Monday, May 23, 2011

NRC signals problems with reactor design

Anti-nuclear forces are gloating over problems with the reactor design that is planned for use in the nation's first wave of new nuclear plants in a generation. Duke Energy and Progress Energy both planned to use the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor.

With Fukushima vivid in the world's consciousness, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears in no hurry to sign off on a reactor design that's designed to save money.

In a brief statement Friday, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said additional technical issues have delayed approval of the AP1000.

The unresolved questions have to do with the strength of the reactor's concrete protective husk, called the shield building, which would also support a cooling water storage tank. Jaczko said there are also issues with calculating peak pressures within the inner steel shell, called containment, during an accident.

"The agency has made it clear to Westinghouse that it must prove to our satisfaction that the company has appropriately and completely documented the adequacy of the design," the statement said.

An NRC structural engineer has formally challenged the strength of materials to be used in the shield building. Experts hired by Friends of the Earth have challenged the strength of the AP1000's containment, among other issues.

“The fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which often operates as an industry lap dog, is voicing concerns is a sign of just how serious these design flaws are,” said Tom Clements, a Friends activist in Columbia.

Westinghouse, which has built reactors around the world, touts the AP1000 as the safest and cheapest available because of a simplified design that cuts construction time and operating expenses. It's designed to safely cool a reactor during an accident even if no electric power is available.

Westinghouse said it will work with the NRC on the outstanding issues, which the company asserted include none of safety significance. Westinghouse called the AP100 "one of the most studied, reviewed and analyzed" designs in the history of the nuclear power industry.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rare birds blown into Charlotte area

You never know what the spring winds will blow in during bird-migration season. Charlotte birdwatchers have found some treats lately.

Don Seriff, natural resources coordinator with the county parks department, says unusually strong weather systems might be responsible for these recent arrivals since late April:

-- The purple gallinule pictured at right is usually found in Florida and in Georgia's coastal plain. The species had never been recorded in Mecklenburg County and fewer than 10 times in North Carolina.

-- Two common moorhens, one of them injured. The duck-like bird is considered a very rare transient, Seriff says, and had been seen in Mecklenburg only twice, most recently in 1989.

-- Several American bitterns, marsh birds that had been reported fewer than 10 times in the Charlotte region. A least bittern, found at Cowan's Ford Wildlife Refuge near Mountain Island Lake, had been reported only five times in the region.

-- A pair of white-winged doves, spotted in Pineville, became only the second record of the species for this area.

Two hours east of Charlotte, a Cassin’s sparrow became the first record of the southwestern native in the state. A fork-tailed flycatcher, a rare tropical species, was seen in the same area the same week.

More on this to come. Dozens of volunteers from eight counties are scouring the county to compile Mecklenburg's first breeding-bird atlas. "I will have lots of good info and some surprises to share in late June about the local discoveries," Seriff writes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duke in hearing on nuclear costs

Amid the aftershocks of the Fukushima-Daiichi crisis, Duke Energy is seeking the S.C. Public Service Commission's blessing today to spend more money on its next nuclear plant.

Duke took much of the drama out of the day by agreeing to whittle back the additional $229 million in additional pre-construction costs it first sought. That would have put the total spent on the Lee plant, which Duke hasn't yet decided to build, at $459 million through 2013.

Instead Duke agreed with consumer and environmental groups to limit spending to "only the absolute minimum amount of dollars necessary to keep the nuclear option available" -- $120 million from this January through June 2012. That would keep the $11 billion Lee on track to start up sometime between 2021 and 2023, a date that's been pushed back a couple of times.

Duke has agreed to similar terms with North Carolina's consumer advocates on a Lee spending proposal before the N.C. Utilities Commission. That commission hasn't yet ruled.

Approval by the states would give Duke reassurance that it can eventually recover Lee's costs from customers, although that would take separate OKs.

Duke also commits in the S.C. agreement to continuing to try to share the risks of building a new plant. It pledges to keep negotiating for an interest in the two reactors that Santee Cooper and SCANA are preparing to build in Jenkinsville, S.C.

Friends of the Earth nuclear activist Tom Clements, the only party to the case that didn't sign the agreement, was scheduled to question Duke CEO Jim Rogers and other executives today.

Friday, May 13, 2011


A note to readers: It’s more than the shortage of quill pens and parchment that moves me to launch this late-blooming blog. After years on the smog beat as an environment writer, I’ve expanded my coverage to energy, which turns out to involve lots of technology. It also turns out to be fascinating.

Energy is the crossroads of the past and future, of belching 1920s smokestacks and biofuels made from algae. It’s embedded so deeply in daily life as to be invisible – until it’s not, when the next rate hike or power outage comes. It’s an engine of jobs and a casino of billion-dollar bets on technology that has to work. And a test of values: Will Americans choose the cheapest energy or the kindest to people and planet?

Come join the conversation, but play nice.

Let’s start with a topic we all can agree on: climate change!

It’s been a tough spring, I thought as hail pounded my expensive new roof the other night. Hundreds of tornadoes tore through the Southeast and Midwest, killing 24 people in North Carolina alone last month. The Mississippi is flooding middle-American towns and farms like something out of the Old Testament.

Is this what climate change looks like? Yes and no, says David Easterling, a scientist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville who studies extreme climate events.

“We’ve seen increases in heavy rainfall in the past, and that fits the climate models,” he says of the flooding. “Parts of the Midwest have seen that pattern.”

As air temperatures warm, the atmosphere holds more moisture that’s released as rain. Melting snow added to this year's deluges. North Dakota’s Red River is among those that “seem to have flooding just about every year,” Easterling says.

The two multi-year droughts the Carolinas have suffered in the past decade are also consistent with what’s expected of a warming climate, he said.

Tornadoes are another matter. While last month’s count could set a record, Easterling says it’s hard to compare activity to past years, when records relied solely on direct observations instead of modern tools such as Doppler radar.

Tornadoes form when a strong jet stream overhead and wind shear, the changes of speed or direction at different heights in the atmosphere, rotate thunderstorms. But climate models show wind shear will be less dramatic in the future.

“There really is not good evidence linking that to climate change,” he says.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rogers wavered on Indiana hire

The latest release of internal e-mails that fueled the Duke Energy ethics scandal in Indiana show some staff members, including CEO Jim Rogers, squirming over the hire of a former state regulator.

Messages published today by the Indianapolis Star show Rogers sensing it would be "a bad move" to hire Scott Storms, the former general counsel for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Duke had already hired another commission official, Mike Reed, to head its Indiana operation.

Rogers had good reason to engage his radar. Months before, Duke had asked the commission to approve $530 million in additional costs to build its $2.9 billion Edwardsport coal-fired power plant. Customers will likely pay most of the plant's costs.

For reasons the e-mails don't make clear, Duke hired Storms anyway last summer.

Within months, as Duke's relationship with the former regulators came to light, the fallout began. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels sacked David Lott Hardy, the commission's chairman, and Duke fired Storms and Reed. Jim Turner, who had led Duke's regulated businesses from Charlotte, resigned in December following publication of e-mails between him and Hardy.

The latest e-mails suggest that Hardy and Reed wanted Duke to hire Storms. They show Duke staff members initially ruling out Storms for the job of handling Indiana legal affairs, but worrying that Hardy would be offended.

"This could all blow up with Hardy being mad that we won't hire Scott," says a July 1 exchange between Duke lawyers. "I'm really not sure how to get out of this mess."

Three weeks later, Turner wrote Rogers that he had talked to David Pippen, Daniels' general counsel. Pippen supported Duke's hiring Storms, Turner said.

Rogers responded that "it bothers me but I don't know why ... feels like a bad move at this time ... coming on the heels of Mike ... "

By the next day, more e-mails say Rogers had signed off on the hire.

The e-mails are among evidence before the Indiana State Ethics Commission, which heard accusations that Storms violated state law by taking the Duke job while continuing to handle cases involving Duke. The commission is expected to decide the case Thursday, the Indianapolis Star said.

"We are letting our testimony before the commission serve as our statement on this issue," Duke Indiana spokeswoman Angeline Protogere said.

Duke, meanwhile, offered in March to cap the Edwardsport costs passed to customers to $2.7 billion. The commission will hold hearings in October. It has scheduled more hearings in November on allegations of mismanagement, fraud and concealment filed by opponents of the plant.