New York Times: On Tuesday, South Korea’s Nuclear Safety and Security Commission shut down two nuclear reactors and delayed the startup of two others—one under construction and the other undergoing routine maintenance. Prompted by an anonymous whistleblower, inspectors found that the reactors’ control cables, which are used to signal the reactor control systems in case of an accident, had failed their safety tests but were given certificates anyway. With those 4 reactors shut down, only 13 of South Korea’s 23 reactors are still operating. As a result, the commission expects electricity shortages during the summer. Despite several recent scandals suffered by the country’s nuclear power industry, the government is pushing ahead with a plan to add 16 more reactors by 2030.
MIT Technology Review: Carbon-capture technology seeks to reduce power plants’ emission of CO2 by isolating and removing the gas from the plants’ exhaust and then storing it underground. Existing techniques double the cost of the electricity produced and reduce the plants’ efficiency by using some of the steam originally generated to drive their turbines. A new technique, developed by FuelCell Energy of Danbury, Connecticut, uses molten carbonate fuel cells to more easily isolate the carbon. As a bonus, the technique produces extra energy as well. Molten carbonate fuel cells absorb CO2 through one electrode, use the CO2 to create ions to drive a current, and then reemit the gas from the other electrode in a more concentrated form. When applied to exhaust gases that are 5% to 15% CO2, the fuel cells emit a mix of about 75% CO2 and 25% water vapor. The water vapor is easy to condense out, leaving just CO2 that can then be pressurized and stored. The technique has only been demonstrated in a lab, but the Department of Energy is providing funding for a larger test system to better determine how effective it could be in practice.
Christian Science Monitor: On Thursday the US Senate unanimously confirmed nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz as the head of the Department of Energy. Moniz was serving as director of the Energy Initiative at MIT and on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He had previously served in the Clinton administration as an undersecretary at DOE. His experience in government counters some of the criticism leveled at outgoing secretary Steven Chu. In his confirmation hearing, Moniz indicated his support for Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy independence and said that R&D is key for developing a clean-energy industry. However, he has received some criticism from environmentalists for his support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and natural gas.
Christian Science Monitor: In the Christian Science Monitor, David Unger notes the circular paradox concerning Arctic drilling and climate change: “The region’s fossil-fuel extraction contributes to warming, which opens up drilling possibilities but also adds environmental turbulence that makes drilling so difficult.” Already, severe weather has caused several companies to shut down their drilling operations in the area. But because the Arctic is home to 13% of the world’s oil and 30% of its natural gas, it is expected that those companies will want to resume their drilling as soon as possible. Since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its legal ramifications, however, oil companies have come to realize the value of adhering to higher safety standards. In light of that fact, the Obama administration released a paper Friday that urges Arctic countries to work together to balance resource extraction and environmental protection. The paper preceded this week’s meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, during which the members are expected to vote on an oil spill response agreement, among other issues.
Scientific American: The Hanford Site in Washington State began storing nuclear waste created by the Manhattan Project and continued stockpiling waste until its last reactor shut down in 1987. Of the 177 underground tanks holding 208 million liters of waste, 60 have leaked in the past, though only 6 are currently leaking. The US Department of Energy began construction of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant in 2000, with a plan to separate the various types of waste and store them via vitrification—turning each radionuclide into stable glass rods and wrapping them in steel. However, the methodology of that process was not fully established when construction began, and many difficulties have arisen. Because the waste has self-separated into solids, liquids, and gases of varying densities, each type has to be handled differently, and some of them pose significant safety concerns. Until the safety issues are addressed, construction of the plant is at a standstill. It will likely not begin operating until at least 2022.
New York Times: The Kewaunee power plant in Wisconsin has been closed by Dominion, the private power company based in Richmond, Virginia, that purchased the plant in 2005. That makes it the first nuclear power plant that will have its decommissioning handled by a for-profit company instead of a local, regulated utility. The company has not announced whether it plans to dismantle the plant or wait for the radioactivity to subside and then refit it with modern systems. Either process will take decades and is expected to cost nearly $1 billion. However, the cost of decommissioning is constantly in flux, and predicting costs more than five or six years ahead is difficult. Dominion says it has set aside enough money to cover the process, but it also expects to receive additional funds from the Department of Energy. DOE had agreed to begin removing spent fuel rods from the plant a decade ago but has yet to begin the process. Legal proceedings against the department will likely provide Dominion with $350 million.
MIT Technology Review: Smart grids consist of series of smart meters networked with thousands of sensors at key power-grid features such as substations, transformers, local distribution lines, and high-voltage transmission lines. Although dozens of utilities have installed some smart-grid components, Florida Power and Light is the first to implement a wide variety of devices on a large scale. The advantage of smart devices is that they enable utility companies to locate problems before they cause an outage and that they limit the extent and duration of an outage once it has occurred. Also, smart grids weather storms better than conventional grids and allow for easier installation of intermittent power sources, such as solar or wind. The Florida grid cost $800 million, $200 million of which came from the US Department of Energy. DOE is currently analyzing the impacts and costs of its smart-grid projects for possible improvements in operating efficiency and customer participation.
Wall Street Journal: A massive $21 billion plutonium-reprocessing plant that has been in the works since 1992 is finally nearing completion, according to Japanese officials. Once up and running, the plant at Rokkasho in northern Japan will be capable of producing 9 tons of weapons-usable plutonium annually. Although Japanese officials insist the plutonium will be used for power generation only, just two of the country’s fifty reactors are back online since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. The Obama administration is not pleased with the timing in light of North Korea’s recent atomic weapons tests. Many in the US fear Rokkasho’s going on line will spark a nuclear competition among nearby countries, such as China and South Korea.
MIT Technology Review: A new battery created by Yi Cui of Stanford University and his colleagues may be able to reach the US Department of Energy’s goal of a $100 per kWh. Their hybrid battery blends the design of flow batteries with that of lithium-sulfur batteries. Flow batteries use a pair of liquid electrolytes and an expensive ion-transfer membrane with minimal extra electronics to extract the energy. Lithium-sulfur batteries use solid electrodes with a high storage potential but a limited number of recharges because of the buildup of lithium polysulfides, which reduces the amount of lithium and sulfur available for reactions. Cui and his team realized that the dissolved polysulfides stored more energy than the electrolytes used in flow batteries. They created a battery that uses a single metallic lithium electrode and an electrolyte in which lithium polysulfide could dissolve. An inexpensive coating on the lithium electrode replaced the ion-transfer membrane. The team was able to recharge the battery 2000 times before storage capacity was significantly reduced. To make a commercial product they will have to achieve 5000 recharges. To reach that goal, they may have to increase the amount of lithium to the point where the battery exceeds the $100/kWh price point. Even so, a commercialized version of the battery would be a significant step forward in technology.
NPR: The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is recommending new standards for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the US. Because of the 2010 Enbridge spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which is still being cleaned up, the EPA has determined that a tar sands oil spill can be more harmful than a conventional oil spill and may require different methods and equipment to clean up. From that spill, the agency learned that tar sands oil tends to sink to the bottom of bodies of water and doesn’t biodegrade. Because the oil is also much stickier than either conventional crude or refined oil, it is nearly impossible to clean from surfaces such as rocks. In addition, to ease the flow of the tar sands oil through the pipeline, benzene or other petroleum-based products are added, which during a spill can be slowly released back into the environment and pose a hazard. TransCanada, the company that will build the Keystone pipeline, says it has already included 57 new safeguards. However, Stephen Hamilton of Michigan State University points out that even with safeguards in place to protect against a potential spill, the production of tar sands oil remains a huge environmental risk because of the greater amount of greenhouse gases emitted in its production compared with that of conventional oil.