Friday, September 10, 2010

Hyperion to build small modular reactor at Savannah River

The project is a partnership between a Department of Energy national laboratory and an entrepreneurial start-up financed with venture capital

Hyperion_Modular_Reactor2 Small modular reactor (SMR) start-up vendor Hyperion Power Generation has agreed to build a prototype mini-nuclear reactor at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory Platts reported Sept 9. (See also WJBF TV video report)

The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to build the first demonstration reactor at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. It represents a huge leap forward for Hyperion. Until this announcement, some in the nuclear industry held a skeptical view of its prospects for success.

The Aiken, SC, Standard reported that Garry Flowers, president and chief executive office of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said SRS is the ideal place to develop and demonstrate the technology.

"This is one of the first in a series of steps that can put this region in an active role toward transforming America's energy future," Flowers said. "Small and modular reactors can become the primary base of new, clean power for the world."

John R. Deal, chief executive officer and co-founder of Hyperion, said, “First, though, we have to show how and where it can work, and the Savannah River Site is an excellent demonstration site."

Hyperion is developing a 25-MW fast reactor that uses uranium nitride fuel and lead bismuth (liquid metal) coolant. SRS officials hope to use the reactor to produce hydrogen which in turn will be used to make biofuels. Other applications include reliable power for military bases.

Cost estimate to be determined

raising_capitalThe Augusta Chronicle reported that Mike Navetta, manager of energy park initiatives for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said officials hope to have the reactor built and operational by 2020. He estimated the cost at $100-150 million most of which would be raised from private investors. It isn't clear whether the unit to be built at SRS would be a prototype or a working commercial version of the reactor.

However, Deborah Blackwell, a spokesperson for Hyperion, told Platts the Hyperion prototype will cost just $50 million or $2,000/Kw. She also said the money would be raised from investors and not come from the government. She told Plats that she is "confident" the company will secure the funding, but declined to give Platts more details.

Navetta told the Augusta Chronicle a larger reactor would $1 billion He said cost savings will be realized because of existing materials and facilities at Savannah River Site.

SRS to be demonstration site for multiple SMRs?

rose colored glassesIs SRS looking at the future of SMRs through rose colored glasses? Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is reportedly talking with five or six other companies about building prototypes at the complex. The plan is for manufacturers of small reactors to come there and prove their technologies actually work. No one from SRS said anything about federal money being used to pay for construction of the prototypes or the testing process.

With regard to Hyperion’s project, Pete Knollmeyer, vice president for strategic planning at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said at the press conference, the design and licensing processes will take several years each and construction could take an additional three to four years.

This is an optimistic outlook. Hyperion hasn’t yet submitted its reactor design to the NRC for a safety review. The firm would have to clear that hurdle and also get a license from the regulatory agency to build a reactor at SRS or anywhere else.

The NRC is working to come up the learning curve on how to license SMRs that are not based on mature light water reactor (LWR) designs. By its own assessment, the agency still has a way to go to be able to do it. There are a raft of licensing issues it has to work through.

The NRC is getting lots of advice from the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Nuclear Society. The dialog between the agency and the industry is described by one expert as “a kabuki dance” with all the intricacies that come with this idiomatic metaphor.

On the other hand, Hyperion’s test stand at SRS could help push the reactor vendor to the head of the line for safety review and licensing. The reason is that with a visible prototype project, it could be the first fast reactor SMR to attract paying customers. This is always a litmus test for the NRC. Hyperion has a chance to pass it if it can raise investor funds for the SRS project.

Idaho lab has much bigger fish to fry

flounderDOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is developed a 300 MW high temperature gas cooled fast SMR called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. It is expected to start construction by the end of this decade.

While no financing plan has been announced for the Idaho project, one plausible scenario is for the first unit to be built, in a cost sharing agreement with the government, at a customer site to supply process heat for the petrochemical industry. At $4,500/Kw, a 300 MW plant could cost $1.35 billion.

In the current deficit reduction climate for federal spending, crtiics say funding for a project of this size will take some real heavy lifting. Capital commitments of this kind take years to develop so it doesn't make sense to discount the Idaho project based on current economic conditions. Having an industry partner as a customer could make a difference.

Update September 13, 2010

There's been some comment about exactly what would be the licensing path forward for the Hyperion reactor if built as a prototype at SRS. Nuclear Engineering Int'l, a UK trade pub, dug into the issue and has this report. Here's the take away quote.

Scott Burnell, public affairs officer at the NRC has previously told NEI that the Agency has authority regarding licensing of civilian reactors.

“Unless DOE declares something to be a research facility, or unless the executive branch declares something to be a military use, the NRC has overall authority regarding nuclear reactors. A vendor cannot unilaterally claim either of those exemptions, and neither exemption would confer any benefit in an NRC licensing review.”

Prior coverage on this blog

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

South Korea's drive for reprocessing gets U.S. attention

Seoul wants to know why it is treated differently than India

annoyedNegotiations between the United States and South Korea over spent nuclear fuel reprocessing set to begin in October will get high visibility a month later when the G20 meeting takes place in Seoul on November 11 and 12.

South Korea wants the U.S. to change a 1974 agreement that prohibits it from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel or building uranium enrichment plants.

The U.S. is wary of making the change because it believes a future South Korean government might want to build a nuclear weapons deterrent against its hostile neighbor to the north. Instead, U.S. negotiators have offered the idea of having South Korea's spent fuel reprocessed by Japan or France, which already do this kind of work.

South Korea is also officially annoyed that the U.S. signed off last March on an agreement with India to allow it to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, and import U.S. nuclear technologies, but has not done the same for Seoul.

Read all about it exclusively at the new blog of the American Nuclear Society.

ANS Nuclear Cafe

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TVA explores path to use MOX fuel in two reactors

Signs of progress are mixed with public questions, some legitimate, some not

mox fuelThe Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) could sometime after 2016 begin burning a portion of 34 tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium in two of its reactors. Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) that is expected to be produced at a fuel fabrication center being built by Shaw Areva MOX Services at Savannah River, SC, will be offered for sale by the Department of Energy (DOE) to TVA and to other commercial nuclear utilities. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), up to 40% of a reactor core could use MOX fuel. (See also the World Nuclear Association briefing on MOX fuel)

It’s a long path to a decision by TVA to use MOX fuel. First, the Department of Energy has to build the production plant and get an NRC license to produce the fuel. Second, TVA has to conduct tests to make sure there are no problems and that the fuel will be cost effective.

The utility would have to modify the licenses of the Sequoyah reactor in Tennessee and the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama to use it. TVA expects buying MOX from the Savannah River plant will be cheaper than buying other fuel.

While no reactors in the U.S. burn MOX fuel, almost three dozen reactors elsewhere have used it for the past two decades. Japan is rapidly expanding the use of MOX fuel for its commercial reactors. MOX in Japan is manufactured by blending uranium with plutonium from spent nuclear fuel from its commercial reactors. The fuel is fabricated by Areva at its LaHague facility in France. World Nuclear News reported that Japan started using MOX fuel in November 2009.

UCS again attacks MOX fuel

e_lymanCritics of TVA’s test plan for MOX fuel call it “dirty, dangerous, and expensive.” That’s what Ed Lyman, (right) from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said at a public meeting held in Tanner, Ala., in early August. UCS is opposed to the production of MOX fuel and its use in U.S. commercial reactors.

Last November UCS and Friends of the Earth (FOE) issued deceptive statements about a test of MOX fuel which took place at a commercial reactor operated by Duke Energy. It comes as no surprise that UCS is now attempting to use the same deceptive statements that the Duke test was a “failure” to oppose tests of MOX fuel by TVA. UCS is attempting to use its prior misstatements about the Duke MOX fuel test to convince the public TVA should not go forward with its own.

Lyman’s comments were picked up and used extensively by an opinion piece by columnist John Gibson published in the Tennessean Aug 18. After quoting Lyman at length, the article called the plan to test MOX fuel in two reactors “a tricky sell.” The piece gets some of the facts about the Duke test right, but in the end comes out against TVA’s plan to test MOX fuel in its reactors.

DOE and Duke statements on MOX fuel test

icebergLast November the Department of Energy and Duke Energy, two normally conservative organizations, especially when it comes to public statements, contacted the news media to repudiate comments by FOE and mirrored by UCS, about the Duke MOX fuel test.

The statements by FOE and UCS that the Duke MOX fuel tests were a “failure” are like icebergs. They tell one part, their story, which is visible above the water. What they don’t tell you is that another seven parts, of facts, are also part of the picture.

According to a media report in the Charleston Regional Business Journal Nov 13, 2009; Duke Power issued a statement that the decision not to reload the MOX fuel has nothing to do with success or failure of the testing program.

Instead, the utility said the fuel has been sent to Oak Ridge for testing and that the remainder of the fuel outage for the Catawba reactor is on schedule. Duke Energy spokesperson Rita Sipe told the Journal the evaluation of the fuel at a lab in Tennessee is part of the project.

“For us nothing has really changed. The technical evaluation of the fuel rods was part of the lead assembly program. We have expressed interest in a new proposal [for use of MOX fuel] and we are still supportive of the program”

NNSA spokesperson Jennifer Wagner said in an email to this blog . . .

“The news release issued today by Friends of the Earth is inaccurate and draws incorrect conclusions about the performance of the MOX lead test assemblies.” [additional details here]

NNSA explains nonproliferation goals

KenBakerSpeaking this past August at the same meeting as Ed Lyman, Ken Baker, (right) deputy administrator at DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the tests at the two TVA reactors are an “important step” in evaluating the potential use of the fuel.

Also, he pointed out burning the weapons grade plutonium, as MOX fuel, serves important nonproliferation goals. It gets the weapons grade material out of circulation forever. (NNSA MOX fuel fact sheet)

TVA and Shaw Areva MOX Services signed an agreement in July 2009 to test and evaluate the use of MOX fuel. The MOX fuel will be a mix of 95% uranium and 5 % plutonium. NNSA’s 600,000 sq ft. MOX plant in South Carolina is being built as part of an agreement with Russia for the U.S. to turn 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium, enough for 8,500 warheads, into commercial fuel to generate electricity. Russia will also convert 34 metric tonnes of weapons grade plutonium into MOX fuel. It is the ultimate expression by the two nations of Isaiah's biblical call for turning “swords into ploughshares.”

NRC issues draft safety evaluation report for MOX plant

Plutonium_pellet The NRC announced Aug 25 it has published its draft Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the license application by Shaw AREVA MOX Services for the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

“The report contains the staff’s conclusion that the applicant’s descriptions, specifications, commitments and analyses provide an adequate basis for safety and safeguards of facility operations, and that operation of the facility would not pose an undue risk to worker and public health and safety. “

The NRC issued a Construction Authorization for the facility in March 2005, and construction is underway at the site. The plant is expected to begin operations in 2016.

The NRC report, which has been redacted to remove security related and proprietary information, documents the NRC staff’s technical safety review of MOX Services’ operating license application for the facility. It does not represent a decision to issue the license. That stage is expected to be several years away.

The draft SER reviews the applicant’s financial qualifications, plans for protection of classified matter, organization and administration, integrated safety analysis, nuclear criticality safety, fire protection, chemical safety, radiation safety, environmental protection and plant systems.

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Merkel agrees to nuclear plant life extension

German coalition agrees on future for Germany’s 17 nuclear plants

AngelemerkelAngela Merkel’s coalition government has finally agreed, after a two-year struggle, to a two-tier extension of the life spans of German nuclear power plants. The government plan now lays the groundwork for the country’s future energy policy set to be released as a policy document by the end of September.

The immediate outcome is that Germany's 17 nuclear reactors will run 8-14 years longer than the 2020 deadline set by a prior government strongly influenced by the Green Party.

The environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, who opposes longer terms for the nuclear reactors, said after the meeting that the life spans of Germany's nuclear power stations would be extended by 12 years on average.

However, true to his views, he also said the decision might trigger a legal and political backlash. The agreement must now pass in the lower house of the German parliament. Opponents will try to bottle it up there or seek judicial review.

The agreement means:

  • The effective lifetime of older nuclear units, built before 1980, will be extended from by eight years from 32 years to 40 years total lifecycle.
  • The effective lifetime of newer nuclear units will be extended from by 14 years from 32 years to 46 years total life cycle.

Read the complete details exclusively at CoolHandNuke, a nuclear jobs web portal and a whole lot more. 


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