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AS USA govt loosens regulations, how will nuclear safety be protected?

How will the federal government protect nuclear safety in an anti-regulatory climate?, The Conversation,  Professor, Department of Communication, North Carolina State UniversityApril 18, 2017 , The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have undertaken a wide-ranging effort to shrink the federal government’s regulatory footprint. Much attention has focused on high-profile targets, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. But this trend also has major implications for other agencies.

One example is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees safety across a complex, privately owned network of nuclear power plants, used fuel storage facilities and other sites related to civilian uses of nuclear energy.

As a researcher studying communication in energy and environmental settings, I have followed the NRC’s work with particular interest since 2011. The agency and the system it regulates exemplify what some scholars call a “high reliability organization” – one that cannot be allowed to fail, because the consequences would be grave.

As studies have shown, failures of external oversight were key factors in the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Those examples show that there is good reason to assess how today’s anti-regulatory climate could affect the NRC and nuclear safety in the United States.

An industry in flux

The NRC conducts risk-related research and develops and enforces rules for the design and operation of nuclear facilities nationwide. Today it is grappling with major challenges that will shape the future of nuclear power in the United States.

The U.S. nuclear industry is struggling economically to compete with renewable energy and cheap natural gas. Older plants are nearing the end of their 40-year licensed operating lifetimes, while at least 15 reactor construction projects have been canceled or suspended since 2010. The four still in progress have been delayed, and now face possible cancellation.

In response, the industry is relying on 20-year license renewals for existing reactors, which allow them to operate for up to 60 years. As of December 2016, the NRC had approved 87 renewal applications.

Now the agency is preparing to consider applications for “subsequent license renewals” that would extend reactor lifetimes to 80 years. This prospect poses new challenges. Notably, the NRC needs to analyze the safety implications of operating geriatric plants and develop regulatory rules to manage issues such as structural and operational risks.

At the same time, the industry is promoting new reactor designs, which advocates say will be safer and more cost-efficient than current plants. The NRC is building a framework for reviewing and licensing these untested new technologies – an enormous and safety-critical task.

Highly radioactive used nuclear fuel, which is accumulating at reactor sites across the nation, poses additional challenges. As onsite storage capacity fills up, two private companies have applied for licenses to develop “consolidated interim storage facilities” in Texas and New Mexico that could hold used nuclear fuel for up to 40 years.

Authorizing such facilities would require changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which currently allows only permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel. Nevertheless, the NRC is already engaged in new risk analysis and public communication issues related to these projects.

Used fuel now held at power plants would need to be packaged and moved long distances, secured safely for decades and ultimately moved again to its final disposal site. Communities are also concerned about whether current or interim sites could end up as long-term locations for “stranded” nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, the administration’s 2018 budget blueprint proposes reopening the licensing process for a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. President Obama ended work on licensing Yucca Mountain in 2010, so the NRC would need to reorganize its staffing and resources to resume work on the project.

Anti-regulatory challenges

The current anti-regulatory climate could affect the NRC in multiple ways. Broader executive and legislative developments, and a recent agency leadership change, provide early clues. For example, an executive order issued in January requires federal agencies to eliminate two rules for every new rule they create.

Because the NRC is formally designated as an independent regulatory agency, it might be exempt from this order. However, asked in March about that possibility, NRC Chair Kristine Svinicki responded ambiguously that although the agency is “in some ways beyond the reach” of such orders, she wants to “look to the spirit and intent” they express. It is hard to see how the NRC can develop new regulations for so many emerging activities and keep the U.S. nuclear industry operating safely while slashing existing rules.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans have sought since 2011 to pass the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” (REINS) Act. This measure would require agencies to get congressional approval for “major rules” with substantial economic impacts.

When the House passed the latest version of the bill in January, New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler sought to exempt the NRC due to its safety-critical role, but his amendment was defeated.

Leadership transitions

Three days after the presidential inauguration, the role of NRC chairman was transferred to Commissioner Svinicki, a nuclear engineer and former Senate staff member regarded by some critics as particularly friendly to the nuclear industry. Although nuclear insiders learned of the transition quickly, the usual public press release was absent.

The new chairman, who serves as the agency’s sole official spokesperson (working through staff), has espoused a commitment to public transparency but has not always acted accordingly. For example, although up-to-date archives of speeches and testimony by the other commissioners are provided with their NRC website biographies, a recent look at the link for Commissioner Svinicki showed none more recent than 2012.

Svinicki’s appointment will expire on June 30, and the NRC cannot normally operate without a three-member quorum, so action on her reappointment or replacement will soon be needed. Two additional seats on the five-member commission remain open. This will be an important time to look closely at the backgrounds and qualifications of nominees.

To regulate the industry effectively, commissioners must have a firm grasp of the technical and administrative complexities of nuclear safety. Watchdog groups have called on the NRC to enforce safety regulations more aggressively and to promote greater confidence that staff members can bring problematic issues to light.

Perhaps most importantly, commissioners must demonstrate a firm commitment to regulatory independence and openness. Avoiding “recreancy” or “capture” by the regulated industry is crucial for effectiveness and public legitimacy.

In this context, the Trump team’s approach to filling key positions in science and technology agencies and the broad funding cuts proposed for those agencies are troubling. Many nominees have deep ties to regulated industries such as energyfinance and pharmaceuticals.

An essential regulatory mission

As a specialized agency working in a highly technical area, the NRC does not usually receive much public or media attention – except when nuclear failures occur at home or abroad. Although there have been more close calls in the United States than is generally understood, NRC oversight has been crucial to the industry’s overall positive safety record.

A high reliability organization is not automatically a highly reliable organization. Reliability is an ongoing accomplishment involving continuous learning, sustained vigilance and a strong system of checks and balances. Moving forward in an anti-regulatory climate, with so many complex challenges facing the agency, it is essential to ensure independent leadership, public transparency and adequate resources to support the NRC’s mission.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | safety, USA | Leave a comment

NRC exempts Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station from certain safety requirements

Nuclear Plant Exempted From Regulations As Shutdown Nears PLYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — The only nuclear power plant in Massachusetts won’t have to comply with certain safety requirements as it prepares to shut down, getting a pass on precautions put in place after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, says that Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station won’t have to upgrade its vent system before it closes in 2019, despite not meeting all standards. It will also be exempted from seismic and flooding regulations established after the Fukushima meltdowns.

An NRC spokesman says the plant doesn’t have time to complete necessary upgrades and they wouldn’t meaningfully improve safety.

Earlier this month, federal regulators said the plant is safe to operate despite some “performance deficiencies.”

Democratic Senator Edward J. Markey says the decision undermines the safety of people living nearby.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | safety, USA | Leave a comment

In Pakistan, 2000 schools go solar , 17 Apr 17, About 20,000 schools in the province of Punjab in Pakistan will convert to solar power, according to government officials.

Punjab chief minister Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif reviewed the progress of the “Khadim-e-Punjab Ujala Programme” to install solar rooftop systems on the area’s schools at a recent meeting.

The project will kick off in Southern Punjab schools and expand in phases across the province, according to a local report.

The Asian Development Bank and France’s AFD Bank are backing the program, Cleantechnica reported. This is the first program of its kind in the country.

In Pakistan, nearly half of all residents are not connected to the national grid. Residents who are connected to the grid regularly experience rolling blackouts and power outages. And the problem is only expected to get worse in the coming years.

Renewable resources can help mitigate this growing energy crisis. Pakistan happens to be rich in solar, as the Express Tribune described:

“With eight to nine hours of sunshine per day, the climatic conditions in Pakistan are ideal for solar power generation. According to studies, Pakistan has 2.9 million megawatts of solar energy potential besides photovoltaic opportunities.

“According to figures provided by FAKT, Pakistan spends about $12 billion annually on the import of crude oil. Of this, 70 percent oil is used in generating power, which currently costs us Rs18 per unit. Shifting to solar energy can help reduce electricity costs down to Rs 6-8 per unit.”

Solar energy has made great strides in Pakistan in recent years. In February 2016, its parliament became the first national assembly in the world to be powered entirely by solar energy. The legislative body, known as the Majlis-e-Shoora, is in the capital city of Islamabad.

One of the world’s largest solar farms is currently under construction in Punjab. Developers of the 1,000-megawatt Quaid-i-Azam Solar Park in Bahawalpur have already added hundreds of megawatts of energy to the national grid.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | decentralised, Pakistan | Leave a comment

Wind and solar now the cheapest source of new electricity power – even without subsidies

A major reason why installations increased, even though dollars invested fell, was a sharp reduction in capital costs for solar photovoltaics, onshore and offshore wind,” the report said.

At the same time, because of the drop in prices, last year, the overall investment in renewable energy plummeted 23% to $241.6 billion from the record established in 2015; it was the lowest total investment since 2013.

Investment in new renewables capacity was roughly double that in fossil fuel generation in 2016, for the fifth successive year. The proportion of global electricity coming from renewable sources rose from 10.3% in 2015 to 11.3% in 2016, and prevented the emission of an estimated 1.7 gigatons of CO2.

Unsubsidized wind and solar now the cheapest source for new electric power Between 2015 and 2021, China is expected to install 40% of all worldwide wind energy and 36% of all solar, By  Senior Reporter, Computerworld | APR 17, 2017While investments in renewable energy slumped last year, a big drop in unsubsidized costs for new wind and solar power installations indicated that they remain popular energy alternatives.

Last year, the average “levelized cost” or total cost of generating power from solar worldwide dropped 17% percent, onshore wind costs dropped 18% and offshore wind turbine power costs fell 28%, according to a new report from the United Nations and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Well, after the dramatic cost reductions of the past few years, unsubsidized wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world — sometimes by a factor of two,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of the Advisory Board at BNEF, said in the report.

The average capital cost for solar power projects of new construction in 2016 was 13% lower than in 2015, while for onshore wind the drop was 11.5% and for offshore wind, 10%.

It’s a whole new world: even though investment is down, annual installations are still up; instead of having to subsidize renewables, now authorities may have to subsidize natural gas plants to help them provide grid reliability,” Liebreich said.

Last year, more gigawatts of solar power were added (75GW) than of any other technology for the first time. Trailing behind solar, in order of net gigawatts installed, were wind, coal, gas, large hydroelectric, nuclear and biomass.

Renewable energy accounted for 55% of new worldwide power last year, or a total of 138.5 gigawatts (GW). That compares with 127.5GW of new renewable energy in 2015; and renewable power installed in 2016 was done so at a cost 23% lower than 2015, the report showed.

Since 2010, the dollars committed per year to new renewable energy worldwide — excluding hydroelectric — have increased roughly five-fold, and have since oscillated between $234 billion and $312 billion, the report said.

A major reason why installations increased, even though dollars invested fell, was a sharp reduction in capital costs for solar photovoltaics, onshore and offshore wind,” the report said.

At the same time, because of the drop in prices, last year, the overall investment in renewable energy plummeted 23% to $241.6 billion from the record established in 2015; it was the lowest total investment since 2013.

Investment in new renewables capacity was roughly double that in fossil fuel generation in 2016, for the fifth successive year. The proportion of global electricity coming from renewable sources rose from 10.3% in 2015 to 11.3% in 2016, and prevented the emission of an estimated 1.7 gigatons of CO2.

Smart energy hardware such as smart meters, energy storage sources and associated IoT technologies also saw record investments last year. Asset finance for smart meters and energy storage, plus equity raised for specialist companies in energy efficiency, storage and electric vehicles, totalled a record $41.6 billion last year. That was up 29%.

In the U.S., utilities and private energy companies are increasingly investing in smart grid technology, including microgrids.

China now leads the world in renewable investments

China is now the world leader in domestic investments in renewable energy. In 2015, it invested $103 billion, a 17% increase in spending year over year — twice as much as the U.S. invested. The country is now actively pursuing a “global” strategy, which aims for a Pan-Asian development approach.

In 2016, China increased its foreign investments in renewable energy by 60% year over year to $32 billion, according to a January report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA)

China will install 36% of all global hydro electricity generation capacity from 2015-2021, according to the report. During the same period, it will install 40% of all worldwide wind energy and 36% of all solar, the IEEFA said.

“A change in leadership in the U.S. is likely to widen China’s global leadership in industries of the future, building China’s dominance in these sectors in terms of technology, investment, manufacturing and employment,”

April 19, 2017 Posted by | 2 WORLD, renewable | Leave a comment

Are France’s ageing nuclear plants safe?

Despite heightened surveillance and draconian control measures, the answers from nuclear analysts is far from unanimous. Despite these questions, the French power giant that manages them, EDF, wants to prolong their life by ten or even 20 years. Furthermore, the public utility’s finances are at least €37 billion in debt.

What’s more, EDF is due to build two more reactors in Britain – this after embarrassing revelations of neglect relating to the manufacturer of the reactors, Creusot.

We take a closer look after France‘s nuclear watchdog expressed concern.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | general | Leave a comment