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Engineering News Online
October 12, 2006

America’s Department of Energy (DoE) has embarked on the first stage of a programme that could result in the construction of a South African-designed pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) in the US.

This step took the form of a $3-million contract awarded on the last day of September by the DoE to a US-South African consortium, for first-phase engineering work for America’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The South African members of the consortium are PBMR (Pty) Ltd, the company responsible for the development of the PBMR technology, and M-Tech Industrial, of Potchefstroom.

“The Americans are looking at building a proto- type nuclear plant for process heat production, and not only for electricity generation, as a first step towards the creation of a hydrogen economy,” explains PBMR (Pty) Ltd CEO Jaco Kriek.

“Although the US project is still in its pre- conceptual phase, this is a huge signal that South Africa’s PBMR is world-class,” he affirms.

“There are quite a few other competing nuclear reactor technologies, yet they went for ours – this is very significant,” he points out.

Moreover, the prototype PBMR plant to be built in South Africa will be purely a power generation unit.

Thus, the US programme could see the construction of the process heat prototype using American and not South African money – and the PBMR company believes that process heat applications will be as big a market for their reactor as electricity generation, if not bigger (see Engineering News March 31, 2006).

Further, PBMR is hopeful that involvement in this project will assist in the licensing of its reactor in the US.

“We are already working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to this end,” he assures.

“We are in this consortium and this project not only because we have the PBMR design, but because that design has been converted into components – we have manufactured engineering designs and some components are already being made,” explains Kriek.

“No one else can say this, not even the Chinese,” he asserts.

(China has operated a small – 10 MW – pebble-bed research plant in Beijing for some years now; the Chinese and South Africans have a memorandum of understanding which allows them to exchange experiences and knowledge about PBMR technology.) Rival fourth-generation nuclear reactor technologies are not as advanced as the South African PBMR.

“But we are also in this project because of our design and modelling experience and capability,” he highlights.

The US members of the consortium are Westinghouse Electric Company (the consortium leader); Shaw, Stone & Webster (based in Boston, Massachusetts); Technology Insights (San Diego, California); Air Products & Chemicals (Allentown, Pennsylvania); Nuclear Fuel Services (Erwin, Tennessee); and Kadak Associates (Providence, Rhode Island).

Westinghouse owns 15% of the PBMR company.

The contract awarded to the Westinghouse/PBMR consortium is one of three awarded by the DoE, with a total value of $8-million, all involving engineering studies and preconceptual design for the NGNP.

The other two contracts were awarded to General Atomics of the US and Areva of France.

“These contracts are for complementary engineering studies; our contract is the main contract,” clarifies Kriek.

This contract will run for 12 months and is intended to be just the first phase in the multi-phase programme which, if all goes well, will result in the construction of a prototype process heat PBMR at the Idaho National Laboratory.

This programme is part of the DoE’s ‘Generation IV nuclear energy systems initiative’ which seeks to develop next-generation reactor technologies.

This initiative, in turn, is authorised by the Energy Policy Act passed by the US Congress last year.

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS – The Energy Department is reconsidering building a rail line through western Nevada to the site of a proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, officials said.

The north-south route dubbed the Mina Corridor was examined in the 1990s but shelved after the Walker River Paiute Indians refused access to their reservation. The tribe reconsidered this year.

The Energy Department has said it favored plans to build a 319-mile east-west rail line from Caliente, near the Utah border, across rural Nevada to the nuclear dump site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The so-called Caliente Corridor route could cost $2 billion.

Department officials notified state and local leaders and members of Congress that the plan to take another look at the Mina route would be published Friday in the Federal Register. A draft notice obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said the Mina coordor would be shorter, cross fewer mountain ranges and utilize existing rail bed.

“These potential advantages would simplify design and construction,” the department said.

The Energy Department plans to continue preparing an environmental impact statement on the Caliente corridor, with informational meetings about the rail plans planned in November in several Nevada towns.

Draft versions of both studies would be released by the summer, department and Yucca Mountain project spokesman Allen Benson said in Las Vegas.

Walker River Indian tribal leaders reversed policy and agreed in May to let the government map a new rail line through their reservation. The tribal chairwoman said the tribe was reserving a final decision on allowing nuclear waste shipments.

The state of Nevada opposes the repository plan. However, Bob Halstead, a transportation consultant for the state, said a north-south
corridor appeared to make more sense and could cost less than the Caliente route.

There currently is no rail line to the Yucca site, which Congress and the Bush administration picked in 2002 as the place to entomb 77,000 tons of radioactive waste now being stored at nuclear reactors in 39 states. The project has been stalled by funding shortfalls and questions about quality control work du

Los Angeles Times
October 16, 2006

The U.S. Energy Department cannot meet its own post-Sept. 11 security standards to repel a terrorist force at the Ft. Knox of uranium, a Tennessee facility that stores an estimated 189 metric tons of bomb-grade material, agency officials acknowledged.

The material is stored in five masonry and wood frame buildings at the Y-12 facility, a key part of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure at the Oak Ridge site near Knoxville.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department, is building a secure facility to warehouse the material that is due to be completed in 2009. Until then, the Energy Department has given itself an “extension,” or waiver, on meeting security requirements at the site.

At risk in an attack is terrorists gaining access to highly enriched uranium and then within minutes improvising a crude but powerful nuclear device.

The problems at Y-12 were disclosed in a report by the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington group that has pushed the Energy Department to strengthen security at all U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

Officials at the Y-12 facility acknowledged that they are not meeting the current security requirements, but they rejected the concerns raised by the organization.

Y-12 spokesman Steven Wyatt said the security force could effectively defend the site and prevent terrorists from constructing a weapon.

“There are better odds that an asteroid would hit Oak Ridge than the likelihood that terrorists would have the access and time to build and detonate” an improvised device, Wyatt said.

At the site, the department has 527 guards.

To meet the federal security standard would have required a force of 800 guards, said Peter Stockton, one of the key authors of the report.

Audit finds excessive bonuses at INL
DOE inspection cites lab’s contractor; other officials defend subjective nature of awarding fees
Idaho Statesman
The Associated Press
September 20, 2006

IDAHO FALLS — The contractor running the Idaho National Laboratory has received more than $2 million in overly liberal bonus money, an audit has found.

The audit by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General found that Battelle Energy Alliance received the money in reward fees since February 2005 when it took over operations at INL, the 890-square-mile federal nuclear research area in eastern Idaho.

The audit, released in August, also found that goals set by the department were months late, and on some occasions came after the work was done.

Officials at the department acknowledged that due dates had been missed, but said deciding whether reward fees were reasonable was subjective.

“It may be impossible to ever consistently meet the expectations of the (inspector general) regarding fee allocations,” Dennis Spurgeon, the department’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said in a written response.

The audit report cited seven cases of bonus fees that were too large. Four of the cases gave Battelle a “sales commission” for getting new projects.

The contractor, in one case, could earn $499,000 for getting $100,000 worth of work.

In another example, the audit found that the cost of completing some steps to establish the Center for Advanced Energy Studies would be $220,000 for labor. But Battelle could earn $600,000 for completing the steps.

John Lindsay, a Battelle spokesman, said the report on the Center for Advanced Energy Studies work was unfair because the collaborative work with the state, universities and others was not considered.

Battelle, in a written response, also said that the fees were based on the value of the work to the government, and that the fees were a good value to the department and taxpayers.

The audit blamed the department for releasing performance plans months after the fiscal year started.

At least one performance deadline had passed by the time the department had told Battelle of its priorities.

New York Times, September 18, 2006
Reactors Prone to Long Closings, Study Finds
By MATTHEW L. WALD

An analysis of nuclear reactors by a safety group has found that they are prone to costly, lengthy shutdowns for safety problems regardless of their age or the experience of their managers. The finding could have implications for companies considering building new
reactors.

The analysis, by David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, counted 51 times that a reactor had been closed for a year or more. Thirty-six of those shutdowns were to restore an adequate level of safety by fixing flaws in equipment, procedures or training; 11 were to replace major components required for operations and safety; and 4 were for damage recovery. In all, of the 130 power reactors ever licensed, 41, were closed for at least a year. Ten were closed twice.

Mr. Lochbaum said the most common reason for a shutdown was for an “attitude adjustment” for workers and managers, so they would be more attuned to safety. He said he was surprised by some of his findings, which are scheduled to be released Monday. “I expected that the first plant off an assembly line would have been challenged, or troubled, but that there was a learning curve, and the fourth or fifth or sixth plant for a company would have avoided these problems,” he said. “But it wasn’t the case.”

But a vice president of the industry’s trade association, Marvin Fertell of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that the industry had, in fact, learned from its errors, and that only experienced operators would build new plants. And at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Stuart A. Richards, deputy director of the division of inspection, said his agency had improved its inspections, to focus on “risk-significant areas,” and was now able to find problems more promptly.

Extended shutdowns would be a bigger problem for future plants because, in the past, electricity customers of regulated utilities paid for them. But some of the reactor construction projects now being considered would be built as “merchant” plants, with no guaranteed income, only revenue from power sales.

The heart of the problem, Mr. Lochbaum said, is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not good at assessing the ability of a reactor staff to keep the plant in good physical condition and maintain training and other requirements. As a result, he said, plants operate until serious problems accumulate and force a shutdown.

“This is the wrong way to do business, from a safety standpoint and an economic standpoint,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Fertell, of the industry trade group, agreed.

The only reactor currently in an extended shutdown is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Unit 1, in Alabama. It last ran in 1985. The shutdown of more than a year that ended most recently was at Davis-Besse, near Toledo, Ohio, where workers found that an acid used in the plant, boron, had corroded a 70-pound chunk of steel in the reactor’s vessel head,
leaving only a half-inch stainless steel liner.

Early in the era of commercial nuclear power, analysts theorized that shutdowns were what was known in the industry as “teething problems” and that with experience, reactors would run more smoothly. But most of the shutdowns came after the reactors were 10 years old. The Davis-Besse plant was more than 23 years old when it was closed in 2002. It was closed for more than two years. Besides the hole in the reactor head, engineers later found that crucial pumps that used water for lubrication were prone to break down because of debris in the water. Discovery of decades-old design problems is common during lengthy shutdowns.

While Mr. Lochbaum, a longtime adversary of the nuclear industry, is often critical of the companies that operate reactors, he said regulators were the problem in this area. The rules require reactors to have Corrective
Action Programs to keep track of physical and procedural problems, and each lengthy shutdown is an indication that the program itself is flawed, he said. Regulators monitor the physical condition of reactors, he said, but are not good at observing the quality of the corrective programs.

For example, the commission gave high marks to the program at Davis-Besse less than a year before inspectors found that operators had let acid eat through six inches of steel, bringing the plant close to a catastrophic rupture.

Mr. Richards said he had not seen the report but acknowledged errors by the commission in handling the Davis-Besse case. But he said N.R.C. inspections had been improved using a new process, of which the Corrective Action Program itself was a major component.

And, he said, the commission had previously penalized reactors for accumulations of minor violations, adding them up to count for a major problem; now it focuses only on major problems.

Mr. Lochbaum said that after a reactor was shut down for one reason, other problems were often discovered. In an extended shutdown at the Crystal River plant, in Florida, workers found design defects even though the plant had been running for nearly 20 years. He said the problems included that, in an emergency, the pumps would not have worked as intended and piping would have exposed workers and the public to radiation.

“Did the plant’s owner bring in busloads of smarter workers after the N.R.C. put the reactor on notice?” Mr. Lochbaum asked in the report. The problem, he said, was that perception by the inspectors that plant management was competent was blinding them to problems at the reactors.

But Mr. Fertell, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said an extended reactor shutdown often became “a monster can of worms.” “You were basically under a magnifying glass,” he said, with inspectors finding issues faster than management could resolve them.