Rod Adams at Atomic Insights Blog is a not to be missed weekly stop for this writer.  Mr. Adams is located close to the regulatory action, conferences and has the experience and background to make sense of it all with his gift of communicating to the informed masses – that’s us.  He recently made ammo with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s issues over the AP1000, small sized reactors, and old thorium fueled reactors.

Over the past two weeks Mr. Adams has been attending the Nuclear Construction Summit 2009 organized by Nuclear Energy Insider and that was held at the Dupont Hotel on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.  To give readers an idea of the scale of the number of working people in the field that have an interest and can miss some time at work and attend – came to 159 plus the speakers and press totaling 25.  This is not a big group, but those attending have enormous impact in a practical sense.  Mr. Adams notes the count was at least 60% over the pre conference estimate.

A few days back news was made in the press about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s notice that the Westinghouse AP1000 design, that has been already certified is stalled waiting for a review of the post certification revisions.  Mr. Adams asked during the questions segment of Luis Reyes, the Regional Administrator for NRC region II in Atlanta, GA, talk, “Mr. Reyes, can you help us understand a little bit more about the concerns on the AP1000 shielding design?

The answer Reyes provided is, “. . . The AP1000 design was certified by the NRC and we have reviewed that issue. In one of the subsequent revisions they made some changes to the building to try to facilitate modular construction. When they (Westinghouse) did that, they introduced some new techniques in terms of anchoring the walls, the sidewalls. And the staff raised some questions with the stability of that particular issue, to the point where we decided that was not acceptable to us. They are very easy engineering fixes regarding anchoring and supports et cetera, et cetera.”

“So it is not an insurmountable issue. So what is happening now is that Westinghouse is taking a look at how they can resolve the issue yet still have a lot of flexibility for the module construction.”

”There is a forthcoming meeting with the NRC where they are going to present the approach and we’ll pursue it. I do not see this as a significant, insurmountable engineering issue. The question of the change is to be able to do the modular construction and keep the construction schedule in the 4-6 year time frame with existing, engineering acceptable techniques. I think you are going to see a resolution pretty soon.”

Westinghouse AP1000 Simple Block Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

Westinghouse AP1000 Simple Block Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

The matter hinges on the shield wall around the reactor.  The initial plan was to build as in the past, pour on site.  Since the certification, Westinghouse is attempting to get to a modular wall, but that hasn’t been subjected to the review.  Thus the stall.  As the list of things a shield wall must do, contain a leak, get through an earthquake on up to survive an airliner impact – the NRC concern has validity.  The ball is in Westinghouse’s court.  The issue is about when Westinghouse made the shield wall more rigid to stop impacts from aircraft; it lost the flexibility it needed to withstand earthquakes. While it seems counter-intuitive, buildings are now being designed to “roll” or “flex” with the swaying motion caused by earthquakes to avoid damage.

Mr. Adams refers to an article by Dan Yurman that also includes a bit of oversight on the costs and those affected by the NRC’s action.  While Yurman’s explanation is simple. It does show how seemingly simple changes can be huge cost issues.

The second howitzer size round Mr. Adams has played was a question he asked of the speakers discussing nuclear construction and operating considerations.  Mr. Adams asked, as I quote from his posting, “ . . . what they thought of the notion that they had just made an effective case for considering small or medium sized reactors in order to reduce the project physical and financial complexity. After all, if a huge stumbling block is that a project is too large to be financed within the balance sheet capacity of an investor owned utility with a market capitalization of a few tens of billions of dollars, one way around that is to propose a significantly smaller project with a price tag that is 5 or 10% of the current proposal.”

Adams continues describing the response, “About half of the speakers acknowledged the attraction of thinking about smaller projects and cautiously expressed their interest in seeing how systems like those proposed by Hyperion, NuScale, Toshiba and B&W are received by the NRC. Most of the rest indicated that they did not think it was a good idea to go small; from their point of view that did not get rid of the most important sources of uncertainty and complexity since the smaller projects have not yet started the process of obtaining an NRC license.”  That’s likely the meat of it, but Adams reports, “They have a hard to overcome certainty that somehow the NRC will halt any significant innovation and they are placing much of their hope on government action related to carbon emissions and loan guarantee programs to get just a little motion started.”  The upper reaches of nuclear managers have a very long way to go to catch up.  They could be listed as an industrial drag with the NRC.

The best ammo is Adams’ discussion over coffee, “ . . . with a group of people who were talking about the environmental and emissions control challenges faced in their company’s fossil fuel division. I asked if they had ever heard of the concept of coal to nuclear conversions (see Jim Holm’s thought provoking site at They scoffed, so I mentioned a specific plant that had once been a coal plant, converted to a nuclear plant, and then converted to a waste to energy plant. They looked at me like I was from Mars . . .”

One hopes that those folks in the discussion with Adams recover and have a look at Adams’ blog.  On Mr. Adams’ Oct 29th blog he gives an overview of the Elk River Station in Minnesota that was a coal burner, then a uranium dioxide and thorium dioxide burner only to be switched back to coal after running four years of demonstration.  Thorium is way past being experimental; The Atomic Energy Commission ran the reactor at 24 MW thermal power, the plant owner – then the Rural Cooperative Power Association – provided a working generating station.  The technology was only boiling light water cooled reactor.

Elk River Reactor Building

Elk River Reactor Building

Obviously at the time a one off built experimental reactor had cost issues and was operating with a non-commercial staff doing experiments so making it uneconomical.  But the test, the demonstration for switching from coal to nuclear has been done, successfully and switched back.  The case for technical plant power source switching, saving building out new generating facilities, staying right in the grid itself and offering the chance to build up the grid with existing rights of way and some of the transmission equipment should be front and center of any discussion about the grid, cutting back on coal sourced CO2 and a bevy of matters that ratepayers will be coming to grips with as rates climb.

Adams suggests that a switch to thorium to drive existing coal fueled generating plants is far more practical than carbon capture.  Not to mention the billions of dollars to taxpayers, and ratepayers to catch and store carbon dioxide.  Its time for someone to try for a thorium fueled reactor at the NRC, something for which the Congress might want to be setting up an affordable submission process.

Rod Adams is definitely a howitzer sized ammo maker.


8 Comments so far

  1. Jagdish on November 4, 2009 2:00 AM

    India’s National Thermal Power Corporation are thinking of tying up with Nuclear power corporation to build nuclear power plants. I wish they would convert one of thermal plants to nuclear steam generation to demonstrate the idea. Both organisations are building 500MW plants using essentially the same generators.

  2. Tim Steinbeck on November 4, 2009 4:03 PM

    This discussion is interesting to observe and does make some sense.

    I manage the Elk River Station, still in operation after almost 60 years with various lives. For the past 20 years we have been operating the three boiler/turbine generator units firing refuse-derived fuel (RDF – i.e. shredded municipal solid waste from the NW Minneapolis area).

    This site did host a nuclear generator unit that operated in parallel with the 25 MW pulverized coal boiler from 1963-1968. The nuclear unit was a primary steam generator with an oil-fired secondary superheater. Steam could be sent to the single turbine generator from either the nuclear unit OR the pulverized coal boiler; so it really wasn’t converted, but did demonstrate that a nuclear unit could be retrofit to a coal facility.

    We definitely subscribe to the philosophy of don’t throw away a good thermal plant; convert it to a different fuel, be it biomass or nuclear.

  3. Tim Steinbeck on November 4, 2009 4:11 PM

    By the way, the photo of the Elk River Station is after the conversion to RDF. The silver towers on the right sit on the site the reactor used to be. They are the spray drier absorbers (scrubber) installed to remove the acid gases from the combustion of the “garbage”.

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