Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors
Dec25

Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors

Smaller reactors have many advantages, but in order to be cost effective in competitive energy markets a typical small modular reactor (SMR) will need to operate with a much smaller workforce than today’s large commercial nuclear energy facilities.  This will mandate a retooling of existing nuclear training programs to align with the knowledge and skills needed by the SMR staff. As opposed to fossil-fueled power plants in which the majority of operating costs are associated with the fuel they burn, the majority of the costs of generating electricity from nuclear energy are associated with the costs of capital to build the plant, and the ongoing cost of people needed to operate and maintain (O&M) the plant.  The capital costs, determined by construction & financing costs, are generally fixed during the first decades of operation.  The O&M costs, however, vary over the life of the plant and are highly dependent on overall labor costs; the number of people required and their salaries and benefits, contracted labor costs, and the cost of out-sourced services. For this reason the long-term economic viability of nuclear energy facilities relies upon maintaining capacity factors high and labor costs reasonable and predictable.  Obviously, the balance sheet also depends on the structure of the energy market in which the facility is located. Anti-nuclear groups understand this connection between labor costs and economic viability.  For years their strategy has been to convince nuclear regulators of the need for ever-tougher standards resulting in larger and larger staff sizes and thus tighter profit margins.  They are, in a very deliberate way, working to regulate nuclear energy out of business.  Coupled with lower electricity market prices brought about by falling natural gas prices, these higher labor costs mean some smaller nuclear plants are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain profitability. Utilities planning to deploy SMRs can expect these same anti-nuclear groups to push for regulations to limit their ability to operate with the smaller staff sizes needed. Using “ball park” numbers, today’s large 1000 MWe nuclear plants typically employ a staff of about 700 people, or about 0.7 people per megawatt. At this ratio a 100 MWe SMR would employ only about 70.  Under today’s paradigm of division of labor within a nuclear plant, separate groups of specialized workers perform various functions; operators operate the plant, maintenance technicians maintain and repair the equipment, chemists monitor and control the chemistry within plant systems, planners and schedulers do the planning and scheduling, and radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels and help ensure everyone works safely.  The staff size enables economies of scale; in this case specialization is efficient because the amount of work...

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Canadian Nuclear Regulator Speaks Out on Safety of Uranium Mining
Nov25

Canadian Nuclear Regulator Speaks Out on Safety of Uranium Mining

Activists, medical practitioners and politicians who have demanded moratoriums [on uranium mining] may have various reasons for doing so, but their claims that the public and environment are at risk are fundamentally wrong. That about sums up the facts on the safety of uranium mining and the validity of motives of those who oppose it.  What’s particularly noteworthy about this statement is its source: Michael Binder, the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.  It’s impressive to see this level of leadership from the Canadian equivalent of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s also in stark contrast with the actions of former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko who remained silent last year when the US Department of Interior banned uranium mining for 20 years across 4000 square km of Arizona.  Their excuse was “protecting the Grand Canyon,” but the area in question is outside both the Grand Canyon and the buffer zone that protects the park. It would be great to see new NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane following Mr. Binder’s lead to dispel the myths around uranium mining and take a first step in overturning the arbitrary...

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Explore a Great Career in Nuclear Energy
Jan24

Explore a Great Career in Nuclear Energy

Note: this post also appears at the ANS Nuclear Cafe   What better way to celebrate National Nuclear Science Week than to acknowledge amazing career opportunities that exist for people interested in joiningthe nuclear renaissance. If you are a middle or high school student (or are the parent of one) considering college alternatives, you would be hard pressed to find a better investment than earning an associates or bachelors degree in nuclear-related science, engineering, or technology. Opportunities for entry level positions have not been this rich at any time during the past three decades, and the nuclear industry is partnering with many schools to ensure graduates have the knowledge and skill for success as power plant engineers, operators, and technicians. Because of a combination of national and international trends, there have never been more opportunities for young people to begin careers in the nuclear industry. About 120,000 people are currently employed in the U.S. nuclear industry. Over the next several years, many of these workers will retire. As a result, the industry will need to hire more than 25,000 new employees just to maintain the existing workforce. The economic slowdown  over the past few years has caused many workers to delay their retirement. Today retirements are once again on the rise because 401K balances have recovered and workers have earned additional credits in pension plans. For example, in 2011 about 2,000 workers retired from the 104 operating nuclear plants in the United States, prompting many utilities to increase hiring. Four new nuclear plants being built in Georgia and South Carolina will each add up to 2,400 workers during construction, plus 400 to 700 permanent jobs when each is operating. In addition, the nuclear industry is booming overseas with more than 60 plants under construction around the world and many more planned. All of this means ample opportunities for rewarding careers in many nuclear related fields. The industry hires almost every type of engineer, not just nuclear engineers. The most common are mechanical, electrical, civil, and power systems engineers. Since there are engineering colleges and universities in every state that offer one or more of these degree programs, opportunities are plentiful. Earning a bachelors degree in these engineering majors opens the door to an entry-level engineer position with a starting salary of approximately $60,000 to $65,000. Some of the positions in greatest demand at nuclear plants are power plant operators and technicians. These opportunities generally require an associate’s degree or equivalent training. Starting salaries range from around $45,000 per year to about $50,000. As workers gain experience, salaries can rise $20,000 or higher to an average of $65,000 to $70,000, and overtime...

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Lack of Intellectual Integrity Harms the Case for Global Warming

or “Why I’m Still A Climate Change Skeptic” It must be great to be a climate change believer.You get to boldly declare your alignment with the “A” team, the smartest minds and greatest strategic thinkers of our time, or so we’ve been told.You get praise from big government (at least under the current US administration) and get to hang out with old hippies who sail up and down the Hudson River playing folk music and singing songs about Mother Earth and fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, I can’t count myself in, but I’m not exactly out either.I’m on the fence and that’s a problem for me.My science and engineering education taught me enough about pv=nrt and the partial pressure law of gasses to know you can’t just keep dumping airborne crud and gasses into a fixed volume of anything without changing it’s composition.I’ve also been around long enough to see changes in the planet, but are those being caused by progressive man-made climate change or a normal natural cycle? I know a lot of very smart people I admire greatly who are staunch climate change believers, and almost an equal number of equally smart engineers and scientists who swear it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on modern humanity.I’ve been reading a great deal on the topic lately because I really DO want to understand both sides of the argument with the hope that it will become clear and I’ll be able to join one crowd or another. I’ve come to realize a big reason I continue to be a climate change skeptic is I question the integrity and the motives of the most vocal climate change advocates.I simply do not trust they are telling the truth.This is why: If the real goal were to reduce greenhouse gasses, then it would be logical that environmental leaders would advocate policies to reward low carbon behavior and penalize high carbon endeavors, regardless of the technology involved.Instead, environmental and political leaders have already chosen “winning technologies” of conservation, wind and solar energy. Insistence on these creates the impression that social redesign are the real goal, not saving the environment.If leaders were really serious about reducing carbon emissions they would create a technology neutral playing field that punishes carbon emissions and rewards low-carbon and carbon-free energy sources. Many of the most vocal proponents of man-caused climate change insist on solutions that won’t work.Despite massive investment in solar, wind, and conservation, there remains not a glimmer of hope that these can provide sufficient energy to replace fossil fuels, much less accommodate the energy requirements of the world’s growing population.The math just does not work.This virtually...

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Nuclear Plants and Grid Blackouts

On September 8, 2011 the electrical grid in and around San Diego, California experienced a blackout that lasted for more than 12 hours.  By some accounts more than 5 million people were effected.  The initiating event was a human error that caused a large transmission line from Arizona to turn off unexpectedly.  I recently discussed why a single failure as occurred that day should  not have caused such a widespread grid failure, and how New York City will be much more susceptible to similar events if Indian Point Nuclear Plant is shutdown prematurely. As it was designed to do, the San Onofre nuclear plant automatically disconnected itself from the grid and shut down then the blackout occurred.  This was done as part of the plant’s protective scheme to shield the plant from unintended consequences from the falling grid voltage and frequency.  A similar thing happened to nine nuclear plants in the eastern USA during the blackout of 2003. Why do nuclear plants trip off line when a blackout happens? While this is a somewhat simplified answer, it covers the fundamentals.  Please be aware my experience is with pressurized water reactors, but the same basic principles should apply to boiling water reactors. The nuclear plant’s generator, like that of any electrical generator supplying the grid, is electrically locked to the voltage and frequency of the grid. As grid voltage drops, so does the voltage sensed inside the plant. Most large electric loads inside nuclear plants are electric motors on pumps, valves, fans, and other such equipment.  To drive a fixed mechanical load connected to the shaft, a motor must draw a fixed amount of power from the power line. The amount of power the motor draws is roughly related to the voltage times current (amps). Thus, when voltage gets low, the current must get higher to provide the same amount of power.  Thus, as voltage drops, current inside the motors rises. This increase in current can cause overheating and short circuits.  Note: the paragraph above was revised to correct an oversimplification & error in my original post. The results are the same, my explanation was lacking. Also, normally the alternating current on the grid operates at 60 cycles per second (60 hertz).  As the grid collapses, the frequency begins to drop. If allowed to continue this would cause the nuclear plant’s reactor coolant pumps to run slower, thus moving less water through the reactor.  Less cooling water could potentially lead to higher than normal fuel temperatures.  To protect against the reactor operating with degraded cooling water flow, nuclear plants have various means of sensing low grid frequency or coolant flow.  When electrical frequency or reactor cooling...

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Only the Energy Impoverished Run Towards a Gasoline Spill

There was a horrible accident in Kenya this week.  More than 100 people were burned to death, and hundreds more were injured when a gasoline pipeline began leaking and then exploded.  My heart goes out to the victims, and their families, and to all the people of Kenya who are dealing with the worst industrial disaster in their history.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing burning people leaping into a nearby river trying to extinguish the flames that engulfed them.  Rescue workers had to place a net across the river to catch the charred bodies of the dead so they would not wash down stream. The death toll continues to grow, and most of the 100+ injured including many children are not expected to survive. The pipeline runs through Sinai, a Nairobi ghetto of corrugated tin and cardboard huts.  When the pipe began leaking hundreds of people gathered around to scoop up the spilled gasoline.  As the crowd grew a spark from a cigarette butt or some other heat source ignited the fuel.  The blast incinerated scores of people nearby.  Flames cascaded down on nearby huts then raced through the crowded slum. Trying to image the chaotic and horrific scene, I realized there was something so far outside my own paradigm that I had to stop for moment to collect my thoughts…who runs TOWARDS a leaking gasoline pipeline?  Maybe that’s a silly question; but if anyone reading this came upon a leaking gasoline pipeline they would stop, back away, and call for help.  You would keep your distance while warning others not to go near for fear of igniting the leak and causing a fire or explosion.  If you were forced to approach the leak you would fear for your life and rightfully so! So what is different between you and the hundreds of people in Kenya that did the exact opposite?  As word spread through Sinai about the leaking pipeline hundreds of people grabbed every container they could find and rushed towards the explosive spill! You might settle on a simple socioeconomic answer: because they are poor they’ll risk their lives for a few dollars worth of anything of value.  The real answer is a lot more complicated.  These people are not only poor, they are super poor, and one of the factors that separates the poor from truly impoverished is the lack of access to even basic energy sources that human beings need to survive.  They are energy destitute. Another way of saying this is availability of plentiful, accessible energy is the greatest single factor that allows people to rise out of poverty.  All of the world’s developed economies got...

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