Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Unsellables and the Super-Acheivers

 Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi 2017

THE Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi will never attract the attention that the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in neighbouring Dubai does, but it is an engineering feat nonetheless. It is using three times as much concrete as the world’s tallest building, and six times the amount of steel. Remarkably, its first reactor may start producing energy in the first half of this year—on schedule and (its South Korean developers insist) on budget. That would be a towering achievement.

In much of the world, building a nuclear-power plant looks like a terrible business prospect. Two recent additions to the world’s nuclear fleet, in Argentina and America, took 33 and 44 years to erect. Of 55 plants under construction, the Global Nuclear Power database reckons almost two-thirds are behind schedule .  The delays lift costs, and make nuclear less competitive with other sources of electricity, such as gas, coal and renewables.
Not one of the two technologies that were supposed to revolutionise the supply of nuclear energy—the European Pressurised Reactor, or EPR, and the AP1000 from America’s Westinghouse—has yet been installed, despite being conceived early this century. In Finland, France and China, all the EPRs under construction are years behind schedule. The main hope for salvaging their reputation—and the nuclear business of EDF, the French utility that owns the technology—is the Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which by now looks a lot like a Hail Mary pass.

Meanwhile, delays with the Westinghouse AP1000 have caused mayhem at Toshiba, its owner. The Japanese firm may announce write-downs in February of up to $6bn on its American nuclear business. As nuclear assets are probably unsellable, it is flogging parts of its core, microchip business instead.

YThis month, Oregon-based NuScale Power became the first American firm to apply for certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) design with America’s nuclear regulators.

“Clearly the momentum seems to be shifting away from traditional suppliers,” says William Magwood, director-general of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Both small and large reactors are required. In places like America and Europe, where electricity demand is growing slowly, there is rising interest in small, flexible ones. In fast-growing markets like China, large nuclear plants make more economic sense.
If the South Koreans succeed with their first foreign nuclear programme in Abu Dhabi, the reason is likely to be consistency. Nuclear accidents such as Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a long hiatus in nuclear construction in America and Europe. But South Korea has invested in nuclear power for four decades, using its own technology since the 1990s, says Lee Jong-ho, an executive at Korea Electric Power (KEPCO), which leads the consortium building Barakah. It does not suffer from the skills shortages that bedevil nuclear construction in the West.

KEPCO always works with the same, familiar suppliers and construction firms hailing from Korea Inc. By contrast, both the EPR and AP1000, first-of-a-kind technologies with inevitable teething problems, have suffered from being contracted out to global engineering firms. Also, South Korea and China both keep nuclear building costs low through repetition and standardisation, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry group. It estimates that South Korean capital costs have remained fairly stable in the past 20 years, while they have almost tripled in France and America.

Excerpts The nuclear options: How to build a nuclear-power plant, Economist, Jan. 28 2017, at 57


60 Days to Save the World

A dendritic cell. image from wikipedia

The US military supports US Government responses to public health emergencies such as Ebola, which can cause regional destabilization and spread through global travel. Warfighters must also operate in regions where diseases like chikungunya and dengue are endemic, and even seemingly mild challenges like seasonal influenza affect force readiness. In addition to these naturally occurring threats, terrorists and other potential adversaries have a growing palette of biological tools to engineer new biological threats. Existing capabilities to respond to an outbreak and develop therapeutics often take years or even decades to achieve results. Recent examples of public health emergencies have demonstrated a national and global inability to develop effective preventive or therapeutic solutions in a relevant timescale when an infectious threat emerges. The threat of infectious agents on US and global national security can be mitigated if the DoD has the capability to rapidly deploy and impart near-immediate immunity to military personnel and civilian populations for known and newly emerging pathogens.

The goal of P3 is to achieve an integrated capability that can deliver pandemic prevention countermeasures to patients within 60 days of an outbreak. P3 aims to revolutionize outbreak response by enabling rapid discovery, characterization, production, and testing of efficacious medical countermeasures. P3 will innovate in the following areas: (1) Generation of virus stock (including viral unknowns); (2) Rapid evolution of antibody candidates; and (3) Gene-encoded antibody delivery methods.

Excerpts from  The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Proposers Day March 2, 2017 

The Apathetics: nuclear waste disposal in Canada

Critics of Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build an underground nuclear waste dump on the shores of Lake Huron have always considered it absurd.…The fiercely debated plan to build what is called a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) has been going on for 14 years. In addition to Michigan lawmakers, more than 150,000 people have signed petitions, and 187 communities representing 22 million people have passed resolutions opposing the plan.

What has been in the works for decades is the construction of an underground permanent burial facility for all of Ontario’s low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine, Ontario.  That’s less than a mile inland from the shores of Lake Huron and about 440 yards below the lake level. Kincardine, a small community about 114 miles upstream from Port Huron agreed to have the facility in their town but will be financially compensated.  If and when the DGR is in place, an estimated 52 million tons of nuclear waste will be shipped to the site from other nuclear plants around Canada. Some of those discarded materials will remain toxic for more than 100,000 years as they are stored in limestone caverns. Once full, the shafts are to be sealed with sand, clay and concrete.

OPG has assured the residents and the public, “Years of scientific research have shown that the geology under the Bruce nuclear site is ideal for a DGR; it is some of the tightest rock in the world, impermeable limestone that has remained intact through 450 million years, multiple ice ages and glaciers.”  However great limestone might be to say it can hold up to nuclear waste seems presumptuous considering the current reputation of the world’s other DGRs.“There are only three deep nuclear waste dumps on our entire planet to have held nuclear waste,” Fernandez said. “They have all failed and leaked.”The three sites include the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico and two German sites, Asse II and Morslenben, both former salt mines.

The WIPP nuclear waste dump was supposed to contain its deadly waste for 10,000 years. Despite scientific assurance to the contrary, a mere 15 years into WIPP’s operational phase, a container exploded, spewing its deadly contents up to the surface, contaminating 22 workers and traveling into the biosphere and down to the next town, said Fernandez.

As part of an environmental assessment of the plan, a panel appointed by the federal government heard testimony by individuals and experts on both sides of the debate. Among the speakers to present evidence (in a well-documented report) that OPG was misleading the public including what they planned to store in the facility was Dr. Frank Greening. His report was thought to put an end to the plan.  Greening is a scientist, who worked for more than 20 years in the nuclear division of OPG. He was one of their most senior men, a chemist in charge of overseeing the degradation of structural materials, especially the crucially important pipes in the primary cooling systems of CANDU reactors.

Greening submitted a report disclosing important factors that OPG failed to share among them being the radioactive inventory for the proposed repository. Using words like dirty rags and mops, which is how they described some of the waste to be stored, does not sound as alarming as old reactors or ion exchange resins that bear a significant amount of Carbon-14, a radionuclide that has a half-life of more than 5,700 years.  “They’ve done a very sloppy job in looking at the hazards of the waste. You cannot just look at the radioactive properties but also its chemical properties,” Greening said. The chemical properties of the waste can lead to fires and explosions underground, which as critics fear, could cause a leak.

Building the DGR also requires a mining company to dynamite the rock formations. What about the potential risk to the nuclear plant itself, during construction of the DGR?  “I could go on and on about the scenarios and this is what they’re not talking about,” Greening said.

Another point of concern that Greening feels everyone is overlooking is OPG’s degraded safety culture and its lackadaisical response to concerns about unforeseen accidents. As an example of its history, Greening cited several incidents at OPG that allowed workers (many of them local tradesmen) to be exposed to radioactive materials including plutonium dust.

But I believe one should always look for the least risky solution and that would be to build it inland, in the Canadian Shield (granite), in Manitoba, like they originally planned to do in the 1980s.”

Excerpts from Risky or not, Gina Joseph, Ontario’s plan to bury nuclear waste near Lake Huron continues By Gina Joseph, The Macomb Daily, Feb. 2017

To Scrap or not to Scrap: the future of recycling

About 90 percent of the 8 billion soda cans sold in California every year get turned in for recycling and a 5¢ refund. But cheaper commodity prices, plus lower Chinese demand for America’s used bottles and cans, have upended the economics of the state’s recycling industry. Over the past two years, California’s recycling rate has fallen enough to relegate more than 2 billion containers a year to landfills.  About 700 of the 2,400 redemption centers California had in 2011 have closed, according to CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency, the majority in the past year. The mostly small companies that run the shedlike centers in parking lots outside grocery stores are being squeezed by a commodity bust that’s lowered the price they receive for recycled glass, plastic, and aluminum. The price they have to pay consumers for this detritus has stayed fairly high. A state subsidy program that was supposed to help make up the difference hasn’t kept up.,,

The decline in the value of scrap is draining California’s Beverage Container Recycling Fund, which relies on the proceeds from bottle deposits consumers pay upfront to reimburse redemption centers. As of June 30, it had $195 million, down from $246 million a year earlier. At this rate, it’s expected to run out of money in the first half of 2018.

“There’s been a massive crisis and a massive failure to respond to that crisis,” says Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, an advocacy group in Southern California. Collins says the state needs to boost its “outdated” payment formula by as much as $1 million a month or follow other states, where bottling companies pay recycling centers a fixed amount per container. A spokesman for CalRecycle says the state is looking at all options.

China is the largest destination for U.S. scrap exports, taking about 11 percent by volume in 2015. Since 2013, under a government program called Operation Green Fence, China has been aggressively inspecting and in some cases turning away bottles and cans that are mixed in with food waste or other nonrecyclable scrap. The policy has forced waste processors in the U.S. to screen discarded containers more carefully, driving up costs and diminishing the value of some waste.

Excerpts from California’s Recycling Industry is in the Dumps, Bloomberg Business Week, Oct. 6, 2016

Smart and Sensitive: the Power Grid

Raytheon Company  and Utilidata have formed a strategic alliance to help power utilities proactively detect, defend against and respond to cyber threats.  The effort will combine Utilidata’s experience in the use of real-time data from the electrical grid to detect and respond to cyber attacks and Raytheon’s expertise in proactive cyber threat hunting, automation and managed security services to provide world-class cybersecurity, analytics and other innovative technologies….

[According to] Scott DePasquale, chairman and CEO of Utilidata. “With more and more devices and systems connected to the internet, and all of them needing electrical power, these challenges are increasing exponentially. This new alliance will help define the future of cybersecurity in the power utilities sector.”  In December 2015, a cyber attack shut down a large section of the Ukrainian power grid – an incident that the Department of Energy identified in the 2017 installment of the Quadrennial Energy Review as an ‘indicator of what is possible.’

Excerpts from  Raytheon, Utilidata to deliver defense-grade cybersecurity for utilities, PRNewswire, Feb. 8, 2017

When the End is not Near: Fukushima 2017

 black lumps on wire-mesh grating found at Fukushima, Jan 30, 2017

Hopes have been raised for a breakthrough in the decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after its operator said it may have discovered melted fuel beneath a reactor, almost six years after the plant suffered a triple meltdown.  Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) said on January 30, 2017 that a remote camera appeared to have found the debris beneath the badly damaged No 2 reactor, where radiation levels remain dangerously high. Locating the fuel is the first step towards removing it.  If Tepco can confirm that the black mass comprises melted fuel, it would represent a significant breakthrough in a recovery effort that has been hit by mishaps, the buildup of huge quantities of contaminated water, and soaring costs….Using a remotely controlled camera attached to the end of a 10.5-metre-long telescopic arm, Tepco technicians located black lumps on wire-mesh grating just below the reactor’s pressure vessel, local media reported.

The company plans to send a scorpion-like robot equipped with cameras, radiation measuring equipment and a temperature gauge into the No 2 reactor containment vessel….Three previous attempts to use robots to locate melted fuel inside the same reactor ended in failure when the devices were rendered useless by radiation.

The delicate, potentially dangerous task of decommissioning the plant has barely begun, however.Japanese media said that plans to remove spent fuel from the No 3 reactor building had been delayed, while decommissioning the entire plant was expected to take at least 40 years.  In December 2016, the government said the estimated cost of decommissioning the plant and decontaminating the surrounding area, as well as paying compensation and storing radioactive waste, had risen to 21.5 trillion yen ($187bn), nearly double an estimate released in 2013.

Excerpts Possible nuclear fuel find raises hopes of Fukushima plant breakthrough, Guardian, Jan. 30, 2017

To Use and Get Used: the China-Cambodia Relationship

China provides military aid to Cambodia:  uniforms, vehicles, loans to buy helicopters and a training facility in southern Cambodia. Between 2011 and 2015 Chinese firms funnelled nearly $5bn in loans and investment to Cambodia, accounting for around 70% of the total industrial investment in the country. Chinese firms run garment and food-processing factories and are also heavily involved in construction, mining, infrastructure and hydropower. Others hold at least 369,000 hectares of land concessions on which they grow sugar, rubber, paper and other crops.

The government is often willing to bend the rules for Chinese firms. One is developing a luxury resort inside a national park on the edges of Sihanoukville, the country’s main port. Another has won development rights over some 20% of Cambodia’s coastline. Human-rights groups allege that fishermen who had lived in the area for generations were summarily evicted, taken inland and told that they were now farmers.

Each side gets something out of the relationship. For Cambodia, the most obvious benefit is economic: it is poor and aid-dependent; Chinese money lets it buy and build things it could not otherwise afford. Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said last year: “Without Chinese aid, we go nowhere.”  But there are also two strategic benefits. First, Cambodia uses China as a counterweight to Vietnam. Among ordinary Cambodians, anti-Vietnamese sentiment runs deep.   Cambodia also uses China as a hedge against the West. Chinese money comes with no strings attached, unlike most Western donations, which are often linked to the government’s conduct….

As for China, it gets a proxy within the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Cambodia has repeatedly blocked ASEAN from making statements that criticise China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, even though they conflict with those of several other ASEAN members. In 2016, less than a week after Cambodia endorsed China’s stance that competing maritime claims should be solved bilaterally, China gave Cambodia an aid package worth around $600m.

China also seems to be eroding America’s clout in the region.  ASEAN’s long-standing complaint, that Chinese influence on Cambodia hinders regional unity, is growing moot: over the South China Sea, at least, that unity appears to have disintegrated anyway. The Philippines, which took China to an international tribunal over its maritime claims, has reversed course. Its new president, Rodrigo Duterte, expresses contempt for America and affection for China. Vietnam, China’s other main adversary in the sea, recently pledged to resolve its maritime dispute bilaterally. Nobody yet knows what America’s policy on the South China Sea will be under Donald Trump, but increasingly it looks as if Cambodia has picked the winning side.

Excerpts, Chinese Influence in South-East Asia: The Giant’s Client,  Economist, Jan. 21, 2017