Monday, December 19, 2011

Areva US CEO Jacques Besnainou talks with nuclear bloggers

Recent decisions by Luc Oursel on capital spending top the list of discussion issues

Jacques Besnainou
Jacques Besnainou, the CEO of U.S. Areva, based in Bethesda, MD, told a group of nuclear energy bloggers in an telephone conference call Dec 19 that the time line for getting the capital to begin the construction phase of the Eagle Rock Enrichment Plant in Idaho is late 2013 or 2014.

It is the first time the firm has put out a schedule ahead of its suspension of the construction phase. The project, which has an NRC license, was supposed to break ground in spring 2012.

Curtis Roberts, a spokesman for Areva, reconfirmed this statement in a follow-up phone call.

Robert Poyser, VP of Regional Affairs, said in a call, the time line is flexible.

"As soon as we can get financing for the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility, we would be able to start this project up and move forward. All the pre-construction and engineering design work are continuing at their current levels."

He noted that this time line is just for the Idaho project, and not for the firm's other capital construction funding commitments.

The suspension of the milestone set for 2012 of breaking ground was announced last week by Luc Oursel, Bensnainou's boss, in a briefing to investors in Paris, France.  Areva stopped capital construction on all of its uranium facilities, including four in France, as a result of Oursel's new strategic plan.

Besnainou echoed what industry experts have noted for some time and that is the project has a lot going for it.  In addition to the NRC license, the project has a conditional commitment for a $2 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, and it has forward sold contracts for uranium enrichment for 70% of the plant's capacity when built out to 3 million SWU/year.

Besnainou said that in the near-term Areva's financial situation is made difficult by the loss of markets in Japan and Germany.  Japan has shuttered 46 of its 54 operating nuclear reactors which puts a freeze on nuclear fuel and services contracts in that country.  Germany has closed eight of its 17 reactors and will close the rest by 2022.  Areva is expected to layoff several thousand workers in Germany.

Asked what has to change for Areva to move forward with the construction phase of the Eagle Rock uranium enrichment plant, he said, "Investors will want to know that once Areva starts building the plant that it will finish it."

The final cost of the plant will be close to $3 billion which means that while the loan guarantee brings in investors for the first two-thirds of the financing needed to build it, the remaining investors do not have the same protection.  A 4% contingency for cost overruns would amount to $120 million which would have to be covered by Areva to insure the last stage investors don't get the idea that's where their money would wind up.

The primary investor is Areva itself, but it may offer equity shares to partners which it has done with the George Besse II plant in France.  Besnainou said it is his understanding from the firm's strategic plan that it will return to self-financing of projects like the Idaho plant by 2014.

There are considerable competitive pressures bearing on Areva's decision.  In New Mexico, Urenco's operating enrichment plant already has a license modification from the NRC to double its capacity from 3 million to 6 million SWU/year. It may begin to expand and move up its target date of 2018 for that capacity if it sees Areva isn't going ahead with the Idaho site.

Status of reactor projects

In other news Besnainou said that Areva's two reactor construction projects in Taishan China are going well. He cited statistics showing that the firm will complete them with 60% fewer engineering hours and a completion time 50% faster than the EPR under construction in Finland.

He said lessons learned from that first-of-a-kind effort are being applied to the Chinese reactors.  Also, Besnainou revealed that Areva has opened negotiations with China to build two more EPRs at the same location.

The project in Finland is at 82% completion and the project at Flamanville in France is at 66% completion. Besnainou said he could not say with certainty whether the French government would actually authorize the start of work on a second new EPR in France.  Election politics in France for the voting to take place next May has already focused on the role of nuclear energy in the country's economy.

"I am not surprised by the push to drop reliance on nuclear power in France given what happened in Fukushima.  That debate will be part of the election process. I can assure you there is no threat of a tsunami in Europe."

Besnainou said that unlike the U.S., France's energy choices are much more limited and even an entirely new government might find it has less flexibility not more.  He added that Areva is not likely to be impacted by the problems in Europe with its common currency. He said that the firm, which is 85% owned by the French government, does not depend on the fate of the banking system in other countries in Europe.

Focus on spent fuel

Besnainou said Areva is encouraged by the draft report of the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission which promotes the concept of an off-the-books federal corporation to manage spent fuel. He said that this can lead to a focus on reprocessing technologies and eventually production of MOX fuel for U.S. reactors.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office that takes the Department of Energy to task for failure to provide technical leadership on spent fuel reprocessing may bring more focus to that part of the report Besnainou said.

Areva video

The firm has released a short-video which illustrates the progress at several of its EPR reactor construction sites.  Readers will be intrigued by how the EPR design has the RPV brought in after the containment is fully built. Apparently, the vessel internals are also installed in modular units after the vessel is put in place.  Watch the simultaneous rotation of the overhead crane, dual lifting points, and the incredible clearances of the pieces inside the structure.

These transitions are head-turning. The so-called "4D" modeling of the entire construction process is a remarkable achivement in explaining how a nuclear reactor is built from the ground up.

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Joffan said...

The 4D progress animations are indeed very impressive. The idea of posting the innards of the reactor through a hole in the side of containment after building construction... well, I guess it's both a brilliant use of the internal cranage and an acknowledgement that someday it may be necessary to take something major out - for which the same route can be used.

03boz said...

Dan do you believe Areva could be taking a back seat by postponing the Idaho project, and not the firm's other capital construction funding commitments.
They may be waiting to see if GE / Silex go ahead with there Laser enrichment plant.
Do you think they compete with a GLE plant?