Saturday, April 3, 2010

Update on the nuclear renaissance in the U.K.

The nation wants to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. To do so it will start by building new nuclear reactors at 11 sites for 16 GWe of carbon emission free electricity

RAENG LogoEnergy issues are a top priority in the U.K. Significant challenges are driving decisions to invest in multiple new nuclear reactors at 11 sites to be built over the next two decades. The first units are expected to be online by 2017. This round of construction could develop 16-30 GWe of nuclear powered electricity.

The key issues are the original generation of 19 nuclear plants built in the 1970s and 80s are getting older. The first plant began operating in 1956. Some units will be decommissioned in the next five years. All but one of them will be retired by 2023. Second, natural gas supplies from the North Sea fields have a finite life. Third, the nation can't go back to building new coal plants because of the U.K.'s commitments to cutting greenhouse gases.

coolhandnuke Read the full story including how the Royal Engineers are getting into the business of nation building exclusively at CoolHandNuke, a nuclear jobs portal and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pebble Bed’s perilous path ahead

South Africa has run out of money. Will Westinghouse come to the rescue?

DoRightCastThe plot line for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project looks very much like one right out of an early silent movie. A dastardly villain has tied our heroine to the railroad tracks, and demands a ransom to free her. Time is running out as an oncoming train is in view. The rails are humming as our hero races to save her. Will he arrive on time to avert a near certain tragedy? Audiences gasp with horror, but must come back next Saturday to find out if Dudley Do Right saves the fair damsel in distress.

What’s happening in South Africa is that the national government, which so far has sunk $1.1 billion into R&D for the PBMR project, has run out of money and maybe patience to invest any more in it. Eskom, the utility that was slated to buy multiple units of the planned 165 MW reactor, is also broke and even cancelled a tender for conventional light water reactors. Unless international investors can be found, the future of of PBMR is perilous at best.

The company has taken drastic measures in response to the financial crisis laying off 75% or 600 of its staff. The CEO quit earlier this month. The South African government is unsympathetic saying that it is PBMR that has failed to secure investment for the project. Efforts to gain funding through international banks have come up dry.

Westinghouse has 15% stake in the company

westinghouse logoAt the same time that PBMR is caught up in what looks like an unhappy ending, now comes Westinghouse which earlier in March won a share of a $40 million funding opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to design the ‘Next Generation Nuclear Plant’ or NGNP. According to a report in Reuters for March 24, Westinghouse will provide $10 million of this funding to PBMR further develop the pebble bed technology. The money follows a bilateral agreement signed between South Africa and the U.S. in September 2009.

According to South African wire services, Westinghouse executive Bob Pearce confirmed his firm will use PBMR technology as part of its NGNP contract with the Department of Energy. However, PBMR is not out of the woods yet. Pearce said it would take Westinghouse at least another 12 months to decide whether to increase its stake in the company beyond the 15% share it holds now.

Bake_OffWestinghouse still has to negotiate the terms and deliverables of its contract with DOE. The other successful applicant for the federal funds is General Atomics which has a different design for NGNP. It appears DOE is headed for a “bake off” between the two reactor designs to see which firm would then have the opportunity to get more federal money to build its design.

Even then the U.S. government is likely to demand that the firm with the winning design put up a substantial share of the costs of building the first unit. PBMR once estimated the cost of a demonstration unit for a paying customer at $3,500/Kw. A 165 MW unit would work out to cost just under $600 million.

Customers would use the pebble bed reactor for process heat and electricity generation. It could also be used to produce hydrogen or for water desalinization. However, the competitive landscape for small reactors is very active. Time to market is a critical issue. How fast a deficit-ridden U.S. federal government would be willing to move the NGNP along may be more an issue of political priorities than business drivers.

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Geek humor, Google, and nukes

TechCrunch speculates on visions of mass distraction

Nuclear futuristic visionNo friends, Google is not building a nuclear reactor. TechCrunch, a technology blog with enormous readership, has an April Fools joke on its site today.

In it the blog offers readers a scenario where Google plans to acquire a secret uranium enrichment technology to fuel “small, mobile, and highly efficient nuclear reactors.”

The intent is to portray the mandarins in Mountainview as being sufficiently competitive relative to Bill Gates and his work on a new nuclear reactor that they are planning a similar technology development push.

The language of the blog post is suitably over-the-top, and so much so, that even an official of our acquaintance at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission pronounced it to be a hoax. Regardless, it is good, green fun. Enjoy.

Terrapower says no deal with Toshiba

deal_or_no_dealDespite a raft of trade press and mainstream media reports that Toshiba was shopping a deal with Terrapower, the nuclear energy R&D outfit funded by Bill Gates’ foundation, the firm now denies it.

In a press release, Terrapower says it has not entered into agreements with any companies to build or operate the Traveling Wave Reactor.

Nathan Myhrvold, founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures explained, “The TWR is in the research and development phase. These information-gathering meetings are part of our efforts to learn from existing technologies and the best engineering practices worldwide,” he said.

It looks like news about the company’s “information-gathering meetings” got too much spin. In my growing up days, we used to call that “gyroscopic instability caused by a low center of gravity.”

This blog questioned the basis for such a deal in a post earlier this week. It was pointed out there are significant differences between the design concept for the Traveling Wave Reactor and Toshiba’s sodium cooled design.

The problem with the denial from Intellectual Ventures is that the story made the Financial Times in London. The newspaper reported Bill Gates personally visited Toshiba’s R&D facilities in Yokohama, Japan, last November to learn about their work on small reactors.

For its part, Toshiba told the FT that the discussions were preliminary and have so far involved only an exchange of information.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nuclear news roundup for March 30, 2010

Horizon confirms plans for first new UK plant at Wylfa

Nuclear power plant construction - click for full size(NucNet) A joint venture company established by E.ON UK and RWE Npower plans to build its first UK nuclear plant near an existing nuclear site at Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey, north Wales.

Horizon Nuclear Power announced its plans March 30, saying the first unit could be commissioned as early as 2020.

The company also announced that the Wylfa application will be followed by an application for a second nuclear plant near another existing nuclear site, Oldbury-on-Severn in southwest England, once construction at Wylfa is under way. Each site is planned to have a capacity of up to 3,300 megawatts.

The company said it is continuing “formal discussions” with both Westinghouse and Areva, the two companies seeking licenses for their nuclear reactors in the UK, before selecting a preferred vendor at the end of the year for the first site.

The 50:50 joint venture between E.ON UK and RWE Npower was created in January 2009 and aims to develop around 6,000 MW of new nuclear capacity in the UK. Last year the company secured development land at Wylfa and Oldbury-on-Severn.

Its program of new nuclear power stations could involve more than 15 billion pounds (22 billion US dollars, 16 billion euro) in investment and create around 11,000 jobs.

Ten other sites expected to host reactors

Nine of the identified locations (map) by the Government have been previous homes to nuclear reactors, and the remaining two are close to the former Sellafield reactor site in Cumbria, according to the Times Online.

The list consists of Dungeness in Kent; Sizewell in Suffolk; Hartlepool in Cleveland; Wylfa Peninsula in Anglesey; Heysham in Lancashire; Oldbury in Gloucestershire; Bradwell in Essex; Hinkley Point in Somerset; and Sellafield, Braystones and Kirksanton in Cumbria. (Map: Financial Times Dec 11, 2009)

The Government plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to maintain Britain's ability to generate its own energy when existing nuclear and coal-fired stations are shut down.

The sites have been nominated by the energy companies EDF, E.ON and RWE, as well as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which owns some of the land, and have been initially approved by the Government. None is in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

Aluminum customer mothballed

Until September 2009 the existing nuclear plant at Wylfa provided electricity to a large aluminum plant run by Anglesey Aluminum. It produced up to 142,000 tonnes of aluminium every year and was the biggest single user of electricity (255 MW) in the U.K.

The plant received most of its electricity from Wylfa nuclear power station 15 miles away. The power contract terminated in 2009, and the aluminium smelting operation was shut down as no new contract was negotiated. Smelting operations have been halted and the plant mothballed until 2016.

Russia And IAEA sign agreement to establish nuclear fuel reserve

nuclear fuel assembly(NucNet) Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed an agreement March 29 to establish the world’s first reserve of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to ensure uninterrupted supplies for nuclear power reactors.

The reserve, which could amount to about 120 tonnes of LEU valued at roughly 250 million US dollars (185 million euro), will be held at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, southeast Siberia.

The agreement was signed by IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano and the director-general of Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation (Rosatom), Sergei Kiriyenko.

The project is aimed at providing all states with equal access to nuclear energy within the non-proliferation treaty. LEU is the key ingredient used to produce fuel for most commercial nuclear reactor units.

Countries would be able to ask for LEU from the reserve if their supply is interrupted. This is intended to discourage them from creating their own fuel resources.

The reserve’s establishment and maintenance is to be funded by Russia, including the costs of storage, safety, security and safeguards.

LEU from the reserve, which will be supplied to member states by the IAEA, would be provided at the prevailing market spot price, and the resulting proceeds would be used to replenish the reserve, the IAEA said.

Report on competitiveness of nuclear energy

(NucNet) Nuclear energy is a highly competitive option for the production of baseload electricity, a joint report released this week by the International Energy Agency and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency concludes.

The report ‘Projected Costs of Generating Electricity: 2010 Edition’, calculates the costs of baseload electricity generation for nuclear, fossil fuels and a range of renewable technologies.

Among the findings, the report says that with low financing costs “technologies such as nuclear are the most competitive solution” for baseload generation.

The report provides cost data from 21 countries and 190 power plants. It underlines that “nuclear delivers significant amounts of very low-carbon baseload electricity at stable costs over time”.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gates and Chu talk small reactors

How a billionaire and a Nobel Prize winner can come up with better ideas by putting their heads together

traveling waveBillionaire Bill Gates and DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu have something in common. Both are getting ink in the Wall Street Journal for their support of small reactors. Gates is supporting one through his foundation. It is development of the so-called “traveling wave” reactor which will be designed to run on depleted uranium fuel from commercial light water reactors. Chu writes in a March 23WSJ OP ED that his agency will invest $39 million in small reactor R&D in 2011 assuming Congress agrees to that plan.

An added bonus to the media excitement is that the WSJ reported March 22 that Toshiba has approached Gates about joint nuclear R&D for its sodium cooled, solid state “nuclear battery” which could come on the market in 50 and 100 MW sizes. The news report is odd because of the very dissimilar technologies being developed by the two firms. Neither firm was forthcoming to the WSJ about the mutual benefits of a partnership.

Missing the point for leverage

leverageAs much as I’m in support of development of technology in this market space, both men come across as missing the real points of leverage to achieve success. Like Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.”

First, Gates and his team at Terrapower must realize by now that the path to commercial success runs through the doors of a nondescript office building in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC which are portals to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Second, unless or until Gates can get the reactor design certified by the NRC, his project has a huge reality check facing it.

Second, DOE’s investment of $39 million in small reactor R&D is the wrong place to put the money. Taking point one above as the springboard, why not use the money to create a fund to pay the NRC to move up the learning curve on how to license small reactors instead of sticking it to the investors? NuScale, B&W, Hyperion and several other firms developing small reactors, including Toshiba, can see this option in a heartbeat.

Unless the regulatory bottleneck is removed, all the talk about small reactors remind me of pulp magazine articles about ways to turn waste fast food frying oil into gasoline for your car. The technology works, but it doesn’t scale because the inventory of feedstock is highly variable in quality and widely distributed in terms of geography. What you’ve got is the nuclear energy equivalent of a lot of backyard garage tinkers, but no technology roadmap for their segment of the industry that takes market factors and regulatory issues into account.

Two heads are better than one

two-trucks-for-oversize-loadThe breakthrough both Gates and Chu must have to achieve success is to reduce time to market. Surely Gates must know this. Why doesn’t someone put Gates and Chu in the same room so they can talk turkey? This meeting could create the pulling power needed to move the small reactor market segment ahead.

Gates might see some value talking to Toshiba, but he might get even more value talking to Chu about convincing Congress to change the NRC’s cost recovery rule for small reactors. Gates doesn’t need federal money to pursue his vision of a traveling wave reactor which means Chu has nothing to lose by talking to him.

Putting Bill Gates and Steven Chu in a congressional appropriation hearing room would snap a few heads to attention. It would generate a media storm of coverage about the funding needed to open a path through the NRC for all types of small reactor technologies. This is one of those times when two heads are better than one.

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Sheffield will forge a nuclear future for UK

imagePartnership with Westinghouse highlights practice of “we buy where we build.”

The U.K. government will loan Sheffield Forgemasters {L}80 million (US 122 million) to build a 15,000 tonne press and manufacturing center to supply very-large forgings needed to build nuclear reactors. The U.K. government has committed to fund and construct 11 new reactors by 2025.

Westinghouse U.K. CEO Mike Tynan said in a statement the firm will make a substantial contribution to construction of the facility though he declined to specify the exact amount. The Financial Times reported the level of investment to be in the range of “tens of millions” of pounds.

Tynan also said that the deal with Sheffield isn’t an exclusive arrangement and that other firms that want to build reactors in the U.K. are welcome to invest in the facility.

He said the action by Westinghouse was intended to “send a strong signal” to other firms planning to participate in the aggressive schedule set by the U.K. government for new reactors. The joint arrangement is also part of the marketing campaign by Westinghouse to build its AP1000 reactors in the U.K.

“This is a pinch point in the global supply chain. It is a huge commitment from Westinghouse, recognizing our faith in the UK supply chain. The fact that we are choosing to invest in a UK company sends a signal that the nuclear renaissance is happening and other companies should be looking to get involved.”

The investment of public and private funds in the Sheffield site is a major step forward for the U.K. nuclear industry. It will supply pressure vessels and steam generators that previously could only be obtained from Japan Steel Works. Orders have to be placed years ahead of the decision to actually build a reactor just to get a place in line for the components.

Reactor firms line up

sheffield forge photoGraham Honeywell, CEO of Sheffield, said the firm holds the ASME “N- Stamp” accreditation for components which will speed up the pace for producing new products. The largest forgings could be produced in as little as three years.

Areva could be among the first customers for the forgings with plans to complete the first 1,650 MW EPR reactors by 2017 and three more to be build with completion dates at 18-24 month intervals following the first.

The U.K. has plans for another six-to-seven reactors by 2025 which is where Westinghouse is seeking its market share. Tynan said the new press, “puts the plant at the heart of the U.K. nuclear supply chain.” His firm has placed orders for pump casings with Sheffield to install them in four new AP1000 reactors being built in China.

U.K. is one of five sites investing in large forgings

Lord MandelsonSpeaking for the U.K. government, Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, (left) told the Telegraph U.K., March 26 the decision to provide the loan to Sheffield was part of a strategy of developing the nuclear supply chain ahead of orders for new reactors. He stressed that other firms can invest in the facility. The government’s share of the {L}140 million cost is 57% and the remainder will be made up by other investors including Westinghouse.

World Nuclear News reported March 17 that other countries with plans to build large forgings facilities include Doosan in Korea, OMZ Izahora in Russia, two Indian firms – Bharat Heavy and Larsen & Toubro; and Shanghai Electric in China.

In the U.S. there are no plans on the immediate horizon to build a large forgings plants. However, Areva and Westinghouse are investing in nuclear component manufacturing centers in the U.S. which will also serve export markets.

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