Nuclear and Coal in an Evolving Energy Portfolio



Jack Maxwell

ASTM Plays Key Role in Efforts to Address Environmental Concerns

 

Energy source A, while it meets about 30 percent of the world's primary energy needs,1 is in the environmental crosshairs because burning it generates greenhouse gases.

Energy source B is relatively benign in terms of its effect on atmospheric warming, but faces an uphill battle in the court of public opinion due to the high profile 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster and ongoing issues surrounding storage and disposal of spent fuel.

Nevertheless, with worldwide demand for energy continuing to rise, coal (source A) and nuclear (source B) are - and will continue to be - crucial components of the global energy portfolio. And although alternative options like solar and wind garner much of the attention when talk turns to a more sustainable energy future, new developments in the coal and nuclear industries could enable these "traditional" energy sources to maintain, and perhaps even increase, their share of the overall energy market while at the same time improving their environmental performance.

ASTM International is right in the middle of the action. Technical Committees D05 on Coal and Coke, C26 on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and E10 on Nuclear Technology and Applications are the three primary ASTM committees working on new standards related to the coal and nuclear industries. But, as you'll see below, numerous ASTM committees and subcommittees address areas of material analysis and process performance that intersect with these industries in a variety of ways.

The Nuclear Option

First, a few facts:

  • As of August 2014, 31 countries worldwide operated 437 nuclear power plant units, with a net capacity of 375 gigawatts. Another 70 plants, with total capacity of 68 GW, are under construction.2
  • According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power accounts for approximately 11 percent of global electricity generation; the United States generates around 20 percent of its electricity via nuclear facilities.3
  • The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that nuclear energy is by far the largest source of emission-free electricity in the United States, at 63.3 percent. Trailing are hydro power (21.2 percent) and solar, wind and geothermal power (15.4 percent).4

While all of the preceding points provide a quick overview of where the world stands today in relation to nuclear power, it's the last one that might provide a glimpse into the future - and an opportunity for nuclear energy to at least maintain, and perhaps even expand, its presence in a global energy portfolio that's struggling to balance scientific, political and humanitarian priorities.

 

ASTM Contributes to Nuclear

Generating electricity with nuclear power creates precisely zero carbon dioxide emissions and, unlike solar and wind options, is not at the mercy of the weather. In the words of Bertrand Morel, "The problem with renewables, aside from cost, is that they don't yield a constant source of energy. Nuclear provides a good, constant base on which intermittent renewables can be added."

Morel, based in Pierrelatte, France, is deputy R&D director at Areva, the world's largest nuclear company, as well as a member of the ASTM International board of directors and second vice-chairman of Committee C26. With one foot in the nuclear industry and the other in the world of standards development, he's in a unique position to comment on both the future of nuclear power and the part ASTM can play in helping industry stakeholders realize that future.

Morel sees the developing world - which he defines as countries that are not members of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development - as the most likely locations for nuclear energy to grow. "Over 80 percent of world expansion in installed nuclear capacity is occurring in non-OECD countries, with China, India and Russia accounting for the largest increments," he says.

In Morel's view, ASTM is in a unique position to have an impact. "It's not just writing standards, though of course ASTM plays a big role by helping to design standards that are accepted and widely used around the world. It's also the fact that people from different countries and different segments of the industry who might never have met come together through ASTM events," he says.

More than 30 ASTM committees have developed over 250 standards - covering everything from specifying sintered uranium dioxide pellets (C776) to testing the chemical resistance of coatings and linings for use in nuclear power plants (D3912) - that are referenced in U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulatory guides.

And this work is filtering out into the wider world through ASTM's participation in the Nuclear Energy Standards Coordination Collaborative, formed in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Energy and the American National Standards Institute to support standardization efforts for operating plants and expand such efforts to include the design and construction of new nuclear plants.

Joe Koury, who is the ASTM staff manager for Committees C26 and E10, sees ASTM's increasingly international sphere of influence as one of the most important advantages the organization brings to the evolution of the nuclear power issue. "C26 has really been reaching out internationally," he says. "Compared to just three or four years ago, participation is really snowballing."

Koury cites the example of two workshops - on the effects of hydrides on zirconium alloys used in reactor cladding and on remote equipment design for hot cell facilities - held earlier this summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in conjunction with a meeting of ASTM Committee C26. The meetings were attended by scientists, regulators and other stakeholders from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the United States.

Although many energy experts point to ongoing issues with disposal of spent nuclear fuel as a problem for the industry, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission just approved a plan for onsite storage of nuclear fuel waste at active reactors. Morel believes that, "Although storage is an obstacle in the mind of the public, on a technical basis it's not that big of a problem." He also points out that "Spent fuel storage needs to be reversible, so that when we have advanced technology we can retrieve actinides and treat them… Storage technology in glass and refractory materials has made good progress."

 

 

The Role of Coal

With the publication of each new scientific report on extreme weather patterns, melting glaciers and rising ocean temperatures, it becomes harder to refute the notion that, in the words of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia." Speaking specifically about the so-called greenhouse effect, the IPCC minces no words: "The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions."5

The coal industry and the utilities that burn coal to generate electricity are addressing this issue. It's clear that phasing out coal completely is not a practical solution, not when the International Energy Association estimates that coal accounts for about 40 percent of global electricity generation,6 and the World Coal Association notes that coal provides for 30 percent of the world's primary energy needs.7 (Some countries go well beyond the average: China gets 79 percent of its electricity by burning coal, Australia 78 percent, and India 68 percent.8 In 2013, the United States relied on coal for 39 percent of its electric power.9)

So the focus is now on finding ways to make coal a cleaner option than it has been. Whether it's sampling coal before it's burned to get a better handle on chemical and physical properties as they relate to emissions produced by the combustion process, recycling combustion byproducts like fly ash to reduce pressure on landfills or developing new technologies that capture greenhouse gases before they escape into the atmosphere, the industry is putting a lot of time and effort into reducing coal's environmental footprint.

Coal sampling is an area in which ASTM Committee D05 has been very active. Paul Reagan should know. He's the president of Sampling Associates International, Hampton, Virginia, a company that specializes in the mechanical sampling of coal, and he serves as chairman of Subcommittee D05.27, the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee 27 on Solid Mineral Fuels - as well as task group chairman for ASTM standard D7430, Practice for Mechanical Sampling of Coal.

"ASTM standards are essential to the coal sampling process, as all coal in the United States, and in many other countries as well, is sampled and analyzed according to these standards," Reagan says. "D7430 is the most important one, but others - including D2234, Practice for Collection of a Gross Sample of Coal, an umbrella standard for all sampling methods; D6609, Guide for Part-Stream Sampling of Coal; and D6883, Practice for Manual Sampling of Stationary Coal in Railroad Cars, Barges, Trucks or Stockpiles - are widely employed as well."

Sampling is an important tool for determining environmental compliance. "In addition to sampling the consignments of the purchased coal in the first place, many coal-fired utilities collect additional samples as fuel is loaded into bunkers at the plant," Reagan says. "These samples, often referred to as ‘as-fired,' are used to determine boiler input concentrations of certain elements such as sulfur, which relates to demonstrating compliance with emission reduction targets required by acid rain legislation. Many utilities must remove a significant percentage of certain pollutants to meet air quality standards, and their equipment to do so (scrubbers for sulfur and electrostatic precipitators for fly ash) work best when the coal's sulfur content and other parameters are within certain ranges. Mercury is another element that is tested for, with an eye toward both stack emissions and disposal of fly ash in certain types of landfills."

 

Seeking Sustainability

Speaking of fly ash, coal combustion byproducts have been described as the second largest waste stream in the United States, behind only municipal solid waste. Recycling this material is an important step the coal industry can take to improve its environmental profile.

Tom Adams is executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, Farmington Hills, Michigan. "If you enter ‘coal ash' into the search bar on the ASTM website, over 1,900 results come up," Adams says. "To cite just one example, the standard for fly ash used in concrete, ASTM C618, is the cornerstone that provides acceptance by architects and engineers. It has been part of concrete specifications for decades."

Looking forward, Adams feels that the most important work related to fly ash is clarifying the definition of the material. "Power plants are injecting various materials, including activated carbon, lime and ammonia, into the combustion stream to control emissions. Assuring accuracy in the description and definition of fly ash is important to the user community," he says.

One of the most exciting developments in the quest for cleaner coal is unfolding on the prairies of central Canada. SaskPower, the government-owned electric utility in Saskatchewan, will soon cut the ribbon on the Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project. The world's first and largest commercial-scale CCS facility of its kind is, according to SaskPower, "making a viable technical, environmental and economic case for the continued use of coal."

This project (estimated cost $1.35 billion) involves integrating carbon capture technology into a rebuilt coal-fired generation unit that will provide 110 megawatts of power to residents and businesses in the province while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million metric tons every year.10 The captured CO2 will be piped to nearby oil fields for use in enhanced oil recovery operations - and fly ash will be sold for use in ready-mix concrete, precast structures and other concrete products.

According to Scott Orthey, staff manager of ASTM Committee D05, there are no specific standard development activities within Committee D05 related to CCS at this time. But given the breadth of the organization's involvement with other aspects of the energy industry, there's little doubt that ASTM will eventually offer its unique blend of technical expertise and consensus building to those spearheading this promising new effort to find new, more environmentally acceptable ways to meet the energy requirements that power our world.

 

References

1. World Coal Association, Coal Statistics.

2. European Nuclear Society, Nuclear Power Plants, Worldwide.

3. World Nuclear Association, World Energy Needs and Nuclear Power; and Nuclear Power in the USA.

4. Nuclear Energy Institute, Sources of Emission, Free Infographic.

5. Summary for Policy Makers of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

6. International Energy Agency, FAQs: Coal.

7. World Coal Association, Coal Statistics.

8. World Coal Association, Coal & Electricity, accessed Sept. 14, 2014.

9. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Frequently Asked Questions.

10. SaskPower, Carbon Capture Project.

 

Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, New Jersey.

 

September/October
2014