Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter’s forecast because three of the country’s largest reactors — reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity — are shut down.

Belgium’s troubles started brewing two years ago during inspections at the country’s seven nuclear reactors, all operated by Belgian utility Electrabel. Ultrasound inspection of the reactor pressure vessels at Electrabel’s Doel power station near Antwerp revealed previously unrecognized defects at Doel’s 1,000-megawatt reactor #3.

Prior tests looked only for aging of the welds between a pressure vessels’ steel plates, but this time broader inspections at Doel 3 detected thousands of tiny cracks in the plates created (most likely) when they were originally forged. Electrabel shut down the 1,000-MW reactor #2 at its Tihange power station in eastern Belgium — whose pressure vessel was forged by the same Dutch shipyard as Doel 3’s — and found similar microcracks.

The cracks reduce the vessels’ capacity to withstand spiking pressure and temperature during an accident. Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) decided that the resulting risk was acceptable and cleared the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors to restart in the summer of 2013. But this March Electrabel shut them down again following tests at Belgium’s national research lab in Mol, where researchers irradiating steel with comparable microcracks observed a greater-than-anticipated reduction in the material’s strength.

It was the shutdown of a third 1,000-MW reactor that threw Belgium into a tizzy this August. This time it was reactor #4 at Doel, where leaking lubricant damaged the plant’s steam turbine. A spokesperson for Electrabel revealed that the leak resulted from “an apparently deliberate manual intervention” of the turbine’s oil drain, according to a Flanders Today report.

Prosecutors and anti-terrorism agents swooped in to investigate the alleged sabotage, while Belgium’s government and power distributors began crafting plans for rolling blackouts this winter. The blackout plans, released in broad form early this month and at the street-by-street level last Friday, lay out how distributors can ration power supplies.

Response to the plans has been explosive. Belgian media reports are replete with recriminations by elected officials questioning the fairness of the plans. Those representing small communities are irked that big cities are to be largely spared, and some Belgians perceive national favoritism at work. Last week leading Flemish politician Koenraad Degroote accused Secretary of State for Energy Catherine Fonck, a francophone, of going easy on Belgium’s French-speaking communities.

Seen through the lens of energy policy, Belgium’s troubles are a classic example of the “brittleness” of large electrical systems — a concept developed by systems analysts Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins in Brittle Power, their classic 1982 treatise on energy security. The Lovins’ central point is that reliance on a small number of large power stations means that just a few failures — deliberate or otherwise — can have a devastating impact on power supplies.

Sabotage of the sort that may have sidelined Electrabel’s Doel 4 reactor was a key part of the Lovins’ analysis. Despite all of the attention paid to terrorist threats, insider threats remain the “most serious challenge confronting nuclear facilities” according to political scientists Scott Sagan at Stanford University and Matthew Bunn of Harvard. They updated that case in an April 2014 article in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The U.K., meanwhile, is experience the same sort of “series defect” that started Belgium’s troubles. In August EDF Energy, the U.K. subsidiary of Paris-based EDF, found a crack in a boiler during a routine inspection at a nuclear power plant near Lancaster. EDF immediately shut down three more reactors of the same design. With four reactors suddenly out of service, U.K. grid operator National Grid began seeking emergency power supplies for the winter this month.

Belgium’s microcrack discovery could have had a far greater impact. The discovery sent reactor operators and regulators in several countries scrambling to see if their own vessels forged at the same Dutch shipyard — including 10 reactors examined in the U.S. — harbored hidden flaws. To date no microcracks have been found in reactors outside of Belgium.

But as one Belgian nuclear policy specialist has noted, none of the other reactors have been examined using the wider ultrasound testing performed in Belgium. And the hunt for trouble is widening. At least one regulator, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, has ordered ultrasound testing of all vessels forged from steel rings, regardless of their source.

As for Doel 3 and Tihange 2, they remain closed until further testing and analysis by Electrabel can prove they are safe to restart. This will, according to FANC, include a review of Electrabel’s ‘safety case’ by foreign experts.

All this talk of risk and vulnerability might make some people think twice about being dependent on nuclear energy. Ironically, in Belgium, it might have just the opposite effect according to Aviel Verbruggen, an economist and energy policy expert at the University of Antwerp.

Officially Belgium is approaching the first deadline for a nuclear phaseout legislated by Belgium’s parliament in 2003 that would require the shutdown of the three oldest nuclear reactors in 2015 and the remaining four by 2025. But Verbruggen says there has been no coordinated policymaking to create alternative supplies, while the reactors’ French owners — EDF and Electrabel parent company GDF Suez — have been preparing Belgium’s reactors for continued operation.

Verbruggen says the present fear of power shortages may translate into public support for overriding the nuclear phaseout: “Because the strategic behavior of Suez and EDF is strong, and the Belgian political system is weak, the overall result of the black-out campaign could be a 10-year life extension of the three oldest plants. The majority of people will accept the life extension because they place supply reliability at the top of their preferences.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Germany’s Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid graph German Energy TransitionLast Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany’s grid is one of the world’s most reliable. Continue reading

NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Renewables to Dethrone Nuclear Under French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation’s cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.

Under the plan, nuclear’s share of the nation’s power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy’s role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world’s second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva. Continue reading

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

Floating Wind Turbines Headed for Offshore Farms

PrinciplePower.WindFloatFloating wind power is no longer science fiction. Promising results from five test platforms operating worldwide—including three in Japan—are turning into project plans for a first generation of floating wind farms. Industry analyst Annette Bossler, who runs Bremen, Maine-based Main(e) International Consulting, predicts that the number of test platforms will nearly double over the next two years and that commercialization is within site. “By 2018-2019 you will start to see the first really large-scale commercial use of floating platforms,” predicts Bossler.

Putting wind turbines on offshore platforms akin to those developed for the petroleum industry provides a means of exploiting high-quality offshore winds—which are stronger and more consistent than onshore winds—in waters too deep for today’s bottom-fixed foundations. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”