time to set up" particularly given the coalition's overriding priority of cutting the deficit. He suggested the idea that the bank could initially start off in a more limited capacity to kick-start investment as soon as possible but insisted that he wanted a bank set up as soon as possible.