Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Areva peers into the future of nuclear energy

And finds technology to build fast reactors

natural_gasAn alliance of oil refining firms, chemical companies, and reactor vendors is working on development of a 300 MW fast reactor to swap out the use of several million barrels a day of crude oil for process heat. The industry consortium is working on building a first-of-a-kind high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) with commercial prospects by 2022.

While the Department of Energy has been pursuing development of this technology at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), a former R&D manager from that site, now working for Areva, has some encouraging news about a wider effort by the petrochemical industry.

Finis_Southworth Areva’s R&D manger leading the effort, Finis Southworth, (right) told a conference call of nuclear energy bloggers in January it will take about 10-12 years and $3 billion to design, license, and build a 300 MW (electricity) 600 MW (heat) fast reactor to provide process heat co-located at oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants.

Southworth said members of the NGNP Alliance include Areva, Dow Chemical, Conoco, and Chevron. There are additional members of the Alliance, but for business reasons have chosen not to go public with their participation. However, in March 2009 Rod Adams at Atomic Insights found a public list of the membership, released by the Heritage Foundation, and posted it on his blog.

NRC licensing challenges ahead

While the technology roadmap to develop the reactor is relatively straightforward, the path to complete NRC licensing has some unknown twists and turns.

nrc seal "NRC licensing is critical to our success," Southworth said, "and it takes too long." He added that right now, "NRC does not have the regulatory framework to conduct safety analyses for high temperature gas cooled reactors."

Not much progress seems to have occurred at the NRC since it published an NGNP licensing strategy in 2008.

One of the safety features of the new reactor design, Southworth says, is that its "passive safety" features do not require electrical power, pumps, pipes, or cooling systems to shut down.

Market and competitive factors

alberta_oilMarket opportunities for the new reactor include providing process heat for oil refineries and chemical plants. The reactor would be designed to deliver heat in the range of 450-550C. For applications in the Alberta tar sands, heat would come out of the reactor at 450C and could be piped up to 10 Km arriving at the mining site at 350C.

Areva is looking for partners to develop the reactor. Southworth said one of them will be Mitstubishi," he said.

In 2009 the Department of Energy announced a $40 million NGNP funding opportunity through the INL's NGNP program. The award date has long since passed with no word from the agency whether it will ever spend the money. "We're disappointed by the delay," Southworth said.

The best case scenario for payback to process heat customers for a commercial version of the reactor looks like this. Assume a member of the NGNP Alliance burns 1 million barrels of oil/day at $70/barrel. That's a daily cost of $70 million. Every 30 days it burns $2.1 billion in crude oil for process heat and over 300 days it burns $21 billion.

If a new 300 MW high temperature gas-cooled reactor costs $3,500/Kw, or $1.05 billion, the payback occurs in the first year assuming all the oil used for process heat is swapped out for heat from the reactor. The actual payback will be much longer due to the need to amortize R&D, NRC licensing, and start-up costs, which could be an additional $3 billion.

Regardless of costs, what becomes clear from talking with Southworth is that the first version of the reactor will be built at a customer site. It is unlikely, he says, that Alliance members are interested in funding a first-of-a-kind prototype in Idaho.

Small reactors like the one the Alliance is developing will also gain cost competitive advantages relative to natural gas if Congress puts a price on CO2. Southworth said his estimate is that a price north of $20/ton is the threshold or tipping point for this trade-off.

Further into the future, Areva is also looking at sodium-cooled fast reactors to be used in Europe to attain uranium self-sufficiency. The fast reactors will be used to "breed" fuel and to burn waste actinides from the first pass of the nuclear fuel through a conventional light water reactor.

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Brian Mays said...

It appears that there's a little bit of confusion here. Although there do exist concepts for a gas-cooled fast reactor, I'm pretty sure that AREVA's 300 MW reactor is not a fast reactor. It uses graphite blocks as a moderator.

The sodium-cooled fast reactor that AREVA is looking into will probably be an evolution of the European Fast Reactor (EFR), a concept that was developed in the nineties by a combined effort from several European countries.

SteveK9 said...

"NRC licensing is critical to our success," Southworth said ...

Why? Is there no other regulatory agency in the world that can make a reactor commercial.

I am more and more confused about this. Is there no 'European' agency? I'm not sure that would be faster, but why would the entire world need to wait for the NRC?

djysrv said...

Brian, My notes indicate the discussion was about an HTGR. I don't recall any mention of a graphite moderated reactor.

Brian Mays said...

Dan - You are correct, it is an HTGR (high-temperature gas-cooled reactor). The 300 MWe/600 MWt reactor will be similar to (but perhaps not exactly like -- e.g., lower outlet temperature) AREVA's Antares reactor (PDF brochure). This is a thermal reactor that uses graphite as a moderator.