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Basic science

Japan’s leaders do u-turn, water down nuclear ban policy

Published on September 21st, 2012 | Edited By: Peter Wray

Nuclear power plant control room. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

When Japan’s government last week suddenly announced that it would phase out its nuclear power plants by 2040, it probably thought it would be scoring some popularity points with its population where public opinion has been strong in opposing the continued use of nuclear power since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. But, the policy announcement clearly caught a lot of people—inside and outside the country—by surprise. Perhaps the two groups most caught off guard were Japan’s industrial sector and the communities where the nuclear power plants are located.

Thus, it isn’t totally surprising that government officials are attempting to “walk back” the policy and recast the phase-out as a general “target” rather than a specific goal.

Reuters reports, “Since the plan was announced on Friday, Japan’s powerful industry lobbies have urged the government rethink the nuclear-free commitment, arguing it could damage the economy and would mean spending more on pricey fuel imports.” The news agency goes on to say that although the Japanese Cabinet approved a new policy that would move the country to less reliance on nuclear power, a specific date for closing all reactors was omitted.

As with most reactors, the ones in Japan were designed for a 40-year lifespan. The approved policy calls for operators to adhere to that lifespan, however the same policy also permits the designed life to be exceeded if regulators certify a reactor’s safety.

There still will be a ban on new reactors, but it is not clear what the fate will be of the two reactors currently under construction

The government is also hoping that a newly launched, more credible regulatory agency will ease public concerns.

Ceramic Tech Today

Japan to end nuclear power by 2040; France plans to cut back

Published on September 14th, 2012 | Edited By: Peter Wray

Anti-Nuclear Power Plant Rally on 19 September 2011

This is a bit of a surprise, and I have no idea how this will fully reverberate through the scientific and technical communities, but Japan and France apparently have made major decisions to back away from a reliance on nuclear power, and in the case of the former, move to embrace renewables on a much larger scale.

Nuclear power, obviously, has been a touchy subject in Japan ever since the Fukushima Daiichi mess. Reuters now reports that Japan, which once produced 10 percent of the world’s total nuclear power, will shut down all of its plants by 2040. If I understand the proposal correctly, no new reactors will be built and all existing reactors will be shut down as they reach the end of their 40-year life span. This apparently means the shutdowns will start in earnest around 2030. The country has about 50 reactors.

Japan can’t unilaterally lose that much energy-generation capacity, so it is also announcing that it is setting a target of making renewables 30 percent of its power portfolio.

On a lesser scale, but perhaps more profoundly because of its unflinching dedication to nuclear power, France is making news with its decision to initiate a big reduction in nuclear power in that nation’s portfolio. Reuters says President Fransois Hollande is pledging to shrink nuclear power from 75 percent of the mix to 50 percent.

To complicate matters, Hollande is also calling for the European Union to slash CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 60 percent by 2040.

Previously, Italy, Switzerland and Germany also pledged to end their reliance on nuclear power by various dates. Germany has set the cutoff for 2022; Italy is aiming at 2034.

Returning to Japan’s policy, the BBC is predicting the decision may trigger a fight within industrial sectors:

The plan faces strong opposition from businesses. Before the nuclear disaster, Japan had wanted to raise its nuclear energy use to 50% by 2030.

“There is no way we can accept this—I cannot think this is technologically possible,” Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), was quoted by AFP news agency as saying.

Japan’s policy announcement also pledges to cut CO2 emissions by 10 percent from 2010 levels.

Neither country has outlined how the CO2 cuts will be achieved. In the short run, the AFP News Service says the country’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan mentions the use of smart metering, developing resources in nearby waters—presumably gas and oil, plus expanded use of liquefied natural gas and other fossil fuels.

ADDING: Science reports that one of the victims of the new policy is the Monju experimental fast breeder reactor.


Video of the week: Gates talks about the future of energy, miracles and the need for “200 crazy” people

Published on March 27th, 2012 | Edited By: Peter Wray

Love him or hate him, Bill Gates does have influence. In this new Wall Street Journal video of an on-stage interview at WSJ’s recent “ECO:nomics” conference, Gates discusses several key points, including:

• Energy is what enabled civilization to evolve dramatically over the most recent centuries.

• People in “poor” nations pay more for energy than anyone because there is no grid, so they basically are paying for diesel power.

• People, including knowledgable scientists and engineers, underestimate how hard it is to develop and change a global energy system so that we can get to the point where fossil fuels provide only half of the energy needs in 50 years. People tend also not to look deeply at subsidies or appreciate the energy needs of developing world.

• The potential for innovation in the 20-year range can be dramatic. If one looks at the 75-year range, there is a chance to set some aggressive goals and see substantial reductions in CO2.

• People overestimate what can be done now. There are limits because of what has already been installed or what will be installed over the next 20-30 years. But by 2050, however, we could have all new energy generation plants in the “rich” world built with zero CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, we would still need much more time to have significant reductions in CO2 because of dependency on previously installed bases.

• The ability to run digital simulations and models in energy-related work is much more advanced than people appreciate, but the IT experience over the last two decades also tends to make people overly optimistic about the possible speed of innovation in the energy field.

• Gates discusses the need to have at least one of five “miracle” things to happen, such as 1) dramatically increase reliance on natural gas and be aggressive about related carbon capture during gas processes at 90+ percent level or 2) signficant adoption of Gen IV Nuclear energy with full “passive safety” design (doesn’t require human intervention), or 3) address the special storage and transmission needs of energy sources that require “farming” (solar, wind or biofuel).

• Gates says that for every one of these energy innovation paths, we need 200 “crazy” people who think their idea alone can provide the solution, “some of who we will declare ‘sane’ in the future.” He says, “It’s what should happen because it drives both conservation and innovation.”

• For society’s future, he says we need to fund basic energy research at at least twice the level we do right now. That would increase the probability of success for achieving one of the miracles.

• Gates says the greatest energy failure of our energy policy is to not have a carbon tax being imposed or rolled in at some point in the future that incentivizes power industry into reducing CO2 emissions.

• He says the division of financial support for intermittent energy (such as wind) is wrong, with only 2% going to R&D and most of the rest going in various forms of subsidies, tax credits, etc.. for manufacturers and wind farm investors. Gates says he isn’t really talking about things like DOE’s budget, which he believes is just modest, but things that are hidden or not obvious to the public in the form of tax credits, etc. When all that is aggregated, it should seem obvious that we are spending the money foolishly, he says.

• Gates predicts that the lack of political will or good policies in the US over time will be strongly influenced when energy prices in other countries (he suggests China, for example) becomes less expensive in the US.

Ceramic Tech Today

NREL interactive atlas shows where to find the renewable energy

Published on January 16th, 2012 | Edited By: Eileen De Guire

Screenshot from NREL interactive atlas for renewable energy showing energy intensities for solar photovoltaic energy (yellow) and biomass residue (green). Credit: NREL.

People in the renewable and alternative energy business talk about an “energy portfolio,” where the electricity deposited on the local grid will be generated from a mix of what the local natural resources offer (solar, wind, wave power, geothermal) and power plants that can be built anywhere (nuclear, coal).

Like all natural resources, the distribution of energy resources varies. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., recently released an interactive tool, the RE Atlas, that maps the locations of potential renewable energy resources in the US.

In the press release, Dan Getman, whose NREL team developed the tool says, “Ease of use and breadth of data make RE Atlas an excellent tool for policymakers, planners, energy developers, and others who need to better understand the renewable resources available in the United States. RE Atlas is an important addition to NREL’s suite of geospatial tools, because it brings together so many renewable energy datasets in one easy-to-use tool.”

Those datasets include a rich collection NREL maps of energy resources, geographic data and maps, EPA site information, links to research and much more. The energy resources that the atlas maps are

• Hydro (existing small projects)
• Geothermal (potential hydrothermal sites)
• Biomass residue
• Geothermal (enhanced geothermal system)
• Concentrated solar power
• Solar photovoltaic
• Wind speed – offshore
• Wind power class – onshore
• Wave power density.

Renewable energy resources are distributed as one would expect across the country, and it is interesting to see how broad the swaths of intensity are. For example, solar photovoltaic is most intense in the most southern regions of the Southwest, but it is decently intense in the entire southwestern quadrant of the US. Biomass, too, which would seem to be region-independent, is most intense across the Midwest from the Dakotas down through Missouri.

The intensities of each energy resource are not given in a common energy unit like joules or BTU, but according to the units used to quantify that energy type, which makes it difficult to compare magnitudes of energy available unless you are familiar with the unit conversions. For example, the units for solar photovoltaic energy are kWh/m2/day, biomass is expressed in thousand tons/year, geothermal is categorized into ranges (class 1-5), etc.

Basic science

Stuffing nuclear waste glasses

Published on September 21st, 2011 | Edited By: Eileen De Guire

Vitrification, or encapsulating nuclear waste in glass is possible method of containing nuclear wastes. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Wikipedia

While nuclear energy policy issues are being worked out on a nation-by-nation basis, research on technological challenges continues apace, at least for now. Disposal of high-level nuclear waste is an essential, but expensive, part of the nuclear energy cycle.

Nuclear waste glasses are borosilicate compositions. Aluminum from fuel rod claddings enters the waste stream and brings a fair amount of sodium along with it. (Aluminum cladding is dissolved in nitric acid, which is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide.) The aluminum concentration limits the amount of waste that can be loaded into a glass composition because the presence of it and sodium leads to crystallization of nepheline (NaAlSiO4).

Precipitation of nepheline has two detrimental effects. First, it pulls glass forming constituents out of the glass, and second, nepheline has less long-term durability than the glass phase. The first effect-loss of glass formers-reduces the waste load that can be accommodated, which means increased costs to produce and store larger volumes of waste glasses.

A key question is how much aluminum can be loaded into the glass formulation. A new paper published in the International Journal of Applied Glass Science looks at this question. A group out of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory compiled historical data for 523 simulated waste glass compositions and analyzed the amount of nepheline crystallized as a function of composition.

Two approaches were used: plotting of nepheline volume fractions on the Al2O3-SiO2-Na2O phase diagram for three boron content ranges, and mapping of compositions into a quadrant system based on two indicators, those being “nepheline discriminator” and “optical basicity.”

Using the phase diagram approach, nepheline volume fractions were plotted on the ternary diagram for three ranges of boron content (less than 5 weight percent, 5 to 10 weight percent, and more that 10 weight percent).

The quadrant system evaluates compositions based on a plot of optical basicity against “nepheline discriminator.” The ND is a composition-based index to predict compositions that are more susceptible to nepheline crystallization and is a function of the silica content normalized to the overall composition.

Optical basicity is related to the overall state of oxygen in the glass melt, and therefore is related to the glass structure. (It’s linked to the dissociation of silicates to produce oxygen ions in the melt, similar to the way acids dissociate to produce hydrogen ions in aqueous solutions.) OB is useful to predict trends in transport properties, such as viscosity, diffusion, electrical and thermal conductivity, etc. It is expected that nepheline will not form for compositions below a certain threshold ND and OB levels.

Data were analyzed with these two frameworks for 523 compositions.

Two results emerged from the phase diagram plots: the nepheline formation region is smaller for higher B2O3 compositions, and there are regions in the low-Na2O side of the ternary where nepheline does not form, despite high alumina contents.

The ND analysis showed that nepheline formation is suppressed for high-silica compositions. Nepheline crystallization is not expected for low OB values. The paper explains, “Reducing OB requires adding acidic components or removing very basic components.” That is, to reduce the OB in high-Al2O3 glasses, Na2O must be reduced (increasing Al2O3 content), or substituting in lower basicity alkali or alkaline earth elements, or increasing B2O3 content. The paper notes, “A trade-off is reached when adding components that reduce waste loading.”

By working the trade-off, for example, by using ND to identify favorable compositions on the ternary diagram and then modifying compositions for optimal OB, it may be possible to expand the “composition space [that] is available for formulating high waste loading.”

This study only considered the thermodynamic aspect of crystallization, but the authors note that the kinetics of cooling and heat treatment are important in the nucleation and crystal growth process. The researchers suggest that kinetics also may help expand the range of desirable waste glass compositions.

See “Nepheline Crystallization in Nuclear Waste Glasses: Progress Toward Acceptance of High-Alumina Formulations,” by John S. McCloy et al. (doi: 10.1111/j.2041-1294.2011.00055.x).

ACerS activities

SRNL’s John Marra to address advanced materials lessons from Fukushima nuclear accident

Published on May 6th, 2011 | Edited By: Peter Wray


The ACerS Glass and Optical Materials Division is holding its annual meeting May 15-19 in Savannah, Ga., and I just learned that nuclear energy materials expert John Marra has agreed to do a special and timely presentation about Japan’s nuclear power accident at the conference dinner May 17. Marra, the chief research officer of the Savannah River National Lab, has tentatively titled his talk, “Beyond Fukushima: Advanced materials to enable enhanced nuclear power systems.”

I am really looking forward to this because, as far as I know, it will be the first semi-public presentation by a federal lab official in which there is an attempt to sum-up some of the engineering lessons from the Fukushima/TEPCO situation.

The context of this, of course, is that rising fuel prices and increased concerns about greenhouse gas emissions had many scientists and policy makers looking toward nuclear power (and new generations of nuclear reactors) as a way to offset fossil fuels. In reaction to the Fukushima situation, some nations and some members of the science and technology community now want to take a second look at future plans for growing nuclear power systems.

In an abstract on his presentation, Marra says:

On March 11, 2011 an earthquake centered near Japan and the resultant tsunami caused significant damage to several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant causing many to question the long-term future of nuclear power. As Japan and the international community begin to look at the lessons-learned from the Fukushima accident, advanced materials that eliminate or reduce the consequences of severe accidents will find increased application in advanced nuclear power systems.

Ceramic and glass materials, which have long played a very important role in the commercial nuclear industry, offer some significant advantages under accident conditions. This presentation will review the sequence of events that led to the Fukushima Daiichi accident and discuss the critical role that ceramic and glass materials play throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, and the critical material advancements required to enable the “nuclear renaissance” in light of the recent events.

The conference dinner runs 7-10 p.m. on May 17, and I expect Marra will begin his talk around 8:30 p.m.

I plan on running an interview with Marra, a past president of ACerS, for the August issue of the Bulletin, but I highly recommend that anyone interested in advanced glass science and technology (including optical materials, optical devices, coatings, sensors, solar energy materials, glass–ceramics, and structures and properties) considere coming to the GOMD meeting.


McIlvaine predicts Japan’s nuclear problems will lead to $200B shift to alternative sources

Published on April 22nd, 2011 | Edited By: Peter Wray

Credit: McIlvaine Company.

(h/t to GlobalSpec) Not unpredictably, Japan’s ongoing nuclear problems are going to reshape how nations allocate their future energy investments, and a new report from McIlvaine Company estimates that $200 billion will be retargeted to fossil and renewable energies.

McIlvaine, a market research company, says China and India, in particular, are likely to increase their reliance on coal, although this shift will be transitional. The company’s website says, “Despite the recent advances in extracting gas from unconventional sources such as shale, there will not be a massive shift to gas-fired power. The reason is that gas can be converted into liquid products. Any big disparity between the price of oil and gas will eventually be eliminated by building gas-to-liquid plants. Since the price of oil is predicted to increase, gas will follow suit and be too expensive to be the main power plant fuel. A new perspective is being formed relative to coal. Since the economic life of a coal-fired power plant is as short as 25 years, investment in new coal-fired power plants is now being viewed as a bridge to a post 2040 policy with lower reliance on fossil fuels and more on renewable.”

Regarding renewables, the company says that the beneficiaries will be wind power (+$40 billion) and solar (+$20 billion).

Ceramic Tech Today

Sandia, TEES and Khalifa U. launch GNEII nuclear energy safety institute for Middle East region

Published on March 18th, 2011 | Edited By: Peter Wray

GNEII nuclear energy safety, security institute was officially launched with the signing of an agreement among TEES, Sandia National Laboratories and Khalifa University. Credit: Khalifa University.

The world now is quite a bit more tuned in to the need for multinational cooperation on nuclear energy issues than it was ten days ago. Hopefully, that awareness will translate into some appreciation for the work being done by two United States groups and a university in Abu Dhabi to help “seed” a culture of nuclear energy safety and security around the world.

Sandia National Labs recently announced that representatives of a special group within the lab, along with experts from Texas Engineering Experiment Station and leaders from the Khalifa University of Science, Technology & Research (Abu Dhabi) have signed a memorandum of understanding that establishes the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute (GNEII, pronounced “genie”).

The Texas Engineering Experiment Station is an engineering research agency of the State of Texas and part of the Texas A&M University system. TAMU has a significant Department of Nuclear Engineering and many staff participate in departmental and TEES activities.

The Sandia team, led by Adam Williams, conceived and led the development of the new institute that seeds and cultivates a regional culture of responsible nuclear energy management.

Others have used the story of the “genie in the bottle” as a metaphor for nuclear materials, so it is appropriate to note that GNEII is symbolically about keeping the lid on that bottle. Sandia says there is international interest in this topic matter, and it hopes the new program will become a model for others built on a regional basis.

In a Sandia news release, Adams said, “Those of us with knowledge, who understand the safety, safeguards and security that nuclear energy programs require, have a responsibility to help local professionals adequately prepare for what they’re building. “

The target audience  is policymakers, government officials and energy program executives. The three institutions are developing a curriculum around general nuclear energy safety, safeguards and security issues. Specific subjects that will be covered are:

  • Systems thinking;
  • Basic nuclear physics;
  • Nuclear fuel cycles;
  • Nonproliferation;
  • General power plant operations; and
  • Radiological materials management.

Participants will also be required to carry out an independent research project.

Initially, participation is limited to professionals from three Emirati organizations (not named). There are plans to ultimately include professionals from all six Gulf Cooperation Council members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates).

“Nuclear energy programs are complex and there are many steps to establishing a responsible nuclear program,” Williams continues in the Sandia release. “Among the local ranks in the Middle East, few understood all facets. Our goal is to provide a solid start for a comprehensive, complete and coherent introduction to a responsible nuclear energy program so the idea of a ‘Middle Eastern nuclear energy program’ won’t keep people up at night.”


University of Tennessee and ORNL develop energy science program

Published on January 25th, 2011 | Edited By: Peter Wray

The University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab have teamed up to develop the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education which combines energy science and engineering. Students will also take courses in related disciplines that their field will likely intersect. The goal is to educate and train future leaders armed to tackle domestic energy problems.

Students may chose to study nuclear energy, environmental and climate science, bioenergy and biofuels, renewable energy, energy conversion and storage, distributed energy and grid management, neutron science and computational science. They will also have to take courses in management, economics, R&D as well as broader technology and engineering coursework in order to prepare them for future job opportunities.

“More and more of the technology, the policy, the economics of energy-related things are going to dominate more and more careers of students,” says Lee Riedinger, physics professor and director of the center, in a recent interview with Knoxnews.com.

Thirty-eight faculty from UT and ORNL will lead the program. Students can also take advantage of the program’s emphasis on entrepreneurship. Riedinger is encouraging students that are interested to start their own companies as part of their educational experience at UT.

“It may mean the students will just take a course or maybe some courses for business administration or they may want to dabble with working with their professor at UT or Oak Ridge and use the fruits of their R&D to set up a small company. We’re not sure how that will go,” he said.



U.S. nuclear energy powwow today

Published on December 7th, 2010 | Edited By: Peter Wray

Third Way and the Idaho National Lab have been holding a “New Millennium Nuclear Energy Summit” this morning in Washington, DC.

According to a press release, the meeting is aimed at generating some needed momentum:

“Despite the deep divisions in Washington over energy issues, many on both sides agree that nuclear energy must 
play a role in the nation’s energy and economic future. The summit will provide a forum to start developing 
broader consensus on the future of nuclear energy in the United States and determining the steps needed to 
revive the nation’s nuclear energy industry.”

INL says the idea for the summit came from conversations between retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) after Voinovich visited the national lab in the summer of 2009. Carper agreed to become involved after meeting with INL Director John Grossenbacher in Washington, D.C., that autumn.

The two sent President Obama a letter, co-signed by 11 U.S. senators, seeking his support (which he gave). Copies of the letter were also sent letters to DOE’s Steven Chu plus a group described as bipartisan regulatory and industry leaders. INL says approximately 80 of the invitees committed to attend.

A story published this morning by The Hill reports that Chu, who spoke at the meeting, indicated that the Obama administration would consider proposals that would require utilities to supply increasing amounts of power from a “clean energy portfolio” of low-carbon sources, a description that includes nuclear energy. According to the story, Chu says, ”I hope we can discuss policies that can do that. A clean energy portfolio standard is one example of a potential policy that the administration and Congress should discuss.”

This would mark a departure from discussions of “renewable-electricity portfolio” which has included wind, solar and other renewables, but not necessarily nuclear power. The clean-versus-renewable semantics has much to do with rational fears that nuclear and clean-coal technologies would eventually be favored at the expense of long-term investments in solar, wind, etc.

The Hill also reported that White House energy czar Carol Browner, who also spoke at the meeting, emphasized the administration requests to Congress to expand nuclear federal loan guarantees. ”We were once at the forefront of this industry, and we need to recapture that dominant position,” Browner says.

INL is website has a running Twitter feed on the conference, or you can follow using the tag #nesummit.


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