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

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

EC Sees Heavy Pricetag to UK Nukes Plan

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

Government incentives for a pair of proposed nuclear reactors could cost U.K. taxpayers as much as £17.62 billion, thus exceeding the reactors’ projected cost. The EC figure is a preliminary estimate included in an initial report to London published on Friday by European Commission competition czars. The letter notifies the British government that—as we predicted in December—Brussels is launching a formal investigation to assess whether the subsidies violate European state aid rules.

The preliminary findings suggest that the U.K. and E.C. are on a collision source. As the Financial Times summed it up this weekend: “The severity of [the EC's] initial concerns will cast a shadow over government hopes to win approval for the deal.”

Continue reading

German Parliament OKs Bold HVDC Grid Upgrade

Germany’s bold transmission plan is a go. The Bundesrat, Germany’s senate, has accepted the plan’s enabling legislation forwarded to it by the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament), according to the authoritative German Energy Blog. There is every reason to expect that the plan’s core element — four high-voltage direct current or HVDC transmission lines profiled by Spectrum last month — will get built.

That is good news for Germany’s grid and those of its neighbors. All are straining to manage powerful and variable flows from the wind turbines and solar panels that provided 12 percent of Germany’s power generation last year.

Elements of both the HVDC system design and the legislation should ease construction of the HVDC systems. On the design side, Germany’s transmission system operators have specified advanced converters whose ability to arrest and clear DC line faults will reduce the risk of running overhead lines. This means the HVDC lines can use existing rights-of-way used by AC lines. In fact, they can be hung from the same towers. Read the May 2013 story for extensive discussion of the advanced modular multilevel converters.

The enabling legislation, meanwhile, will simplify line permitting by making a federal court in Leipzig the only forum for legal disputes concerning the projects. Separate legislation passed by the Bundesrat and Bundestag makes  Germany’s federal networks regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur or BNetzA, the sole permitting authority for power lines that cross Germany’s state or national borders. These measures — for better or worse — cut out state-level officials that face greater pressure from local project opponents and may be more sympathetic to their concerns.

Add it all up and Germany is en route to become the first country with HVDC lines playing a critical role at the core of their power grid. It is arguably the first real challenge to AC’s century-plus reign as the top dog in power transmission since DC-advocate Thomas Edison lost the War of Currents. Tesla and Westinghouse may just be rolling over.

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

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Electrical Upgrade Prescribed for Japan’s Crimped Grid

An advisory body for Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has endorsed a tripling of the capacity to pass power between Japan’s otherwise estranged AC power grids: the 50-hertz AC grid that serves Tokyo and northeastern Japan, and the 60-hertz grid that serves western Japan. This frequency divide hascomplicated efforts to keep Japan powered since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami — a task that keeps getting harder with the inexorable decline in nuclear power generation (at present just one of Japan’s 54 reactors is operating). Continue reading