Dog Days of Summer

The phrase is used to describe those hot, sultry days in July and August. Here in the southeastern U.S., these days are typically almost unbearable with the heat and humidity. We welcome the break in weather that comes in the fall that allows us to open the windows to enjoy fresh air.

The Greeks and the Romans believed that the “Dog Days” were an evil time. Here’s how Brady’s Clavis Calendaria put it: “The Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies,”

I made the mistake of traveling during this evil time over the past couple of weeks. My odyssey of weather, mechanical problems, delayed flights, missed connections and luggage was almost worthy of Homer.

I know that everyone reading this has experienced the same. I try to use these experiences as learning opportunities. While it is tempting to say “I learned never to travel again,” I know that I will be on planes and going places within a few weeks. So what were my lessons?
The airlines are using some kind of optimizer to minimize the number of planes and maximize their time in the air. Makes sense. They don’t make money if a plane is sitting on the ground.
The optimum the airlines are finding is a “brittle optimum.” If you think of optimums as either a peak or a valley, where a ball will sit still, the airlines have chosen a “peak” where once the ball shifts even SLIGHTLY off the optimum, it will roll further and further away.

A “valley” is a stability point; the ball moves away, but rolls back to the optimum with no external forcing mechanism.

They count on the overnight reset to bring the system back to “optimum.” In other words, they roll the ball back up the hill overnight, but that’s a different Greek myth (Sisyphus) for another day.

We passengers are at least partly to blame. Few travelers are willing to pay even a few dollars more for an improved on time rate. In the world of deregulated air travel, we’ve demonstrated to the airlines that the only thing that matters is the cheapest fare.
From now on, I will try to remember Harding’s First Principal of Travel: ALWAYS FLY IN THE MORNING.

Cheapist Aint Best. What does this have to do with nuclear energy? The electricity system in the U.S. is in real danger of doing EXACTLY the same thing. Ratepayers, public utility commissions and independent system operators are always looking for the cheapest electricity.
The fact that some of the players get outside subsidies, or that some players get state mandates to support their chosen form of generation, are inadequately considered in electricity markets. Also improperly considered is the need for capacity to be available whenever the demand is there.

The capacity issue is the one that haunts the nuclear industry the most. Flying a plane half full to get equipment to the right place, and to have some extra equipment in the system to allow for potential failures, is the right thing to do but it costs money.

If the airline cannot get compensated by the passengers for having extra planes available when and where they are needed, they eliminate those flights that don’t pay enough.

Base load plants operate best when they run flat out as much as possible. Having them on line and operating gives the system cushion for when other generation isn’t available or demand peaks high enough.

The problem is that the markets will not pay (reward) these plants for their capacity to generate electricity when demand is low or their ability to stabilize the grid, or they don’t pay enough to keep the plants running.

This is where the analogy ends. There is a profound difference between the airlines and electricity. If passengers decided that on time performance was worth paying for, airlines could quickly add planes to their fleets and improve that performance over a matter of a few months.

If nuclear plants are closed, and their licenses withdrawn, there is no way to bring that generation capacity back. New plants take time to build.
If we allow nuclear plants to continue to close for economic reasons alone, we’re going to wake up one day and realize that we allowed a terrible decision process to destroy our way of life.

We have to stop talking to ourselves and get out there and start shouting to the world about these issues. Too many people are asleep and dreaming of a make-believe world where windmills and solar panels will keep them warm and dry and well fed.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week Vol 13 #582, 08.28.2014 where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at

Report from ANS Utility Working Conference – Part 2

Last week, I summarized Tom Kilgore, CEO of TVA’s speech at the opening plenary. Today, I want to write about a couple of the sessions I attended. The first, title “Current State of the Industry,” was right after the opening plenary with Bill Borchardt, Executive Director of Operations for the NRC, and Alex Marion, Vice President for Special Projects at NEI.

Let me place Mr. Borchardt in the organization at the NRC, for those of my readers that may be less familiar with some of the names within the commission. HE is essentially the CEO of the NRC. He reports directly to the five commissioners and has a fair amount of influence in when and how information is presented to them.

Both men gave short presentations and then we had a pretty extended Q&A period. I was far more interested in Mr. Borchardt’s portion so I will concentrate on that.

Action Matrix Summary Update

Most of my readers are probably familiar with the NRC’s Action Matrix Summary. This five column table is an attempt by the NRC to provide more clarity regarding the status of the plants relative to safe performance. Mr. Borchardt announced that the NRC was adding Security performance to the list of cornerstones that comprise the ranking. Although they’ve been inspecting and testing plant security pretty much since 9/11, the NRC was giving the utilities time to improve their performance before including it in this public metric.

Adding security issues to the matrix means that 12 plants move from column 1 – Licensee Response to columns 2 – Regulatory Response or 3 – Degraded Cornerstone. Mr Borchardt emphasized that nothing changes for these plants, they are not any less safe and the added oversight for security was already happening. This just makes the metric more transparent and allows all stake-holders to see more clearly what is going on with each of these plants.

NRC and Public Information

Next, he discussed some of the varying issues at different plants. He talked about the public interest varies greatly plant by plant. I can attest to the truth of this statement. I’ve gone to the NRC annual public meeting at Brunswick stations down the road from me and there were precisely 3 people that were not plant staff, including me. Whereas my friend, Meredith Angwin, attends the same meeting at Vermont Yankee and sees dozens of people not associate with the plant, most of whom are protesting something about VY’s operation.

This discrepancy, he explained, changes the way the NRC has to work with each licensee. Some questioned whether this was changing the enforcement of the regulation, which would clearly be problematic for everyone. Mr. Borchardt was vehement in his denial of that. He was talking more about the length of time reviews might take, the need to have more public meetings and/or the need to more clearly explain the regulatory process, all of these things take time and resources and draw out proceedings that for other licensees are quicker and easier.

Mr Borchardt was directing the problem back to the utilities. Where they have done a poor job of working with the local and state governments and have failed to make nuclear energy understandable, the local population is far less trusting and far more likely to slow-down and complicate proceedings. This is not the NRC’s job and they cannot ignore the concerns raised by local groups.

Taken in conjunction with Tom Kilgore’s admonitions regarding communicating about nuclear in the plenary – I found this to be a powerful message to the utilities to wake-up and figure out how to talk to their local stake-holders, including state and local governments.

Fukushima Response

A significant amount of time was also spent discussing the impacts of Fukushima on the NRC and the effects on the utilities.

  • A walkdown of all systems related to seismic performance. A walkdown is a process by which the plant operator “walks down” every system in the plant to assure themselves and the NRC that the CURRENT plant meets its Design Basis.
  • A re-evaluation of the seismic performance of the plant. This is asking the plant operators to look at current best guidance for seismic activity and evaluate the plants anticipated performance.
  • Two direct mitigation strategies. These are expected to be implemented within 5 years or two outages whichever comes earlier but completed by no later than 12/21/2016:
    • Hardened vents on all Mark 1 and 2 containments (Mark 1’s were required to do this after TMI, it was optional for Mark 2,)
    • More instrumentation of the Spent Fuel Pools
  • In addition, the NRC is looking to improve Emergency Procedures and is working on rulemaking to encourage the streamlining and clarification of EOP, SAMG, EDMG, and the rest of the alphabet soup of emergency procedures. Brownie points to anyone that can spell out the meaning of each acronym in the comments section.

Adequate Vendor Oversight

Finally, there was discussion about adequate oversight of vendors. Those that know me know that this is an area that I work in to try to improve those vendors programs to meet the industry needs. Mr. Borchardt took the industry to task regarding the need for the licensee to own the issues and not try to move responsibility to the vendors. Some in the room tried to push back on this with respect to huge construction projects, but he was having none of it. And I have to agree. If you’re going to build the plant, you have to own getting it done right. If that means hiring a large number of people to ensure it gets done, then hire the people and acknowledge the cost. But, get it right, or go home.

Waste Confidence Ruling

Of course, the issue of the recent court ruling on the waste confidence decision came up. Mr. Borchardt tried to minimize the real impact on the industry in that no license applications (either COL or renewals) were coming up in the very near term and he believes the issues will be resolved within a year or so. I have to disagree in that this simply adds to the public perception that we don’t know what to do with used nuclear fuel. There are a variety of options that should continue to be explored, only one of which would entail permanent storage of this fuel. But that’s the subject of an entirely new blog.

Looks like there will be at least a couple more installments out of the ANS-UWC. In the meantime, tell me what YOU thought about the conference!

Water Heaters and Other Things

Today is the story of water heaters. Why? Because the water heater in my home failed on Friday night (of course) and I got to go through the exercise of replacing it yesterday. It is of course hot in North Carolina this time of year and normally I work in my garden and at the gym and get hot sweaty and dirty, so the absence of hot water is more than a little inconvenient.

An electric water heater is one of the larger contributors to a normal household’s electric bill. It is the second largest energy consumer behind the HVAC systems running at 12-15% of the bill. That means that reducing the amount of energy used here can have a significant impact on my bill. Because I don’t have a smart water heater, we have to estimate how much we really spend here, so I will assume that it is 15% of our electricity bill. We can’t switch to natural gas, nor do I really want to, as most of my electricity is generated with nuclear power and is therefore carbon free.

So, what are the “green” options? There seems to be three basic possibilities. Solar water heaters, tankless water heaters, or a “hybrid” water heater that uses heat-pump technology.

The tankless water heater was eliminated almost immediately based on a Consumer Reports review that found NO acceptable electric tankless water heaters for large families. While there are only two of us (plus my cute dog), the house is large and could be sold sometime in the future to a large family, thus we need to size the water heater accordingly.

The hybrid electric option would cost about 2.5X a basic water heater. Without confirming the veracity of the claims, it appears that these systems reduce electricity use by about 50%. Even with tax credits it would take 4.5 years to get back my initial investment. Our average time in a home has been around five years, making this payback period problematic. We have lived in this house seven years, but it is very large for two people and we believe at some point in the next five years, we will be moving.

So that leaves solar heating. This option is even more expensive than the hybrid electric. There are several different systems ranging from 2X to 10X the cost of a basic water heater. Then there is installation. While I do have an expansive south facing roof, it is steep and has several trees casting shade. I didn’t get a quote for installation, but after reviewing on the web, it would appear that the all-in cost of a typical system might be about 4X the all in cost of a basic hot water heater. Impressively, these systems claim to reduce water heating costs by about 70%. However, even with tax credits it would take 11 years for this system to pay for itself, well beyond my 5 year horizon.

The impact of a solar water heater on a home would be significant. With no other changes, residential electricity use could drop by 8-11%. Unfortunately at current electricity rates, even with 30% tax credits, it simply does not pay for itself in a timely fashion, extending well beyond the payback period acceptable to most home owners. The cost of solar water heating systems must drop by another 30% or the price of electricity must rise significantly to get to a payback period of less than 5 years that would begin to be acceptable to most homeowners. The hybrid system would also have a positive impact (6-8%) and is more attainable by homeowners. It would not take much decrease in cost or availability to make this option truly viable.