Feeling Warm And Toasty? Thank An Isotope!

I am warm.

Today is January 6th, 2014. I am in Pennsylvania. And at the moment, the temperature is -5 degrees Fahrenheit. (Yes, that’s a negative number in Pennsylvania.) And the forecast does not call for a heat wave anytime soon.

We’ve got the kind of cold front weather men and women everywhere fawn over – the kind that gins up groovy names like “polar vortex” and “snowmageddon.” One of my cleverer friends is even broadcasting snowmageddon updates replete with egg shortages and cannibalism (!!!). And I am as comfortably warm as warm can be, thanks to my local power plant.


I live near Beaver Valley Power Station. Beaver Valley has two pressurized water reactors with a combined capacity of 1815 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough electricity to power more than 1. 4 million homes. At last report**, both reactors are cranking at 100 power – powering my furnace to push out the cold air mother nature insists on delivering.

And as of October 2013, nuclear energy accounted for 19 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States. So whether you are rubbing your hands over a space heater or relaxing in a warm, cozy bedroom reading a book, know that safe, reliable nuclear energy played a part in getting you to that comfort zone. You’ve got to love that good ol’ uranium-235!

**Oh the irony! Beaver Valley Unit 1 automatically tripped from 100 percent power due to a current differential in the main step-up transformer just as I was writing this post. (Ref. Event Number: 49697, 1/6/2014,19:09 hrs.)

Bias and Dishonest Journalism

Media bias is generally a very important topic when it comes to politics. We consumers generally rely on the media to give us the facts, not to dictate our opinions for us. It is important for media outlets to be fair and accurate in their treatment of news events, so that consumers are able to make informed opinions. In addition to media bias, we should discuss nuclear bias. Unusual events at nuclear power plants generally garner plenty of media attention. And, as I will demonstrate, some reports are better than others.

On Friday, October 4th during a routine inspection of the containment liner at Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, PA, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company found and reported a hole in a rust-degraded area of the containment liner. The story was not widely reported. (I can’t know if it made the news, as I’ve sworn off cable.) But where it was reported, there exist noticeable differences in how the finding was portrayed.

Unfortunately, the first article I looked up to read about the Beaver Valley story showed clear signs of nuclear bias; and was not very informative to boot. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s John Funk had plenty of negative light to shed on the hole found in the Unit 1 containment liner. The author appears to put words in the mouth of FirstEnergy’s spokesperson, saying the spokesperson attributed the corrosion to a piece of wood “carelessly left behind.” The author also states that the containment building is required to be air-tight, which is just plain wrong. Then the author dedicates a significant portion of the article to quotes from a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that generally has nothing but negative things to say about the nuclear industry. Consequently, Mr. Funk’s article is riddled with negative connotation.

This same finding at Beaver Valley was reported in stellar fashion by Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Not only did Ms. Litvak accurately portray the finding, she dug deep to reveal to her readers industry-wide findings related to degradation of containment liners. It was actually fascinating reading. Rachel Morgan at the TimesOnline did a good job reporting* the event as well, describing past degradation findings at the plant and going on to discuss another industrial safety event that occurred during the same refueling outage. One thing both of the aforementioned articles do is avoid the use of subjective descriptors. The writers also took the time to inform their readers about past experiences with containment liners and about related events – each reading like a statement of fact rather than a collection of opinions.

It is important to point out bias such as this. Readers deserve better from journalists. Journalists need to keep their personal opinions to themselves, and let their readers decide what kind of story the facts are telling.

*Article is behind a paywall. But I was able to bypass it on my mobile device.

Diablo Canyon Shuts Down – Nuclear Industry Applauds

Yesterday, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating Station shut down after a leak was detected.


“At 2158 PDT, plant personnel identified a through-wall leak in a Diablo Canyon Power Plant Unit 1 socket weld inside containment that provides a flow path to a relief valve that protects a common portion of both trains of the Residual heat Removal (RHR) system. The as-found condition did not comply with the requirements of equipment control guideline 7.6 and the ASME acceptance criteria. PG&E accordingly declared both Unit 1 trains of RHR inoperable and initiated plant shutdown at 2237 PDT in accordance with requirements of Technical Specification 3.0.3.

“PG&E will complete shutdown to Mode 4 and will perform repairs to restore compliance with ASME code requirements.”

The licensee notified the NRC Resident Inspector.

The Residual Heat Removal (RHR) system is a safety-related system relied on to remove decay heat from the reactor core during normal shutdown operations and in the event of an accident. Because the RHR system is safety-related, technical specifications are applied to the system to specify the limiting conditions the systems must meet in order for the plant to legally keep the air conditioning running in our homes. (I refer to this state of powering our homes as being “at power.” Is it hot in here?)

The RHR system can be inspected, tested, and worked on while the plant is at power because the RHR does not need to operate in order to make power. Per the plant’s Technical Specifications, in order for the plant to produce power to charge my greedy cell phone at least one “train” of RHR must be operable – meaning the RHR must still be able to perform it’s safety functions even if part if the system is not working or is taken down for maintenance. Because the part of the RHR that leaked was part of the system that is shared between “trains,” and the leaking crack meant that the system couldn’t meet its design code standards, the minimum conditions the plant had to meet to keep our lights on were not met and the plant operators began an orderly shutdown of the plant.

Many people don’t realize – or in the case of nuclear DIS-informers, won’t admit – that a nuclear plant is a very clean place. If you visit a nuclear plant, you’ll notice a lot of freaking noise, and shiny, clean, dry floors, clean equipment and bright lights. We don’t keep up the cleanliness to impress visitors. A clean plant is also a plant where it is easier to detect when something mechanical has failed.

Think of a used car. If you look under the hood, and there’s lots of crud and black stuff everywhere, does it make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the next 100k miles? I think not! If your car is filthy under the hood, you are much less likely to notice if something is starting to fail. (It’s pretty hard to notice miniscule ethylene glycol deposits on a leaky, black engine block.) The same logic applies to a nuclear plant. In a clean plant, little deposits of born crystal are easier to spot.

The leak was discovered during routine maintenance. Diablo Canyon plant personnel discovered boron deposits on the outside of the RHR piping (where it should never be) and knew it was not supposed to be there thanks, in part, to their plant cleanliness programs. Undoubtedly, a timeout was called to investigate why such cruddy deposits would be there. This is absolutely the right thing to do. Diablo Canyon personnel performed well by keeping the safety performance of their plant in the highest priority; and demonstrating the robust nuclear safety culture of their organization.

Politicians like Barbara Boxer (who was instrumental in delaying restart and ultimately shutting down San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) may try to turn events like this into examples of nuclear plant failures. But in doing so, she does her constituents and all of us a disservice. Events such as the event at Diablo Canyon yesterday demonstrate how serious safety is to PG&E, to Diablo Canyon staff and to the nuclear industry.

Diablo Canyon personnel shut the plant down. Now they’ll repair the leak, study it’s root cause (how the leak happened), bring the plant back online (Turn the ac on, it’s hot in here!) and share their findings with the rest of the nuclear industry so that we can learn from it and prevent it happening again.

Keep up the good work guys.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Leave it to a spindly frog puppet* to encapsulate such deep wisdom into five simple words.


In a world where information travels as fast as light, and telling fact from fiction is more difficult than cooking a perfect soufflé, it can be extremely tough to know what to believe about climate science. But one thing is for sure, whether from anthropomorphic causes or tectonic activity beyond our control, our world is getting warmer. The real question is, do we ignore it and carry on like stupid creatures, or do we take a proactive approach to living with the environment, just in case?

Being green can be hard. Do you buy halogen, compact fluorescent or LED? Paper or plastic? Efficient gasoline fueled or hybrid? What about solar power? Wind? Hydro? Nuclear?


As energy demand rises, the prospects of an all-renewable energy sector grow ever more slight. The environmental impacts – biologically incompatible chemical bi-products, land consumption, capacity intermittentcy replacement needs (wind power has a capacity factor between 20-40%) – we would need to overcome in order to replace baseload nuclear power with solar panels and wind power are enormous. Nearly 2.3 billion earth-warming metric tons of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere by fossil fuel energy production in the U.S. alone in 2011. Nuclear energy helps avoid 650 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Politicians are right to tout an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy as the best option for sustaining the production needed to support economic growth and national security interests.

So frequently, “greens” and so-called environmentalists are loathe to embrace new energy development opportunities, and instead are more likely to criticize innovation for its possible negative environmental impact. But such impact is the consequence of improving the human existence. The trick is to balance the good with the not-so-good, and minimize the consequences of our work. Now, more and more environmentalists are acknowledging the important role nuclear power must play in ensuring the future of our country and the habitability of our planet.

Our planet has a sordid 4.5 billion-year history – human’s role in it a blink of the eye by comparison. But our influence on the future of this tiny rock should not be underestimated. If our species manages not extinct itself by other means – disease or war – it will grow ever more imperative to avoid actions that could contribute to a runaway greenhouse effect like that on Venus.

I am not too keen on the vision of a hot, baren, acid haloed Earth. But I like my smartphone, and my computer, and my car, and my big tv.

So instead of poo-pooing energy development – new Generation III+ nuclear plants, Keystone pipeline, oil-sands, wind farms, hydro dams, coal scrubbers – bring it on. As long as new capacity is developed with a mind to minimizing (not preventing, because that’s impossible) environmental impact, protecting the future of our planet is in lock step with new nuclear development.

*Or Jim Henson. Whatever…


  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Electric Power Annual 2011.”
  2. Wind capacity factors: Wind Energy Center, University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Wind Power:  Capacity Factor, Intermittency,  and what happens when the wind doesn’t blow?”

Nuclear Plant License Renewals

There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the United States. Many of these plants have been operating safely for over 40 years. Nuclear plants are initially licensed to operate for 40 years as long as they are safe. But operating experience has shown that theconservatisms incorporated into their designs combined with the various upgrades that have been implemented over the decades has lent operating reactors a particular ruggedness, which has prompted many plants to apply for 20 year license extensions.

The popularity of license renewal applications has prompted anti-nuclear politicians and activists to assert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply “rubber stamps” these approvals. I recently read a letter from a member of the public that claimed existing nuclear plants are “being granted approval to continue operation with little or no upgrade to their infrastructure.” These assertions are simply false.

On the contrary, nuclear plant operators seeking license extensions are required to comply with the conditions and technical specification of the original license (unless they seek to amend their technical specifications as well); and to demonstrate they have designed a robust aging management program for the facility, which includes replacing aging equipment and implementing enhanced inservice inspection and maintenance programs for plant equipment important to safety.

For instance, before applying for a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, Tennessee Valley Authority replaced all four steam generators in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 at Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station. These replacement steam generators feature technologically superior steam generator tubing alloy material with improved corrosion and wear resistance properties. TVA performed this replacement (to the tune of $360 million) in order to ensure the continued safety of the workforce and public.

Other operating plants are performing similar plant upgrades to assure the facility can operate safely for the duration of the operating license extension. The NRC does not simply “rubber stamp” these extensions as some people suggest. The regulators require enhanced inspection and maintenance programs based on the facility’s operating history; and have no qualms about requiring more than what a licensee suggests.

Even after the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has determined that renewing a license will not endanger the environment or public, the extension is not guaranteed. Some license renewal applicants must survive a public evidentiary hearing, during which intervenors – read: anti-nuclear organizations – can attempt to prove extending the plant operating license poses a danger to the public.

You can learn more about nuclear plant licensing and find a list of the current applications for license extension at the NRC website: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/licensing/renewal/applications.html

A Snowstorm and a Pilgrim

Anti-nuclear websites are absolutely abuzz with the “news” that Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station is shut down. Pilgrim experienced two unplanned shutdowns in January due to an electrical relay trip and then a leaking safety valve. The plant was operating around 80 percent of full power when the snow storm that hit the north eastern United States this week caused a power outage that forced the plant to shutdown.

The reason for the shutdown is very simple. High winds = downed trees = downed power lines. Or maybe your neighbor hit the pole up the street. (Thanks a lot Ally!) If the electrical distribution grid is damaged such that it cannot carry electricity to customers, there is no use continuing to churn out electricity to it. Therefore, the plant shut down. This operation is by design, and is not initiated due to any malfunction with the plant itself. It’s akin to turning off the water supply to a tub when the tub has sprung a leak. There’s nothing wrong with the water supply.

However, some websites’ treatment of this outage is less incendiary than others.

CBS Local
CBS Local gets it right.
Boston.com is not too bad.
AP gives the impression a nuclear plant cannot withstand a snow storm.

But I don’t think anyone tops the whoppers on Energy News – a highly disreputable site to begin with – under this headline:

Energy "News"
Energy “News”

From the comments under this highly misleading headline, you would think the plant is in imminent danger of wiping out the eastern seaboard and sending a fiery exploding nuclear mess dropping straight to China.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with Pilgrim’s boiling water reactor. The emergency diesel generators are running and keeping the plant cool. When the grid is back in working condition, the plant will restart and life will go on. And anti-nuclear activists will continue to spread lies about it all.

When the Lights Go Out

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome! WOOT!!!
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome! WOOT!!!

What did you think of Superbowl XLVII? I thought it was AWESOME –  the best Superbowl I’ve watched in years. I was rooting for the San Francisco 49ers – based solely on quarterback cuteness – but alas my team’s comeback was to no avail. Beyoncé’s halftime show was absolutely fabulous. And there was a yawn-inducing power outage at the stadium, which still has all the media guessing, “What happened?”

SMG – the management company that runs the Superdome –  has not announced what piece of equipment failed. Entergy and SMG did announce the outage was not caused by an electrical grid interruption. A fault at equipment where the electrical grid ties into the Superdome caused the protection system to trip – that is to open breakers to arrest power supply to the Superdome. Since the Superdome is powered by the CBD underground secondary network,* such operation could be by design. Its purpose would be to protect network reliability, safety and voltage that could be compromised by feedback to the network from the Superdome. What caused the feedback (or if power feedback was actually the cause) remains to be determined.

A football stadium is a technologically exacting work of art. It takes more than seats and concrete to make a great stadium. A designer has to factor in a wide range of features to maximize capacity while providing efficient means for patrons to breathe, drink, use the bathroom, and escape in an emergency. Various events could challenge a stadium’s ability to protect its patrons – fire, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, inclement weather and, yes, power outages.

Power outages can present a danger to patrons. Backup power systems are generally installed to provide emergency power for a stadium if grid power is interrupted or an internal fault causes a local outage. Typically, upon loss of normal power, the alternate source will be on-line within a short period of time: less than one second if provided from a second electrical grid tie-in, around 20 seconds if served by back-up generators.

Nuclear plant electrical systems are designed in much the same way – but on steroids! Operating nuclear plants are required by law to have a second offsite power supply from a different distribution grid source. A nuclear plant’s alternating electrical current system is equipped with protective features that will very quickly switch from the preferred power supply to the second power supply to keep vital equipment energized.

If both those power sources become unavailable – as is what happened at North Anna after last year’s earthquake – a low voltage signal will initiate turbine-generator trip and reactor shutdown. The signal will also start up on-site diesel generators sized to power the emergency equipment necessary to bring the plant to safe shutdown mode and maintain it there for at least 3 days. These generators are each sized to power all necessary emergency equipment. Nuclear plants also have emergency battery banks to power computer systems needed to actuate the emergency diesel generators and some other vital instrumentation and equipment. Back ups to back ups to back ups – that’s Defense in Depth.

Emergency Diesel Generator in a Nuclear Power Plant

So, if the Superdome had been powered like a nuclear plant, could the game have continued uninterrupted thus thwarting the San Fran comeback attempt that kept viewers on the edge of their seats? (Or, well, at least me.) Well, not really. The emergency systems in a nuclear plant, like the emergency power systems in the Superdome, are sized to energize vital equipment only. So, those dim lights just bright enough to reveal Joe Flacco stretching on the sidelines are all we’d get – along with vital ventilation and pumping systems. So no stage lights for the ‘Mercedes-Benz Superdome’ Nuclear Power Station either. Boohoo.

But that’s okay. I needed a break from those chatty announcers anyway.

*I deduced that the Superdome is powered by CBD secondary network. I don’t have the security clearance to verify that. 🙂

%d bloggers like this: