Saturday, July 31, 2010

Areva under pressure

New delays reported at Flamanville. EDF seeks an equity position. The NRC has questions about digital instruments & controls for the EPR.

Pressure cooker

Areva’s engineers and executives may feel like they’re working inside a pressure cooker this month. Bloomberg and AFP wire services indicate the French government is calling for “urgent measures” to stem the tide of red ink flowing from a cost overrun for the Flamanville 1,650 MW EPR reactor of one billion euros ($1.3 billion).

The new cost estimate for the reactor is now reported to be [E]5 billion ($6.5 billion or about $4,000/Kw).

There is also a reported schedule delay from 2013 to 2015 for start-up of the new reactor.

This week former Electricite de France (EDF) CEO Francois Roussely published a report on the future of the French nuclear industry which said new reactors will have a better chance of success if they are smaller than the EPR. He also called for the EPR’s design to be “optimized” to make it easier to build the reactor. (Nuclear Engineering Int’l has a July 30 translation of the report)

Francois RousselyRoussley (left) sounded an alarm about cost overruns at the Finnish and French reactor projects.

“The credibility of both the EPR and the ability of the French nuclear industry to successfully build new reactors have been seriously undermined by difficulties at Finland’s Okliluoto site and Flamanville.”

The WSJ reported that Areva said in a statement it is applying lessons learned from its first two EPRs to two more it is building in China. The firm said it is reducing the engineering hours needed to complete the nuclear steam supply system for the Taishan 1 and 2 reactors.

EDF and Areva partnerships

UPI reported July 28 that French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde (right) called for a strategic partnership between Areva and EDF. One possible expression of the relationship will be for EDF to take an equity stake in Areva. Lagrande told UPI such a deal would be a good way for the two state-owned firms to work together especially in generating export income.

Christine Lagrarde“There must be a strategic partnership between Areva and EDF. It is necessary for exports. Our two big nuclear champions must get along.”

Roussley’s report was commissioned following the loss of Areva’s bid for the UAE’s $20 billion reactor program to South Korea. The current CEO of EDF Henri Prolio has a charge from French President Sarkozy to get the nation back to a strong position in terms of global market share for export of nuclear reactors.

anne-lauvergeon This political influence has reportedly not set will with Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon (left) who has resisted having EDF take an equity stake in the company. The WSJ said she may now bow to the inevitable sometime this Fall assuming EDF has the cash to make the buy.

The Wall Street Street Journal reported July 28 that EDF’s ability to invest in Areva could be constrained by its large debt. The WSJ also reported EDF’s profits fell by 47% in the first half of 2010.

Two other potential investors are Japan’s Mitsubishi and the sovereign wealth fund of the Arab state of Qatar.

Instruments get NRC review

The New York Times reported July 30 that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is conducting a design certification review of the EPR reactor, sent a letter to Areva raising questions about digital instrumentation and control systems. The NRC reportedly said it has concerns about the complexity of the computer systems.

According to the NRC’s Information Report to the agency’s five commissioners for July 2, 2010, the digital instrumentation and control issue isn’t being raised solely by U.S. regulators.

“On June 22-25, 2010, the [NRC] staff participated in a Multinational Design Evaluation Program (MDEP) meeting in Paris, France. The subject of this meeting was the common position papers which had been previously drafted and distributed to the MDEP members. Digital Instrumentation and Control issues regarding the AREVA Teleperm XS safety-related protection systems being proposed for the Evolutionary Power Reactors and for plant safety system retrofit designs were also discussed during the meetings. In attendance were representatives from the regulatory agencies of France (ASN/IRSN), Finland (STUK), Japan (NISA), Korea, Russia, and Canada.”

ball in court A July 22 letter ML101940253 from NRC’s Matthews to Areva cautions the reactor vendor that its proposed responses about the digital controls “may not meet NRC regulations for independence” between safety and non-safety systems.

The ball is now in Areva’s court to respond to the regulatory agency and to keep the reactor’s design review on schedule for completion by the end of 2011. Areva has said it plans to break ground for construction of a new US EPR at Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs III project in 2012. Ironically, that project involves a 49% stake in Constellation by EDF.

Prior coverage on this blog

# # #

Friday, July 30, 2010

12th Nuclear Carnival

What’s up with nuclear energy blogs

carnivalThis is the 12th publication of a weekly summary of what’s new on nuclear energy blogs. Each listing includes a title, a URL, and a brief summary. Please visit these blogs and let the publishers know what you think.

Yes Vermont Yankee

Meredith Angwin takes a few days off from swatting annoyances from the anti-nuclear crowd in Vermont to get back into her technical milieu. She attends a high temperature materials conference in Maine and reports on what she finds. Also, she shares a video on the Liquid Fluorine Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

Canadian Energy Issues

Steve Aplin asks if green groups are their own worst enemy when it comes to setting up carbon taxes. He writes that mainstream greens have long called for a price on carbon emissions while opposing nuclear energy. Are they to blame for the lack of progress in developing environmental policies that seek to reduce carbon?

Next Big Future

Brian Wang has two interesting reports. First, he writes that “stealth nuclear fusion company” Tri-alpha Energy has raised another $50 million.

Also, Brian won his bet to predict global uranium production in 2009. Now he offers some new predictions with a longer time frame. Check out his predictions for Kazakhstan uranium production for 2010 to 2015. And the new 2010, 2011 Kazakhstan uranium production bets with Dittmar.

Phronesisaical

Cheryl Rofer tackles the estimates in a report by the New York Times, and its source Robert Alvarez, about the amount of plutonium buried in nuclear wastes at Hanford. As Ricky Ricardo said famously to Lucy Ball, “Someone’s got some explaining to do.”

Atomic Insights

Is solar energy now cheaper than nuclear energy? I don’t think so and neither does Rod Adams who cautions readers not to be gullible over a report in the New York Times that relies on questionable data. Adams says the newspaper should have been more thorough in its fact checking before reporting on the study.

Nuclear Green

Charles Barton writes it is becoming increasingly likely that a small Generation IV nuclear plant will find its way onto the grounds of a coal fired power plant near you soon.

Brave New Climate

Barry Brook argues that the arguments against nuclear are hackneyed and wrong. Ironically, if climate change is the “inconvenient truth” facing our fossil fuel-dependent society, then the inconvenient solution staring right back is advanced nuclear power.

Nuke Power Talk

Gail Marcus repeats the deep truth there is no such thing as a free lunch. She says, “Those of us in the nuclear business figured out a long time ago that there is no such thing as a perfect energy source. While the risks and shortcomings of nuclear power seem to have gotten most of the press over the years, as other energy sources are being promoted more and more, the downsides of those sources are also beginning to emerge.”

NEI Nuclear Notes

The nuclear industry trade group reports Urenco’s uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, NM, is expanding its operations.

“On June 30, the plant received permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start a second cascade, which is a series of centrifuges that separate uranium to be used in nuclear power plants. The company hopes to get permission for a third within the next couple weeks.”

# # #

Thursday, July 29, 2010

NRC good intentions get mashed in potato land

Boise hearing on Areva’s uranium enrichment plant becomes target over time

potato-masherThe agenda released by the NRC for the August 9 Boise, ID, hearing on the draft environmental impact statement for Areva’s Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility includes a 25 minute block of time for the decidedly anti-nuclear Snake River Alliance (SRA). The SRA in its 30 year history has opposed all things nuclear in Idaho and, in the case of the enrichment plant, has vowed to drive it out of the state.

So it came as a surprise to Lane Allgood, head of the Idaho Falls-based Partnership for Science & Technology (PST), to learn that his group has a mere five minutes at the hearing held there on August 12. Allgood told this blog he plans to ask the NRC for equal time.

Allgood also thinks the NRC is not playing straight with eastern Idaho stakeholders. He told this blog:

“The NRC told us on at least four different occasions that they would only hold meetings in Idaho Falls. Now it appears they are bending over backwards to accommodate an anti-nuclear organization. The citizens of Bonneville County are the stakeholders in the project impact area! It is extremely important that we have a big turnout at the Idaho Falls meeting. “

Allgood isn't the only stakeholder wanting an explanation. Idaho State Rep. Erik Simpson sent a letter to the NRC asking about the Boise hearing.

What exactly is a public meeting?

nrc seal The NRC press release on the two hearings refers to the August 9 meeting in Boise as “the Aug. 9 meeting, with the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho-based environmental advocacy group, will be held at the Oxford Suites Boise Hotel, 1426 S. Entertainment Ave., in Boise, from 7-9:30 p.m.” It refers to the August 12 meeting in Idaho Falls event as a “public meeting.”

In an effort to get to the bottom of the issue, I spoke with David McIntyre, of NRC’s public affairs office. He didn’t address the issue of whether there was only to be a single hearing in Idaho. However, federal agencies often add venues to hearing schedules if there is interest. Undoubtedly, the SRA found a way to make sure NRC got the message there is “interest.”

However, NRC’s McIntyre denied that there is anything going on under the table with regard to the Boise hearing.

“The agency is making an extra effort to ensure that a wide variety of stakeholders have the opportunity to present their views, and any notions of ‘favoritism’ toward any particular group – whether anti-nuclear or the industry itself – is unfounded.”

Update 7/30/10 - Liz Woodruff, a spokesperson for the Snake River Alliance, said in a telephone interview the SRA got the NRC to change its mind by submitting 200 letters to the NRC. She added the Boise Mayor Dave Beiter also wrote to the NRC and asked for the hearing. Woodruff's boss, SRA director Andrea Shipley, said in a press release her organization commended the NRC for deciding to hold the Boise meeting.

Boise doesn’t get nuclear

Idaho Falls has a long history of standing up for nuclear energy projects. It is one of the nation’s few remaining ‘nuclear cities.” However, Boise, located some 300 miles to the West, has little appreciation for nuclear energy. Many there still consider the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to be a nuclear waste dump, rather than a nuclear energy R&D center, despite years of progress cleaning up its legacy from Cold War problems.

Allgood’s concern, and mine, is that the Snake River Alliance has a history of shaping content on its web site which leads readers to conclusions that don’t match the facts. In particular, the organization has raised nonproliferation issues regarding the enrichment plan which will produce material for commercial nuclear fuel at 3-5% U235. Weapons grade material is 80% or higher U235.

Another meeting and another media circus

media circusThis hasn’t been a good summer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Aside from the high level dance among elephants, and donkeys, over Yucca Mountain, the agency has taken a couple of slaps upside the head in the news media over some of its public outreach efforts.

Recently, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko got roundly criticized for holding a meeting exclusively with the employees of the Vermont Yankee reactor and earlier that day with anti-nuclear groups. Now the agency’s best intentions to give stakeholders time to air their views in Idaho has again landed it in hot water.

What’s the hub bub bud?

What’s missing in the debate over who gets what time at public meetings is that buried in the Federal Register notice for the Idaho Falls hearing is this note which says the NRC plans to issue the license to Areva for the plant.

“As discussed in the Draft EIS, the NRC staff preliminarily recommends that, unless safety issues mandate otherwise, the proposed license be issued.”

What that means at this late date is that unless the SRA has a rabbit to pull out of its hat at the August 9 meeting, in the end even 25 minutes of fame may not matter.

Prior coverage on this blog

Loan guarantees lose a round

Congress fails to add $9 billion in coverage

shipwreckThe effort by the Obama administration’s ship of state to provide federal loan guarantees to three more nuclear reactor projects hit the rocks this week. The House passed the Senate version of a supplemental appropriations bill which dropped them from the measure along with all other add-ons. The House vote was reported as 308-114. The funds in the bill will pay for growing U.S. defense needs in the war in Afghanistan.

The congressional action puts the Department of Energy in a perilous bind. It has three large projects on a short-list. It has enough authority to issue about $10 billion in loan guarantees which is likely to be enough for one project.

The three contenders are Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs III, NRG’s South Texas Project (STP), and Scana’s V.C. Summer site. Of the three, Constellation’s project is thought to have a political lead based on support by House Majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md). He’s been a strong supporter of the project. Southern's Vogtle plant signed off on the term sheet for its conditional commitment for a loan guarantee in June.

Engineering work on hold

stop signResponses from two of the three utilities indicates the lack of loan guarantees may delay their projects. The Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun reported that Constellation said it will reduce spending on Calvert Cliffs III until the loan guarantees come in.

Similarly, NRG said in a statement to the WSJ it has cut the engineering work at STP and for the same reason. Both utilities said they cannot continue to spend money on their projects without the certainty of the loan guarantees.

The Department of Energy (DOE) told the Baltimore Sun through a spokesman all three loan guarantees are still under review. No decision has been made which of the three, if any, will get loan guarantees.

A second chance in 2011?

Congress gets another chance to provide loan guarantees to new nuclear power plant projects in the 2011 appropriations bill. Assuming the DOE bill passes by Oct 1, there could be $25 billion in new loan guarantee authority available. However, it is an election year and Congress is just as likely to put the entire government on a continuing resolution that could last until late next winter.

fossil future The President's energy policies have sunk to a new low thanks to congressional inaction. Together with the loss of the climate change bill, the U.S. seems more committed than ever to continuing to be one of the world’s most prolific generators of harmful greenhouse gases from fossil power plants with no clear strategy in sight for change.

# # #

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Licensing small nuclear reactors

American Nuclear Society committee white papers are out

small reactorsA special committee of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) will publish this week a series of white papers on licensing issues for small modular reactors (SMRs).

The committee, which is composed of representatives from nearly 40 organizations, believes that fundamental changes are needed in licensing rules, processes, and procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Legislative changes may be needed as well.

Philip Moor, chair of the committee, told this blog in an exclusive interview the committee completed eight white papers which will be posted on the ANS website and widely distributed for information and comment.

The papers released this week cover the overall NRC licensing framework, the application and review process, and design and manufacturing issues. Moor delivered a presentation to a conference on small reactors on July 19 which described the committee’s work and its findings to date.

Moor told this blog the committee’s objectives are “to define the licensing problems and find solutions for any small reactor.”

“We’re technology-neutral,” Moor said. “Our focus is on the issues. We have a cross section of the SMR vendor community and the nuclear industry on the committee.”

Moor brings to the task over 30 years of experience in the power industry including a stint at General Public Utilities Nuclear where he was director of project management responsible for all capital expenditures.

The compelling case for change

change is sign of the timesWill the committee’s white papers have an impact? Moor and ANS past president Thomas Sanders met with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to discuss their work.

The ANS Committee white papers will be shared with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which has its own working group on small reactors, and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is developing a Utility Requirements Document for Small Reactors See also, separately, NEI's fact sheet on small reactors.

Why did ANS take on this task? Moor says the organization recognized “SMR’s potential for changing social and energy supply paradigms is compelling.”

The challenges for all small reactors, Moor said, "is that current NRC rules are incompatible with SMR designs.”

Solutions can include exemptions for designs of plants with less than 300 MW, changes to rules, and legislative changes by Congress. Moor emphasized that the ANS committee is looking for “generic issues” which sweep across the entire spectrum of small reactors.

Moor said in his briefing:

“The benefits of right-sized reactors include jobs, increases in U.S. goods and services, advancements in U.S. national security and energy policies, and impacts on climate change.”

Future white papers will cover control room issues such as staffing and layout, emergency planning, and multi-module licensing. Many of the papers will be done by the time ANS holds its winter meeting in Las Vegas, NV, this November.

For more information on the ANS SMR committee, contact Philip O. Moor PE, Vice President, High Bridge Associates, Philip.Moor@hba-inc.com

Is NRC paying attention to SMR issues?

william_ostendorff_NRCThe short answer is yes. The ANS white papers are making their way to the NRC via the NEI working group. Also, in a speech at the Platts Small Reactors Conference held June 28, new NRC Commissioner William C. Ostendorff (right) said three key SMR issues have his attention.

Note that he calls for well thought out and technically justified proposals from the industry to help the NRC address the licensing challenges for SMRs. He wants specifics. Here are a few highlights.

“The first example relates to control rooms. Some of the vendors are seeking changes in control room staffing levels, where one operator would handle up to three modules. While this may be a good business model, there are important technical and safety issues that need to be addressed before seeking to change the requirements in the regulations.

We also need to see the control room design and the interface with human factors considerations. We need to understand the accident scenarios that would require operator action and the timing of those actions; and, we need to understand the level of automation in the safety systems.

The second example relates to security. I found the idea that the NRC’s existing security requirements might be met by changes in the designs for SMRs intriguing. “Substituting concrete for guns and guards” is a catchy phrase. Changes in this area may indeed be possible, but we have to get to the specifics in order for our security experts to consider any potential changes to policy and requirements.

The third example is that of the Emergency Planning Zone size for SMRs. While the existing regulations permit a case-by-case assessment for some designs, the NRC staff is reviewing the technical basis for the existing requirements. Technically justified proposals from industry will go a long way towards supporting the staff’s review and any future Commission decisions in this area.

There were a number of other issues identified by the staff whose resolution will benefit by well-thought out proposals from the industry. Issues such as the licensing framework for multi-module facilities; application of defense-in-depth and probabilistic risk assessment (or PRA) in the design; and fee structure, insurance, and liability.”

So it seems that the ANS committee is on the right track with its white papers. Stay tuned. There’s a lot more to come.

Prior coverage on this blog

# # #

NRC hearing ~ Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility

August 12 Idaho Falls, ID 7:30-10:00 PM

nrc sealThe  U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff has completed "Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility in Bonneville County, Idaho” NUREG-1945

This is Areva’s uranium enrichment plant which is expected to be built on a site 18 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID.  When complete the plant will produce enriched uranium (3-5% U235) for use in manufacturing of fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.  A similar plant built by Urenco was licensed by the NRC, built, and started operations in Eunice, NM, in June 2010.

The NRC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Idaho plant includes an analysis of relevant environmental issues and documents the agency’s staff preliminary determinations regarding the environmental impacts from the construction, operation, and decommissioning of the proposed uranium enrichment facility. 

How to access the document

The Draft EIS is available for public inspection at the NRC Public Document Room or from the Publicly Available Records component of the NRC Agencywide Documents Access and Management System (ADAMS). 

ADAMS is accessible from the NRC website at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/adams.html, which provides access through the NRC’s Electronic Reading Room link.  The accession number in ADAMS for the Draft EIS document is:  ML101890384  

In addition, copies of the Draft EIS will be available at the Idaho Falls Public Library, 457 West Broadway, Idaho Falls, ID 83402.  Additional documents related to this application may be accessed on the AREVA Enrichment Services, LLC Gas Centrifuge Facility licensing website at http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/arevanc.html.

NRC’s Notice of Availability of the Draft EIS and public meeting was published in the Federal Register on July 21, 2010.  A separate notice of filing of the Draft EIS was placed in the Federal Register by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on July 23, 2010.

Where to send comments

Comments on the Draft EIS may be provided to the NRC during the comment period that ends on Monday, September 13, 2010.  Comments should be submitted by mail or email.

Mail

Chief, Rules, Announcements and Directives Branch,
Division of Administrative Services,
Office of Administration, Mailstop TWB-05-B01M
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001,

Email

Comments can be sent by e-mail to: EagleRock.EIS@nrc.gov   The report number [  NUREG-1945 ] should be specified in the subject line of any comments submitted.

Hearing date / time / location

The NRC staff plans to hold a public meeting to discuss the analysis and preliminary results of the Draft EIS on Thursday, August 12, 2010, at the Red Lion Hotel on the Falls Convention Center, Idaho Falls, 475 River Parkway, Idaho 83402 (map). The meeting will convene at 7:30 pm and will continue until 10:00 p.m. 

Agenda

The meeting will include the following agenda items:

  • a brief presentation of NRC’s roles and responsibilities and the licensing process,
  • a presentation summarizing the contents of the Draft EIS, and
  • an opportunity for interested government agencies, tribal governments, organizations, and individuals to provide oral and written comments on the Draft EIS.

Additionally, the NRC staff will host informal discussions in an open house forum one hour before the start of the meeting, during which members of the public may meet and talk with NRC staff members.

License recommended to be issued

As discussed in the Draft EIS, the NRC staff preliminarily recommends that, unless safety issues mandate otherwise, the proposed license be issued.

This preliminary recommendation is based on:

  • the environmental report and revisions and supplementary information submitted by AREVA Enrichment Services LLC;
  • the staff’s consideration of comments related to the environmental review that were received during the public scoping process;
  • consultation with Federal, Tribal, State, and local agencies;
  • the staff’s independent review; and (5) the assessments summarized in the Draft EIS.

If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact NRC’s Stephen Lemont, Senior Project Manager, by phone at 301-415-5163, or by e-mail at:  Stephen.Lemont@nrc.gov

# # #

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Germany’s love hate relationship with nuclear energy

Greens want to close them. Government wants to tax them.

myopiaIn 1998 the German government in a fit of political myopia agreed to a truly dumb plan to close its 17 nuclear reactors which provide about 25% of all the nation’s electricity.

The agreement was presented as a victory for green groups which promised renewable energy source like wind and solar, and energy efficiency, would provide the needed electricity.

Clearly visible to German’s political leadership was the issue of using natural gas from Russia to keep the lights on during long, cold northern European winters.

Bear on power lineIn 2005 former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder accepted a job as board chairman for a $4.7 billion, 745 mile long Russian-German gas pipeline that he promoted while in office. The energy security issue was brought home to Germany in winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine over a political dispute.

Since then current German Chancellor Angela Merkel has worked on reversing the decision to close the reactors. Part of the reason for her decision turns out to be the reactors’ status as fully depreciated cash cows. Merkel wants to tax their profits to soften the blow of her government’s austerity budget which involves [E]81 billion in program reductions.

What am I offered for 17 reactors?

On July 13 German wire services reported that the government doesn’t just want to tax the reactors, it wants to get them to pay for the right to stay open with an auction. It turns out the auction could bring in a lot more revenue than a straight forward tax on fuel rods. The government got the idea from auctioning wireless phone licenses in 2000 which raised a reported [E]50 billion.

An auction of nuclear power plant licenses might not bring nearly so much money but its still revenue. According to the author of the proposal, one Manuel Frondel who heads an economic think tank, the auction might raise [E]40 billion. The idea Frondel says is that the utilities are gaining windfalls taxes by being allowed to keep the reactors operating past the original 2020 deadline.

All this is speculative so far and sounds like Merkel’s minister ran the idea up a flagpole to see who would salute. Apparently, not many did so. Bloomberg wire service reported July 21 that Environmental Minister Norbert Roettgen (right) said the idea isn’t on the front burner right now. It could come back if solutions are found to some problems with the auction idea.

A key issue is who might buy the licenses. Russian state-sponsored energy companies might be able to outbid Germany’s private sector investors. This would put Germany back in the arms of the Russian bear. Also, the auctions could be too complicated or easily gamed by speculators. What happens if the Greens raise enough money to buy the licenses and then close the reactors?

Green groups blow a fuse

electronics_fuse_blownGreen groups were understandably upset by the plan which repositions the reactors as too valuable to shut down even leaving aside the issue of energy security. The Green Party told Der Speigel July 26 it will press for judicial action to stop Merkel’s plan to extend the lifetime of the 17 reactors beyond 2020.

Also, Green party leader Claudia Roth told the wire service recent elections in May in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia show Merkel’s coalition is losing political steam. Her political ally Sylvia Loehrmann, deputy premier, told the wire service the Green Party and the Social Democrats will “bitterly oppose” the reactor plan.

In response Environmental Minister Roettgen said nuclear energy was the only alternative open to Germany given the lack of alternatives to meet base load demand and the threat of carbon emissions from new fossil power plants.

# # #

South Africa still in pursuit of its nuclear future

Pebble Bed project is shut down. Future reactor investments up in the air.

PebblesThis is not a good time to be looking to invest in nuclear energy in South Africa. Eskom, the major utility that would buy them, backed out of a multi-reactor tender a few years ago because it lacked the money to pay for them.

Since then, with the global economic slowdown, things have not improved much. Investments are not forthcoming from international lending banks.

Worse for Eskom, its grand plant to populate the country with 165 MW Pebble Bed reactors has come to an end. PBMR, the firm doing the R&D to develop the technology, has shut its doors losing its CEO and laying off most of the staff earlier this year.

On July 5 Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan said in a speech at a mining conference there will be no further funding for the project. Hogan turned down a request for a rescue plan worth $36 million to keep the project limping along with reduced staff for a year. She said remaining funds will be used to secure the intellectual property resulting from the project.

The South African government has reportedly spent 5 billion SA Rand ($671 million) on the Pebble Bed project since 1994 including half that amount on a demonstration plant. A reactor pressure vessel bought for the project from a Spanish vendor was never delivered because PBMR could not pay the transportation costs.

Miners still want reactors

miningSouth Africa’s mining industry has felt the brunt of power shortages which have caused intermittent production shutdowns. The miners are furious that the government’s money has been spent and there are no new reactors to give them the electricity they need to stay open.

Union mining secretary Frans Baleni told a South African newspaper July 19 the frequent changes in PBMR’s design virtually assured the plant would not get built. He called for an investigation of “unethical practices and corruption.”

Wind contends with nuclear for market share

wind farmWhile the finger pointing continued over PBMR, the future of energy demand and electricity generation looked less clear as a result of conflicts between developers of wind energy and nuclear reactors. At an energy conference, Mark Tantopn, head of the South African Wind Energy Association said July 25 it could boost Eskom’s renewable portfolio and supply 25% of the utility’s electricity by 2030.

However, Ayanda Nyoli, head of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, told attendees wind energy can’t meet demands for base load power. He added that while reactors are more expensive to build than new coal plants, “they are cheaper to run as base load power than coal.”

Environmental groups attending the meeting scoffed at the claims for nuclear energy. Saliem Fakir, head of the World Wildlife Fund in South Africa, said the cost over runs at PBMR mean “the nuclear renaissance has worn off.”

SA will try again to buy light water reactors

This judgment may be premature. South Africa’s government has not yet finished with plans for the number of nuclear reactors it wants to build, but expects an initial go-ahead from the cabinet for new units by the end of September 2010, the country’s energy minister has told NucNet July 15.

Dipuo Peters said: “There will be an initial decision by the cabinet which should be made by September this year and that decision will be ‘yes’ to nuclear.”

Speaking to NucNet at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in Cape Town July 15, Ms Peters said South Africa is likely to call for feasibility studies later this year. These feasibility studies would then lead to an investor conference with “all the major international role-players”.

South Africa has considered renewables as part of its energy plan and is already investing in solar power and wind power. “But we know these are elements that we cannot really rely on,” Ms Peters said. “For security of supply purposes, we need baseload supply that would almost equal that produced by coal or be even bigger than coal, so that is why we are looking at nuclear.”

South Africa’s only nuclear plant is Koeberg, which has two PWR reactors in commercial operation.

Earlier this year the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) said the country needed “a complex and coordinated” set of responses to the challenge of its future energy requirements, with nuclear energy playing a key role.

# # #

Sunday, July 25, 2010

China's big bet on fast reactors

Russian designs built with help from France could be in commercial use by 2025

Over at Next Big Future blogger Brian Wang has a compelling graphic on the technology for China's fast reactors. It is a good springboard to a review of recent developments. China is already the world's most ambitious developer of commercial nuclear power stations for production of electricity to be used by commercial and residential markets. It plans to boost its capabilities over the next several decades from 9 GWe to 70 GWE or an eight-fold increase.

At the present time, and according to official announcements from Chinese state media and utilities, all of these new reactors are planned to be light water designs similar to the Westinghouse AP1000. However, a review of recent reports in western mainstream and nuclear industry trade news media indicate China is making serious investments in fast reactors.

A definition of a "fast reactor" provided by the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) explains to readers that they don't use water to "moderate" the flow of neutrons to maintain a steady chain reaction.

"In a fast reactor, however, enough plutonium can be produced and fissioned to more than make up for the uranium-235 used. In addition, many of the long-lived actinides that cannot be fissioned in a thermal reactor can be burned in a fast reactor, so the fast reactor is capable of destroying the major source of long-lived radiotoxicity in spent fuel. Thus, the fast reactor can create new fuel and destroy long-lived nuclear waste and plutonium while it produces electricity."

In the U.S. work on the Integral Fast Reactor at Argonne National Laboratory's Idaho location was canceled during the Clinton Administration. Several commercial efforts to develop sodium-cooled fast reactors are now underway in the U.S. They include GE-Hitachi's PRISM reactor and a small reactor design from Advanced Reactor Concepts which includes some of the senior technical team members from the ANL-West project.

Roundup of recent developments in China's fast reactor program


*** The Denki Shimbun, a English language Japanese news service, reported July 13 that China plans to drive the development of its fast reactor program to produce new units in the power range of 1,000-1,500 MW by 2020. China is currently scrambling to secure supplies of uranium on world markets. While supplies are robust now, in another decade, the price may increase due to demand from other new reactors coming online in Asia and the West. The news service said China's leadership realizes that it has no domestic uranium mines which is an impetus to develop the fast reactors.

*** World Nuclear News (WNN) reported July 22 that China has achieved criticality at its first fast neutron reactor. According to WNN the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) will reach a thermal capacity of 60 MW and produce 20 MW of electric power. Developed by the China Institute of Atomic Energy, (CIEA), it is the first sodium-cooled fast reactor in China. The reactor was reportedly built by several Russian entities including OKBM Afrikantov, OKB Gidropress, NIKIET, and the Kurchatov Institute.

WNN also reported that China has set aside plans for a 600 MW indigenous design in favor of buying two BN-800 reactors from Russia. The project is said to plan to break ground at a coastal site in August 2011. A bilateral program on fuel cycles for fast reactors is planned as a parallel effort.

On April 30 WNN reported that a joint venture company had been officially established for construction of the commercial version of the fast reactor to be located near Sanming City in Fujian province. The members of the joint venture include China National Nuclear Corp., which owns the majority stake in the project, Fujian Investment & Development Corp., and the municipal government of Sanming City.

*** Bloomberg Wire service reported May 18 that Liu Jing, Deputy Director of China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) said in an interview China is in talks with Russia and France to build the fast reactor. Electricite de France is reported to have signed an agreement for nuclear cooperation with CNNC and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group.

In an update May 19 Bloomberg wire service reported that Zu Mi, Chief Engineer at CIEA said in an interview the fast reactors are being developed because of "their noticeable advantage" in the use of uranium.

However, Bloomberg also cited a statement from Martin Wang, an energy analyst at Guotai Junan, based on Hong Kong, who said it will take China "some time" to develop its fast reactors for commercial use.

That view was countered by one from Steve Kidd, head of strategy at the World Nuclear Association, who told Bloomberg the technology could be in commercial use by 2025.

"If China is doing 10 PWRs a year, there is a big economic inventive to so something better. The technology could come earlier than people think."

* * * The Chinese Xinhua news service reported July 21 that Zhang Donghui, the director of CEFR project, said in an interview the project is relying on pyroprocessing to separate actinides from recyclable elements of irradiated fuel from light water reactors. The process is well understood in the U.S.
Overall, China is placing multiple bets on nuclear energy placing it far ahead of its counterparts in the U.S. and UK.

Prior coverage on this blog
# # #