GE-Hitachi to Offer 300 MW SMR

geh hqDesign work is underway to downsize the 1500 MW ESBWR to a 300 MW model to be called the BWRX300.

As yet no date has been set for submitting it for design safety review at the NRC.

(Update 5/20/18) Dominion to provide funding for development of the BWRX300

GE-Hitachi (GEH) is focusing its design work on getting the cost of the reactor down from the levels associated with full size reactors like the ESBWR.  Using a global average of $5,000/KW, the 300 MW unit would cost $1.5 billion.  The company’s goal is to reduce the cost of the SMR to the point where it can compete with natural gas plants.

Representatives of the company, told a Wilmington, NC, newspaper in April, that it plans to eventually offer a 300 MW small modular reactor at a highly competitive price tag of $700M or $2250/Kw.  That price would be achieved once volume production was taking place a company representative said.

A presentation to a nuclear trade conference in April cited a cost of “60% lower than the ESBWR.”  A 1500 MW ESBWR unit at $5000/KW would cost would cost $7.5 billion. A 60% lower price would be $3 billion.

Given the distance between the promoted price of $700 million and “a 60% cost savings,” it may be that some clarification is needed by the firm on it statements about pricing. Also, it’s not possible to confirm that either the newspaper or the trade show reports got their numbers right.

According to a report by Nuclear Energy Insider, “NuScale has estimated an overnight capital cost of is 50 MW SMR at $5,078/kWe for its first plant and targets a Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) at around $65/MWh. This LCOE estimate takes into account DOE support funding, cost of capital associated with municipality customers, and tax support including production tax credits (PTCs).”

Using the NuScale number for a 300 MW reactor, the cost would come in at $1.52 billion. Some of this is an apples v. oranges comparison since the price differences need to take into account design factors such as steam generation equipment and size of the unit.  Nuclear Energy Insider did not report a LCOE for the GE-Hitachi unit.

eric loewen

Eric Loewen, GE-Hitachi

At the trade conference Eric Loewen, (right) speaking for GE Hitachi, said further price reductions for the BWRX300 would be possible once the firm had a large number of orders.

“Once you start having numbers greater than 10, then you have different conversations with your suppliers,” he said.

The last time any nuclear utility and vendor offered a price to build new nuclear power plants at a cost approaching that number was in 2007 when NRG promoted its twin ABWRs for the South Texas Project Units 3 & 4 at $2700/KW.  Even at that price NRG could not attract investors from Texas municipal power systems.

In particular, the City of San Antonio, TX, spooked by the prospects of cost overruns and resulting rate increases, walked away from a commitment to the project. In Austin, TX, the effort led by an anti-nuclear chief of the municipal electric utility, was the final blow to the project.

According to the presentation summary posted by Nuclear Energy Insider, cost savings factors for the GEH 300 MW SMR include the cooling system which will rely on natural circulation systems and passive safety systems. The light water reactor design would sit in an underground silo [containment] at a customer site.

GE Hitachi also is promoting a much smaller staffing profile for the 300 MW SMR. It told Nuclear Energy Insider that it would take just 75 people to run the reactor.  Using an industry average of 0.7 full time equivalent (FTE) per 1MW, a 300 MW unit would require 210 FTE.  A staff of 75 FTE would be a nearly two-thirds’ reduction in labor and related O&M costs.

So far the firm has not published a public facing web page with additional technical information about the 300 MW SMR. As for a licensing path forward, GEH says the work it has done on the ESBWR will facilitate it. Scaling a reactor up in size like Westinghouse did from 600 MW to the 1150 MW of the AP1000 meant that everything got bigger. In this case, everything will get smaller.  Components will change, and so will suppliers, with changes of this magnitude.

The GEH design at 300 MW is one of the largest announced as being under development in the U.S.  Previous efforts by other firms to develop SMRs of this size have included the BWXT mPower SMR which has a design that includes two 180 MW reactors at a single installation. After ending joint design and licensing effort with TVA,  BWXT briefly partnered with Bechtel to develop a US market, but it ended that deal in March 2017.

Westinghouse was at one time developing a 225 MW SMR but ended its efforts in early 2014 due to the lack of  customers in the U.S.  In September 2017 Westinghouse said it was working to develop its SMR for the UK market. The firm has a nuclear fuel fabrication facility in Lancanshire which would support this effort.

The 330 MW GEH PRISM is not considered to be an SMR both due to its size, and its specialized nature which is to burn surplus plutonium (PU-239).  GEH has been talking to the UK’s National Decommissioning Authority to develop an opportunity to use it there. In June 2017 GEH said it would seek an NRC Part 50 license for the PRISM reactor.

Other GE-Hitachi Work on SMRs

SMR-160 – Last February GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), Holtec International and SMR Inventec, LLC (SMR, LLC),  announced a collaboration to advance the development of the SMR-160, a single loop, 160 MWe pressurized light water reactor based on existing light water technologies. (Technical briefing – PDF file)

The cooperation will initially focus on nuclear fuel development supported by GNF and control rod drive mechanisms designed by GEH, and may later extend to other areas. Holtec plans to design, license, commercialize, deploy and service the SMR globally.

ARC-100 – In September 2017 GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and Advanced Reactor Concepts (ARC) have signed an agreement for ARC to license technology from GEH’s Prism advanced reactor design as part of their joint effort to develop and deploy a sodium fast reactor in Canada.  The US-based companies said in a joint statement that GEH has also agreed to provide ARC access to nuclear infrastructure programs related to quality, safety culture, training, processes, procedures and tools.

In addition, GEH said it will make an “in-kind contribution” to ARC through its agreement to provide engineering and design expertise.

The companies previously announced in March 2017 that they would collaborate on the ARC-100 design with initial deployment in Canada. They have begun work on a preliminary regulatory review of the ARC-100 by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

A joint GEH-ARC engineering team is working to advance the ARC-100 design. GEH and ARC have each developed advanced reactor designs based on the EBR-II, an integral sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype which was developed by Argonne National Laboratory and operated for more than 30 years at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Update 5/20/18:   Dominion Provides Funding
For GEH Small Modular Reactor Project

(NucNet) GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH)  announced 5/20/18 that Dominion Energy will provide funding for the project to develop and commercialize the BWRX-300, a 300-MW small modular reactor design being developed by GEH.

GEH said Dominion Energy’s funding provides seed money for work that could lead to commercialising the BWRX-300. GEH did not say how much funding Dominion had agreed to provide.

“We believe that nuclear power has a vital role in ensuring a clean, reliable, and cost-effective supply of electricity to meet the needs of a growing economy,” said Dan Stoddard, Dominion Energy’s chief nuclear officer.

“We also believe the innovations GE Hitachi is pursuing with the BWRX-300 SMR have the potential to make it a strong competitor in the marketplace.

“Our view is that a modest investment now to support further development of this technology is in the interest of both companies.”

Dominion Energy said it has “no plan at this time” to build a BWRX-300 at any of its commercial nuclear stations. Dominion Energy operates a total of six nuclear units at the Millstone, North Anna and Surry nuclear stations. It has received a license from the NRC for the North Anna III unit, but has not moved forward with plans to build it. Significantly, the reference design for the COL is a full size GEH ESBWR.

GEH said the BWRX-300 makes use of the design and licensing basis of the ESBWR. (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor), which has been certified by the US regulator. GEH believes the BWRX-300 will require up to 60% less capital cost per MW when compared to other water-cooled SMRs or existing large nuclear designs.

Dominion’s move is the latest in a series of U.S. utilities signing on for the next generation of nuclear reactor designs.  UAMPS has made a commitment to be a customer for the FOAK NuScale 50 MW SMR.

Separately, Southern has inked a development agreement with X-Energy to develop a pebble bed HTGR. Southern also has a development agreement with GEH to work on the PRISM reactors design.

France Considers Developing
Small Modular Reactors

(Reuters) The French nuclear industry is considering developing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). In addition to achieving technical excellence, EDF-owned Framatome, formerly called Areva, told the wire service a key focus is on cost.  It is conducting design work on small 150-to-170-MW reactors with state nuclear agency CEA.

Reuters reported that Xavier Ursat, EDF’s head of new nuclear, said at an innovation seminar organized by French nuclear industry lobby SFEN, “In France we have always preferred big-capacity reactors … but we need to also consider smaller models.”

CEA head of nuclear energy François Gauché said the agency said the current design phase will address technical and financial feasibility of SMRs over the next 18 months.


Philippe Knoche, chief executive of French nuclear fuel group Orano, said factory production – as opposed to construction on-site for big reactors – could lower the cost of SMRs, making them competitive if manufacturers built dozens.

This number, “dozens,” is much larger than some estimates that significant cost savings could be achieved after production of as few as 10 units.

Rolls-Royce, which is developing a SMR for sale in the UK and for export, has said the number of units needed could be as high as 40 which more or less matches the French estimate of “dozens.”

Jordan Expands the Search for a Suitable HTGR

After inking an agreement with X-Energy last November to look at the potential deployment of X-energy’s Xe-100 high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed modular reactor in Jordan, that country has also opened talks with China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) to investigate the potential for a 210 MW HTGR which also uses a pebble bed design. Note that the power rating for the Chinese design has also been reported to be 220 MW and 250 MW.

According to a financial wire service report, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) is holding talks with CNNC for a first of a kind unit that could cost $1 billion. If ground were to be broken next year, the agency said the power station could be in revenue service as early as 2025.

China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) completed the installation of its high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) project in November 2017.  Work began in 2012.


Concept Drawing of an High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor.  Image courtesy of World Nuclear Association

The reactor uses helium as a coolant instead of water. After the helium is heated to 750C (1,382F), it is sent to a steam generator where it heats water until it becomes high-temperature steam.

SNPTC’s design, which consists of two high-temperature reactor pebble-bed modules that drive a single turbine to produce 210 MW, is located in Shandong province. The units are expected to go into commercial operation this year.

According to the wire service report, Khaled Toukan, head of the JAEC, said the HTGR,  could also be used for water desalinization, for process heat, and would be abl to service oil refineries and related chemical industries.

In the water short country, nuclear reactors that use helium for cooling and heat transfer, would be at a competitive advantage over conventional PWRs. This may be another reason, in addition to costs, that Jordan has not moved forward with a plan to acquire two 1000 MW VVER from Rosatom.

In the Middle East so far all plans for HTGRs, in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are for coastal sites. Sea water in a third loop will be used to cool the secondary closed loop steam exhaust from the turbines to return the water to the steam generator. Also, with a co-located desalinization plant, the reactor can supply the fresh water for is own steam system.

In May 2017 Saudi Arabia and China held their first meeting to discuss the feasibility of constructing high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs).

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New Book on the Future of Nuclear Power in China

  • atom1_thumb.pngNuclear energy expert Mark Hibbs has published a new book which gives a comprehensive view of China’s efforts to develop its commercial nuclear energy program including work on light water and advanced reactors.
  • The Canadian National Laboratory has signed an MOU with CNNC to conduct joint efforts on new nuclear energy technologies. One of the opportunities could be in the area of thorium fueled molten salt reactors.
  • Fuel Loading Has Begun At China’s Taishan-1 a 1660 MW EPR.

New Book On China’s Commercial Energy Industry

China is on course to lead the world in the deployment of nuclear power technology by 2030. Should it succeed, China will assume global leadership in nuclear technology development, industrial capacity, and nuclear energy governance.


Mark Hibbs

The report, written by nuclear energy expert Mark Hibbs (right) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), says China’s ambitious plans for nuclear energy could see it operating several hundred power reactors by 2050, implementing a transition from pressurized water reactors (PWRs) to more advanced nuclear systems, and it has or will demonstrate a closed fuel cycle at industrial scale.

The impacts will be strategic and broad, affecting nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation, energy production, international trade, and climate mitigation. Especially critical is whether China achieves an industrial-scale transition from current nuclear technologies to advanced systems led by fast neutron reactors.  (Executive summary here)  (Download full report ~ PDF file here)

Opportunities and Risks in Advanced Technologies

A key section of the report covers China’s opportunities and risks in developing advanced nuclear technologies.

  • China today is poised to make these investments but lacks deep industrial expertise for some technologies it has selected; to succeed it must effect transitions from R&D to commercial deployment.
  • China’s current heavy nuclear R&D spending must be sustained to succeed since some systems may not be ready for commercial deployment before the 2030s.
  • China’s nuclear industry must depend on state entrerprises to make its nuclear technology transition; Beijing must down-select technologies and decide whether to trust the market to make economic decisions especially in the area of exports.

Potential Impacts on the Global Nuclear Industry

Whether China succeeds or fails, the global repercussions will be significant.

  • If China merely replicates others’ collective past experience, it will reinforce the view that fast reactors and their fuel cycles are too risky, complex, and expensive to generate large amounts of electricity.
  • China has placed a lot of “bets” on various advanced nuclear reactors designs. Which ones will transition to commercial development remains to be seen.
  • If, instead, China clearly succeeds in its ambitions, it may significantly raise the profile of nuclear power toward later in this century, but likely after 2050.
  • If so, China will deeply influence global rules and understandings governing the risks associated with nuclear power systems.

China’s Massive Investment
in its Physical Infrastructure and a Technical Workforce

NucNet notes in its review of the book that China has “massively invested” in human and material resources needed to replicate the PWR-based systems that foreign countries had developed. According to the report, the nuclear share of China’s electricity supply could increase from 4.5% today towards 10% in the 2030s.  China remains a leading user of coal fired electric generation plants which contribute to serious air pollution problems in some of its major cities.

China may become an important global supplier – perhaps the most important supplier – of civilian nuclear goods, including modern power reactors built at comparatively low costs.

However, the report says that for this to happen, China would have to overcome severe technical barriers and achieve significant scientific and engineering breakthroughs which are still in the future.

It must, for at least the next three decades, effectively support and control the flow of funds to and from nuclear organizations and assure that costs are manageable, predictable, and comparatively favorable. It must develop sufficient public trust and confidence to permit leaders to make decisions consistent with their plans for the nuclear industry. These objectives are equally applicable to other nations developing advanced reactors.

The report warns, “if China fails [to do these things], its nuclear energy program may not sustain itself through the second half of the century,”

Future Focus on Advanced Reactors

Until now, China’s nuclear development has relied on technologies invented by others.  China has duplicated them or acquired them as it did with Westinghouse in building four AP1000s. During this century, China plans to replace light-water nuclear power plants with advanced systems  including HTGRs and possibly thorium fueled reactors.

So far China has not invested as much effort in plutonium fueled reactors through that may change. Ten years after it announced a joint agreement with Areva to build an 800 tonne per year MOX fuel plant, it still hasn’t broken ground.

The primary focus of current negotiations is over costs which are estimated to be $15 billion.  The failure of a construction consortium involving Areva to control costs at a MOX fuel plant being built in the US at a site in South Carolina may affect these negotiations.

Today, CEIP book notes the nuclear engineering sectors of companies in France, Japan, and the US, which supplied nearly three quarters of the world’s nuclear reactors, are in decline and their futures are uncertain. These firms are experiencing low-capacity utilization, rising costs, loss of expertise, and waning political support. In the US the low price of natural gas is proving to be a formidable competitive challenge to the existing fleet with predictions that even more plants in merchant markets may be forced to close.

China’s Competitive Challenge in the Global Nuclear Market

Hibbs warns that should China’s nuclear development remain on track, its industry’s anticipated massive economies of scale and high turnover will also put foreign competitors under even greater commercial pressure.

Regarding exports China is developing its global reach with a new 1000 MW PWR, the Hualong One, and has plans to market a 1400 MW version of the AP1000 called the CAP1400.  Reference units of both designs are under construction in China., An HTRG is also being developed for export.  China first two FOAK units are slated for commercial use later this year.  Hibbs writes,

“China’s industry is poised to invade the world’s nuclear goods markets. Continued Chinese success in nuclear power will add to the challenges faced by a nuclear industry in the West that is in deep trouble. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs)—which were, until recently,expected to become “second tier” suppliers—may penetrate established nuclear power plant export markets.”

“China’s business model may give its SOEs supreme competitive advantage over all foreign private sector companies in the nuclear industry. If Chinese business practices prevail, China might eventually become the world’s leading provider of nuclear fuel, nuclear power plants, and nuclear engineering services.”

The book includes an section of technical notes on sources which include many interviews with experts in China on that country’s nuclear energy efforts.

Hibbs is a Germany-based senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.

Canadian National Laboratory Signs Agreement
with China’s Largest Nuclear Organization

cnl china agreement

CNL President & CEO Mark Lesinski joined CNNC President Yu Jianfeng in Beijing on May 4, 2018 to sign an MOU.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), announced last week that it has entered into a cooperation agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) for nuclear energy science and technology to support the transition to a greener, low-carbon economy.

Both Canada and China have affirmed that action on climate change, including decisive steps towards low-carbon, sustainable development is crucial.

Potential for Work on Thorium Molten Salt Reactors

One of the potential work areas between the two organizations may be in development of thorium fueled molten salt reactors. In May 2017 Canada’s SNC-Lavalin signed an agreement with CNNC to build two next-generation CANDU nuclear reactors at a site about 60 miles southwest of Shanghai. One of the options for the project is to develop the capability of the CANDU units to burn thorium nuclear fuel.

Although the CNL press statement doesn’t refer to a specific scope of work, R&D and technology development related to CANDU thorium fuel specification, fabrication, and testing would be logical roles for CNL in cooperation with SNC-Lavalin and CNNC.

The SNL-Lavalin agreement is the latest in a series of MOUs with CNNC dating back to 2014. World Nuclear News reported at that time that the AFCR is described as “a 700 MW Class Generation III reactor based on the highly successful CANDU 6 and Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) reactors with a number of adaptations … [allowing] it to use recycled uranium or thorium as fuel.”

According to the WNA report in 2014, focus of the MOU is on uranium recycled from conventional used fuel (RU) blended with depleted uranium (DU) to give natural uranium equivalent. Following the successful trials at Qinshan, both those reactors will be modified to become full AFCRs. Then the AFCR joint venture plans to build new AFCR units in China and beyond. This is what the 2017 agreement hopes to deliver.

CANDU Reactor Slated to Use Advanced Fuels

According to the May 2017 wire service report, the CANDU reactors slated for the Qinshan nuclear site will be powered by advanced fuels: reprocessed uranium recycled from conventional reactors, and later, thorium, said Justin Hannah, Director of Marketing, Strategy and External Relations for SNC’s CANDU division.

Hannah told the wire service the fact that CANDUs could start using thorium, with China’s backing, “may put the world closer to what proponents call the thorium dream of safer, cleaner and more abundant nuclear power.”

However, not everyone is confident about thorium’s potential use in CANDU reactors. As for whether Canada could one day switch to thorium. Canada has large, high-quality uranium reserves so any effort to develop a domestic version of a thorium-powered AFCR will depend on both politics and economics.

“There’s no strong economic driver for it,” argued John Luxat, a nuclear safety expert at McMaster University, told the wire service. “The utilities don’t want to switch over, but it’s nice to know that we could.”

Nuclear fuel experts have pointed out that thorium is difficult to mine. Using it as a fuel is also complex. Reactor designs are still in development and supply chains aren’t ready.  Fuel fabrication and disposition of spent fuel also also have to be worked out.

Other Thorium Molten Salt Projects in China

The Asia Nuclear Business Platform reported that in December 2017 the China Academy of Sciences and the government of Gansu Province signed a co-operation agreement to work together on China’s Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR) project and to have a demonstration or research reactor built in Gansu Province by 2020.

The total investment is reported to be $3 billion USD and build up a TMSR demonstration project there. This level of spending will likely take place over at least a decade. (IAEA Nov 2016 Briefing – PDF file – 56 slides)

The Chinese central government selected molten salt reactor as one of its R&D focus of the nuclear GEN IV technology. The China Academy of Sciences in January 2011 launched an R&D program on LFTRs, known there as the Thorium-Breeding Molten Salt Reactor (Th-MSR or TMSR), hoping to obtain full intellectual property rights on the technology.

SINAP has two streams of TMSR development – solid fuel with once-through fuel cycle, and liquid fuel with reprocessing and recycle. The TMSR-SF stream has only partial utilization of thorium, relying on some breeding as with U-238, and needing fissile uranium input as well. The TMSR-LF stream will use a full closed Th-U fuel cycle with breeding of U-233.

Also, SINAP has also signed a cooperation agreement in 2015 with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on developing the advanced technology using lithium-beryllium-fluoride salts for cooling.

Fuel Loading Has Begun At China’s Taishan-1

Fuel loading began in April Taishan-1, China’s first Generation III 1660 MW EPR unit which is under construction in the southeastern province of Guangdong, developer China General Nuclear Power (CGN) said in a statement.

CGN, which owns 70% of the project, said it was given formal approval to begin fuel loading at Taishan-1 by the National Nuclear Safety Commission.

The procedure takes several months, meaning the unit could be connected to the grid and begin commercial operation by the end of the year. Taishan-1 is likely to become the world’s first EPR to go into operation. Work began on the project in 2009.

In terms of other EPRs, WNA notes the first-of-a-kind EPR at Finland’s Olkiluoto plant has been under construction since 2005 and has seen several revisions to its start-up date, with grid connection now scheduled to take place in December and the start of regular electricity production in May next year.

Fuel loading at the Flamanville EPR in France, construction of which began in 2007, is expected to begin the fourth quarter of this year. Two further EPRs are under construction at Hinkley Point in the UK.

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A Reader on Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Energy Program

reporter2There are a lot of media reports about Saudi Arabia’s plans to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 and whether Westinghouse will get any of the business. Every time I read this line in the mainstream news media it makes my head spin. Neither event is likely to happen, but the news media keeps reporting that both are coming any day real soon now.

The practical logistical challenges and the financial commitments that would be required over less than a decade are simply out of reach. Why is no one at these media outlets fact checking the prevailing narrative?

In the interest doing exactly that, I’ve assembled a “reader” of my coverage on the efforts by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to pursue development of a commercial nuclear energy program.  For good measure, I’ve also looked at what I see as a somewhat hollow threat to enrich uranium. This is something that KSA neither wants, needs, nor can afford.

Here are seven easy to read pieces, no technical background required, that explain why the current mass media narrative about KSA and nuclear energy misses a few crucial facts.  Coverage on this blog about KSA’s nuclear energy plans began in 2014. Since then a lot has happened, but one thing that has emerged is that KSA’s ambitious plans for commercial nuclear reactors or a weapons related enrichment program may not come to pass as long as the price of oil stays low.

The current turmoil over the US backing out of the Iran deal may produce a temporary spike in the price of oil, but analysts like Barclays predict a long term decline in prices due in part to US shale production.

Seven Easy Pieces About KSA and Nuclear Energy

1. LOGISTICS CHALLENGES – No one can build that many reactors (16) in that short a period of time. This blog post explains why KSA cannot build 16 1000 MW nuclear reactors by 2030 No vendor nor state owned nuclear export firm can do it. Also, price of oil too low. KSA can’t afford the $80 billion price tag

2. REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL – So far plans are to build just two units. This blog post explains that KSA has downsized its nuclear ambitions to just two 1400 MW reactors which coincidentally matches the power rating for the UAE reactors being built by South Korea.  KSA has since modified the RFI to open up the competition. However, my view is this is for industrial intelligence purposes and not because a lot of other folks, including Westinghouse, have a shot.

3. THE PRICE OF OIL LIMITS KSA NUCLEAR AMBITIONS – The price of oil controls the size of the nuclear program.  This blog post explains that KSA first announced its nuclear program in 2011, but did nothing with it until September 2014 at which time it revealed the 16 reactor plan. At that time the price of oil was about $100 bbl. In January 2015 two things happened. First, the price of oil dropped to below $60 bbl and, second, KSA stopped its 16 reactors project cold. This decision shows the finance ministry has a strong grip on investment plans at this scale.

4. SOUTH KOREA IS A LIKELY FRONT RUNNER – This blog post explains why Westinghouse is unlikely to win business supplying nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia even if the Trump administration relaxes the terms of a 123 Agreement. The reasons are that South Korea has the pole position due to several factors including; success with building four 1400 MW reactors for the UAE at a fixed price, an experienced workforce with a management team that speaks Arabic, and the fact that the 1400 MW design has already been built and operated in South Korea.

5. ROK / KSA deal for 100 MW SMART Reactor could be a model for U.S. A deal inked in 2011 between ROK and KSA could be seen as a model to form the basis for an agreement for U.S. firms to export nuclear technology to KSA.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has signed an $1 billion agreement with South Korea to build a 300 MWt PWR reactor. The SMART reactor has a design that uses integral steam generators and advanced safety features. The reactor will have a 60 year design life and a three-year refueling cycle It will be used to generate electricity and to power reverse osmosis desalinization plants at coastal sites. The reactor will generate 100 MW of electrical power for these applications. Bottom line South Korea is already doing nuclear business with KSA.

6. SAUDI ARABIA AND THE GOLD STANDARD IN A 123 AGREEMENT – The whole posture of KSA on enrichment is to get the US to keep the Iran deal so that it doesn’t have to spend $ billions on a uranium enrichment program it can’t afford, and doesn’t want or need.  While KSA would like to see regime change in Iran, containment isn’t the worse option.

What the current low price of oil means is that KSA is coming up short in terms of financing its ambitious program of building 16 LWR type units at power ratings of 1000 MW or more. Given these numbers, the likelihood that it would spend several billion more on enrichment facilities, and in the absence of reactors to use the fuel, diminishes accordingly. Figure a cost of $1 billion for each 1 million in SWU in enriched uranium and then add the cost of the weapons program.

7. MIKE FLYNN’S FRACTURED RUSSIA DEAL The Russian deal presented by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was a non-starter. It made no sense from a commercial perspective.

He attempted to ink a deal between Saudi Arabia and Russia for nuclear reactors linked to the lifting of U.S. sanctions under the Majnitsky Act. The mainstream media continues to describe Flynn’s involvement in the Saudi nuclear deal as driven by greed.

It isn’t clear that this was his sole motivation. What does appear to be true is that most of his wires for this project were crossed and shorted out before his plane ever took off from the U.S. to the Mideast in April 2015.

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Advocacy to Keep US Nuclear Reactors Open Picks Up Steam

nuclear powerIt has begun to dawn on people who advocate energy policy, and who report and analyze it, that closing nuclear power plants, due mostly to low natural gas prices, is a bad idea when it comes to dealing with global warming.

This is particularly significant in the face of the climate change denial policy stance of the current administration which is not based on science and is merely a tool designed to financially benefit fossil fuel industries.

Renewables have a stake in keeping reactors open because their access to and success on the nation’s electric grid depend on stable power sources that keep it humming.

Now that this light bulb is really lit, what can be done? Here are three useful reads on these issues.

The Partnership for Global Security (PGS) points out in a recent article that mainstream think tanks, and the news media, have identified how the closure of U.S. nuclear plants will make cutting carbon emissions more difficult. In a worst-case scenario, retiring nuclear plants would significantly set back clean energy goals.

PGS notes that China and other developing countries see a role for nuclear power in limiting carbon emissions. Some are looking at advanced nuclear reactors that are smaller, less expensive, and easier to deploy. Small modular reactors, in banks of 50-300 MW, can ramp power up, or down, depending on available solar or wind power on the grid.

Here are high points of three recent reports that address these issues.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has published a report by analyst Doug Vine with six key findings all of which are pure common sense. Whether the climate denying Trump administration will recognize that survival of the species is more important than partisan political power plays remains to be seen.

The Third Way think tank, which is a center-left advocate for nuclear energy that has done some impressive work on advanced nuclear reactor technologies, points out that the focus of green groups on renewable technologies is necessary, but is insufficient to get control of CXO2 emissions. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Deputy Director of the Clean Energy Program, wrote the report with the help of other think tank staff.

In a key report finding, noted in a recent blog post, the group points out that in 2015, nuclear facilities in the U.S. alone generated as much zero-carbon electricity as all the wind turbines on the planet combined.

At the VOX Media site, which mostly reports on inside the beltway / DC politics, writer David Roberts takes a current look at the issue. He writes a primer on how to save the failing nuclear power plants that generate half of America’s clean electricity. Despite the lack of a price on carbon, he points out a few states are keeping nuclear power plants open.

Center for Climate Solutions Report

CE2S logoThe briefing style of this press statement is a good place to start. Read the full report here.

  • State-Level Zero-Emission Credits (ZEC): Targeted state policies such as ZECs are the best option right now as they enable states to quickly direct support to distressed facilities. ZEC policies have withstood initial legal challenges in New York and Illinois, offering added confidence in their utility.
  • State Electricity Portfolio Standards: Expanding state electricity portfolio standards to include existing nuclear, as proposed in Arizona, is a balanced, inclusive policy approach that allows nuclear and renewables to work together on even footing to one another’s benefit.
  • License Renewals: Second license renewals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would allow reactors to operate for 80 years, would permit much of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet to continue to operate well beyond 2050, allowing new zero-carbon technologies including advanced reactors, fossil fuel with carbon capture, and renewables to enter service and avoid backsliding in emission reductions.
  • Carbon Price: A price on carbon could preserve existing nuclear, but it may not be sufficient if the prices are too low. Carbon prices in California and Northeast markets did not prevent early nuclear retirements in those regions, most likely because they were too low.
  • Carbon Price in Power Markets: A meaningful price on carbon implemented in power markets, would help level the playing field and provide addi­tional revenue to non-emitting technologies like nuclear power and renewables. However, likely legal challenges could significantly delay implementation.
  • Purchase Power Agreements: Increasing the use of such agreements for nuclear power with government agencies, cities, and businesses should be pursued.

Third Way Report

third way logoAccording to the Third Way article on its website, we’re already losing some of our strongest climate assets. It cited estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) that 55% of the U.S. fleet is operating at a loss in current market conditions and at risk of premature closure, while research from MIT suggests that number could be as high as 66%. Even if just 20% is retired early, it’s still a huge loss of clean energy and a blow to climate efforts.

The Third Way report, points out closing nuclear power plants early works against the deployment of wind and solar energy solutions. The reason is we’re losing ground on decarbonization every time a nuclear plant closes.

“Even in the best case scenario, where nuclear plants run for a full 60 years, our total zero-carbon generation in 2030 still doesn’t hit the mark. If this tells us anything, it’s that we must accelerate the pace of new clean energy deployment, and keep all of our existing clean energy resources online.”

And those advocates for 100% renewables are just backing us into a corner where we will have more emissions from more natural gas plants. Here is what the Third Way report says about that scenario.

“Much of the zero-carbon generation we lose from nuclear retirements will invariably be replaced by fossil fuels like natural gas, and emissions will rise as a result. And finally, even if we were able to replace retired nuclear solely with renewables, it’s still a setback in the climate fight.”

The Third Way report concludes that the only way “we win: is if the US increases the amount of zero-carbon energy it is producing. As nuclear plants get shut down, new renewables will have to pay-off that zero-carbon debt before they actually start increasing our totals again. That’s a big waste of renewable energy and, most importantly, time.”

The article has links to related online resources on these issues. Well worth your time.

VOX – How to Save America’s Nuclear Power Plants

vox logoIn an article accessible to generalists as well as nuclear energy advocates, VOX writer David Roberts concludes “carbon math means [nuclear power plants] must keep running.”

As pointed out by the other two online publications, Roberts starts with the fact that closing nuclear power plants leads to opening natural gas plants with more CO2 emissions.

This is what is going to happen when California closes the Diablo Canyon reactors and New York closes Indian point. They represent a combined total of about 4500 MW of CO2 emission free electrical power.

NB: For a detailed and technical primer on CO2 emissions from all uses of natural gas, the Department of Energy has this report which lays out the numbers.

In his article Roberts also discusses how carbon pricing would help save nuclear power plants assuming the price is high enough. The revenue stream would also help the federal government deficit.

Flexible operation of nuclear power plants, especially banks of smallmodular reactors, (SMRs), paired with renewable energy would provide baseload power when the sun doesn’t shine and when the wind doesn’t blow.

Roberts notes that “nuclear has generally been thought of as “baseload,” always-on power, but nuclear plants in France and Germany frequently ramp up and down to follow load.”

He cites researcher Jesse Jenkins and colleagues at MIT who recently published a study that shows that flexible nuclear operation paired with renewable energy “lowers power system operating costs, increases reactor owner revenues, and substantially reduces curtailment of renewables.”

SMRs and advanced nuclear reactor designs are also being developed to provide process heat for industrial uses, desalinization of sea water, and district steam heating.

A particularly useful part of Roberts’ article is a review of the progress in four states – NY, IL, NJ, and CT, to keep their reactors running.  By comparison, state legislators in OH and PA seem to want no part of saving their reactors, two in each state.

In Arizona the huge Palo Verde power station could be at risk due to an upcoming renewable energy proposal being considered by the State of Arizona. Plus, Roberts points out there’s also a ballot initiative that would raise the state’s renewable energy standard to 50 percent. It could lead to the closure of Palo Verde.

At the end of the day zero emission credits seem to offer the best short-term policy fix for keeping reactors open. The Climate Solutions Report, cited above, can take you through the ins and outs of how they work.

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Japan’s Plans for Nuclear Exports Hit Speed Bumps

  • Hitachi seeks to reduce equity stake in UK nuclear project by 50%
  • Soaring costs for Turkey’s Sinop project cause a key investor to pull out
  • Japan’s best chances for new nuclear reactor projects may be at home

(Two updates, below, on Hitachi’s plans for Wylfa)

Nikkei, a Japanese business wire service, reports that Hitachi CEO Toshiaki Higashihara is asking the UK government to take a 50% direct stake in the Horizon nuclear power project. The project located at Wylfa in Wales is expected to be composed of two 1350 MW Hitachi ABWRs. Currently, it is 100% owned by Hitachi. What the firm’s CEO would like to see is a consortium of UK firms and the government take half of the risk of financing the project.

nuclear power in the UK

U.K. Government Map of Commercial Nuclear Power Stations

Higashihara is expected to meet with UK Prime Minister Theresa May this week. His key talking point is that the expected cost of $27.5 billion is too much for his company to carry by itself even with Japanese export banking credits. So far Whitehall officials haven’t said no to Hitachi’s request despite a predisposition by the government not to take a direct stake in new nuclear reactor project. The U.K. has a massive new nuclear build underway as shown on the map here.

Hitachi will also ask the UK government to provide loan guarantees for the 50% share its does take in the project to lower the interest rate and thus the financial costs of the loans.

Another key issue, as Hitachi sees it, is for the UK government to guarantee the rates the plants will charge for electricity which also is seen as a confidence builder for investors.

Hitachi has already spent near $3 billion on development of the project including the licensing of the ABWR design in the UK which was successfully completed in December 2017.

If Horizon is successful with Wylfa, it hopes to build a second 2.7 GWe nuclear power station at Oldbury in Gloucestershire. The plants will also use Hitachi’s advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR).

Update May 8, 2018: Negotiations Continue over Horizon Loans

Reuters reports from Tokyo that Hitachi Ltd’s Horizon Nuclear Power unit has received an assurance from the British government that it will guarantee loans for the construction of two reactors in Wales.

According to Japanese news media reports British Prime Minister Theresa May met Hitachi Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi in London and asked him to go ahead the project, conveying the government’s intention to fully guarantee the loans.

That report was subsequently disputed. by a later Reuters report from London which conflicted with the early one. A U.K. government spokesman threw cold water on the news that the loan guarantees were a done deal.

“We don’t recognise these reports,” a spokesman for Britain’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

“Nuclear power remains a crucial part of the UK’s energy future but we have always been clear that this must be delivered at the right price for consumers and taxpayers,” he said.

“These discussions are commercially sensitive and we have no further details at this time,” the BEIS spokesman said.

Hitachi is still pushing for the British government to take an equity stake in the project and to guarantee electricity prices to ensure it is profitable. Rate guarantees will also bring investors to the project. Hitachi wants a combination of government and private equity investors to take a 50% stake in the project.

For Hitachi, Horizon would help Japan’s ambitions to export its nuclear technology after the Fukushima nuclear disaster made the construction of new reactors difficult at home.

Update May 11, 2018: London offers $18bn in loans for Hitachi’s UK nuclear plant

(Nikkei) The British government is now offering $18.2 billion in lending that Hitachi says is needed to build a nuclear power plant in Wales. T

The plan also calls for Hitachi as well as Japanese and British public-private interests each taking a one-third stake, and for the government to provide guarantees for corporate loans.

The total cost of the plant, to be built on the Isle of Anglesey, which will install two 1350 ABWRs at 6,500/kW, would cost $17.6 billion. The proposed loan would cover almost all of these costs.  However, Hitachi has made extraordinary claims of much higher costs for the plant much of related to the cost of investment capital, plus what it says are new safety requirements.

Hitachi Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi met with Prime Minister Theresa May in London last week to ask for better financial backing. The original plan called for the loans to be provided by private lending institutions from both countries and guaranteed equally by each government.

State funding would substantially lower the cost of borrowing from private institutions and would demonstrate the U.K.’s increased involvement as a backer of Hitachi’s nuclear power business, which would ease raising funds and help secure investors.

The British Parliament may oppose expanding the government’s stake, which could throw a wrench in the project’s final shareholding structure or allocation of costs.

Hitachi is also requesting that the electricity’s purchase price be raised and guaranteed, but the U.K. government is opposed. It hopes to satisfy Hitachi by covering all loans and raising its stake in the project.

The project is is scheduled to break ground next year.

SINOP Investor Drops Out Over Costs

A major Japanese investor in Turkey’s planned second nuclear power station at Sinop on the Black Sea coast has dropped out of participating in the project due to dramatic increases in the cost of the project.  The Nikkei news service reports that Itochu Trading House says the original cost of $18 billion for four 1100 MW PWR type reactors has skyrocketed due to what it says are new safety and security measures for the plants. The firm also reportedly complained that the timeframe to complete the project, 2023, wasn’t feasible.

IAEA Nuclear Power in Turkey

IAEA Map of Commercial Nuclear Power Projects in Turkey

The decision is seen by some as premature as a feasibility study being conducted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHL) has been extended from March and is now expected to be complete sometime later this year.

Even with Itochu’s departure, MHL told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper it plans to go ahead with the effort assuming it can get rate guarantees that will bring investors to the table and provide them with a reasonable rate of return on their equity stakes in the project.

Itochu was planned to be part of a consortium of investors that would put up 30% of the costs. Other investors are expected include the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, MHL, the French utility Engie and the Turkish Electric Generation Corporation.

The project envisions four 1100 MW ATMEA PWR type reactors the design for which was jointly developed by MHL and Areva. It is a scaled down version of Areva’s 1650 MW EPR. None have ever been built making the Sinop project a first of a kind project (FOAK) for the design.

For its part the Turkish Energy Ministry expressed disappointment that Itochu had pulled out. It did not comments on prospects for future investors since the MHL feasibility report is not yet complete.

Even so Turkey has broken ground on a joint project with Rosatom to build four 1200 MW VVERs, the most powerful PWR type reactors available to the firm’s export customers at the Akkuyu site on Turkey;s southern Mediterranean coast.

In addition, a recent Turkish trade mission to Beijing revived talks about a third nuclear power station at Igneada in the Kirklareliu province on the western shores of the Black Sea.  Export of electricity to Bulgaria is one of the commercial factors in building the power station.

China is expected to offer the CAP1400 for the project.  World Nuclear News reports that site preparation is already underway for two demonstration CAP1400 units at Huaneng Group’s Shidaowan site in Shandong province.

Japan’s Fading Prospects
for New Nuclear Export Deals

Japan’s PM Abe has made a strong push for the project as part of an effort to revive the country’s exports of nuclear reactors following the collapse of Toshiba’s role in this business due to the bankruptcy of its Westinghouse business unit. However, Abe’s term is up in September and his successor may be more sympathetic to post-Fukushima fears among voters.

nuclear power in Japan WNA

Commercial Nuclear Power Plans in Japan. Map courtesy of World Nuclear Association

The biggest black eye that Japan has gotten in recent years isn’t from cleanup troubles at Fukushima, but from the multi-billion dollar cost overruns at the V C Summer site where Toshiba’s Westinghouse ran the project into the ground with self-inflicted management failures.

Toshiba sold the Westinghouse business unit in February unloading it for $1 billion less than it paid to purchase the firm ten years ago.

Japan has also been pushed out of an opportunity to provide four full size nuclear reactors to Vietnam. In fairness, that country also cancelled similar plans to acquire four Russian nuclear reactors.

The country cancelled all of its plans for nuclear power stations in November 2016. The main reasons were fears about costs and the inability of the government to stand up a nuclear safety agency, a regulatory framework, and capability to oversee a construction project involving eight 1000 MW nuclear reactors.

Japan needs a “win” to get back in the game, and the Sinop project in Turkey is its best chance to get one. Putting together a workable cost and schedule package that can be sold to investors is a big challenge. The country’s future in exporting nuclear energy technologies depends on it.

Japan Plans Role for Nuclear Energy
in Meeting Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets

(Reuters / Japan News Media) A Japanese government energy planning panel said in April that the country should be building new nuclear plants to help meet long-term emissions targets. It said that the country should rapid develop new reactor designs that are safer and cheaper to operate. The panel also called for accelerating development in hydrogen, produced by nuclear reactors, and in energy storage technology.

At the same time the panel said that Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear power, shift from coal to gas and boost renewable energy. In the past Japan’s heavy dependence on nuclear energy was driven by global competition, primarily with China, for oil and other fossil fuels.

Japan’s once high profile plan for a “plutonium economy,” based on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into MOX, or for use in fast reactors, has not been successful.  In December 2016 the government called it quits with its Monju fast breeder reactor project. The project has been plagued by accidents, management transparency issues, and huge cost overruns.  It never achieved its expected levels of performance.

Yet, the panel, in pushing for new, advanced reactors, went further than the current policy of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

Shogo Tanaka, director of the ministry’s energy strategy office told Reuters, “The report does not specifically talk about possible building of new reactors or replacing existing reactors, but it does not deny such a possibility either.”

The energy panel is made up of industry and academic representatives and includes Hitachi Ltd Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi

In Japan nuclear energy continues to face challenges of strong public opposition. Only five of the country’s 39 commercially viable reactors currently operating. The country’s largest nuclear power station, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, remains closed due to the opposition of provincial government officials who have virtual veto power over restarts even after the plants have passed review by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwais the world’s largest rated nuclear power station. With seven reactors generating 8,212MW, the station, owned and operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), it can provide electricity to 16 million households.

Reuters notes that the continued closure of the 35 other nuclear reactors have boosted Japan’s reliance on coal and natural gas. In terms of greenhouse gases it is currently the world’s fifth-biggest carbon emitter.

The country has pledged to trim its emissions from 2013 levels by 26% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050. It is currently aiming for a electricity mix by 2030 of 22-24% renewables, 20-22% nuclear and 56% fossil fuels including 27% gas and 26% coal.

In January 2018 Reuters reported that Japan’s coal imports rose to a record last year and liquefied natural gas (LNG) purchases climbed for the first time in three years.

Japan coal imports

Coal Imports in Japan. Data/Chart via METI

Coal imports rose 4.3 percent from a year earlier to 114.5 million tonnes in 2017, surpassing the 113.8 million tonnes imported in 2015.  The costs of the imports rose by a painful 45% over 2016.

In 2017 fossil fuels account for 83% percent of Japan’s electricity, renewables 15% and nuclear just 2% based on slow restarts.

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NASA Space Missions to Get a Boost from Nuclear Energy

  • The Space agency just completed a series of successful demonstration tests of the Kilopower nuclear power system that will be an essential part of future missions to the Moon and Mars.
  • NASA authorizes the use of PU-238 as a power source in future multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or MMRTGs, for deep space science missions throughout this decade.

KiloPower Tests Successful


KiloPower Design – Image: NASA

NASA and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have successfully demonstrated KiloPower, which is a new nuclear reactor power system that could enable long-duration crewed missions to the Moon, Mars and destinations beyond.

NASA announced the results of the demonstration, called the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, during a news conference this week at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The Kilopower experiment was conducted at the NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site from November 2017 through March 2018.

NASA officials said they expect the Kilopower project to be an essential part of lunar and Mars power architectures as they evolve.

Kilopower is a small, lightweight fission power that uses passive liquid sodium for heat transfer to stirling engines which produce electrical power. The system as tested is capable of providing up to 10 kilowatts of electrical power – enough to run several average households – continuously for at least 10 years. Four Kilopower units would provide enough power to establish an outpost on the moon or Mars.

According to Marc Gibson, lead Kilopower engineer at NASA Glenn, the pioneering power system is ideal for the Moon where power generation from sunlight is difficult because lunar nights are equivalent to 14 days on Earth.

“Kilopower gives us the ability to do much higher power missions, and to explore the shadowed craters of the Moon,” said Gibson.

“When we start sending astronauts for long stays on the Moon and to other planets, that’s going to require a new class of power that we’ve never needed before.”

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium powered reactor core. Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.

NNSA Hosts Test Sessions at Nevada

According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, the purpose of the recent experiment in Nevada was two-fold: to demonstrate that the system can create electricity with fission power, and to show the system is stable and safe no matter what environment it encounters.

The team took the design through a full power 20 hour test. The objective is to work towards certification of the power system for space flight.

“We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colors,” said Poston.

The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases.

  • The first two phases, conducted without power, confirmed that each component of the system behaved as expected.
  • During the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core incrementally before moving on to the final phase.
  • The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.

“We put the system through its paces,” said Gibson. “We understand the reactor very well, and this test proved that the system works the way we designed it to work. No matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.”

Flight Qualification is the Goal

The Kilopower project is developing mission concepts and performing additional risk reduction activities to prepare for a possible future flight demonstration.  NASA said that the next 18 months of work will determine whether the KiloPower design can meet the rigors of space flight. These challenges include the launch phase and exposure to the deep cold of outer space

Such a demonstration could pave the way for future Kilopower systems that power human outposts on the Moon and Mars, including missions that rely on In-situ Resource Utilization to produce local propellants, water, oxygen, and other materials.

The Kilopower project is led by NASA Glenn, in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama,and NNSA, including its Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site and Y-12 National Security Complex.

KiloPower Resources Online

(Factsheet)  (Video)  (NASA KiloPower home page)  (Briefing – Nuclear Power in Space)

NASA to Use Nuclear Fission Power Systems
for Next Discovery Mission

nasa logo(SpaceNews) Citing progress in producing plutonium-238, NASA will allow scientists proposing missions for upcoming planetary science missions to use nuclear power sources for electricity to run scientific instruments.

In a statement issued March 17, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said the agency has reversed an earlier decision prohibiting the use of radioisotope power systems for spacecraft proposed for the next mission in the agency’s Discovery program.

NASA made that decision based on projected use of existing stocks of plutonium-238 for upcoming missions, such as the Mars 2020 rover.

Dragonfly, one of the two finalists for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission, also plans to use a PU-238 radioisotope power system, as well as potential future missions the moon that require nuclear power to operate through the two-week lunar night.

Still, the agency needed to balance mission demands against existing inventory of plutonium and new efforts currently to produce new supplies of the isotope, which should reach a goal of 1.5 kilograms a year by around 2022.


Planning for the next Discovery mission is still in its earliest stages. NASA plans to release a draft announcement of opportunity in September 2018 for comment, followed by the final announcement in February 2019. NASA will select finalists for further study in December 2019, with a winner chosen in June 2021 for launch no later than the end of 2026.

The key to successful deep space science missions, beyond the orbit of Mars, is to have enough electrical power to sustain the entire mission over many years powering the science instruments and the transmission of massive amounts of data back to earth.  There is not enough sunlight beyond Mars orbit to meet these needs hence the need for nuclear fission powered electrical systems.

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Saudi Arabia and the Gold Standard in a 123 Agreement

Opinion My view is that the whole posture of KSA on enrichment is to get the US to keep the Iran deal so that it doesn’t have to spend $ billions on a uranium enrichment program it can’t afford, and doesn’t want or need. 

[May 2, 2018 update below]

Uranium enrichment

Uranium Gas Centrifuges

There has been a lot of back and forth commentary about whether the U.S. should water down the so-called “gold standard” for a 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia.  This agreement, if it comes to pass, would allow U.S. firms to export nuclear reactors, fuel for them, and other nuclear technologies to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

Without a 123 Agreement, under the terms of the Atomic Energy Act, there can be no nuclear technology exports. Non-nuclear components that are not tagged as “dual use” would possible.

U.S. nuclear energy vendors and various trade groups have been pushing for the State Department and the Department of Energy to negotiate a less than “gold standard” 123 agreement to open the door to U.S. vendors primarily Westinghouse, which is the only American firm still  activity manufacturing new nuclear reactors – four in China and two at the Vogtle site in Georgia.

So far officials from the U.S. State Department and a delegation led by DOE Secretary Rick Perry have had inconclusive talks in Riyadh and London about a 123 agreement. Clearly, KSA is waiting to see what the U.S. will do about the Iran nuclear deal on May 12th.

Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Matters

For what it is worth, I am offering some practical reasons why the US ought not give up on the gold standard for KSA. However, to get there, the US has to keep the Iran nuclear deal in place.

KSA’s leadership has made it clear that if the US kicks the Iran deal to the curb, it will start a uranium enrichment program that could lead to a capability to fabricate nuclear weapons.

In an interview with CBS, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, but that could change suddenly.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” he said in an interview that will air on the news magazine program “60 Minutes.”

On the other hand, KSA would might be OK with a gold standard 123 agreement, or something very close to it IF, and it is a very big IF, the US and the other parties to the Iran deal stood behind it and made a commitment to work on extending it’s life beyond 15 years.

If Trump tears it up, he virtually guarantees three things –

  1. KSA will pursue enrichment,
  2. No one, including DRNK, will trust the US to keep its commitments on nonproliferation agreements,
  3. Iran will most certainly restart its nuclear program and probably make progress in developing the capability to fit a nuke on one of their intermediate range ballistic missiles.

Anyone who thinks these outcomes are positive for US interests or that tearing up the Iran deal will lead to regime change in Iran needs to have their head examined.

My view is that the whole posture of KSA on enrichment is to get the US to keep the Iran deal so that it doesn’t have to spend $ billions on a nuclear fuel  program it doesn’t want or need.

The US Might Give Away the Farm for Nothing in Return

Getting back to the gold standard, the US offered Vietnam a less than gold standard 123 agreement which turned out to be pointless.  That country made all of its plans for new nuclear plants, subsequently cancelled, with Japan and Russia.  What did we gain there?

Insofar as US interests are concerned, Westinghouse is NOT in the running despite what industry trade groups might say on behalf of their members.  The company is still in bankruptcy due to its massive and self-inflicted failure with the V C Summer nuclear project in South Carolina.

Note that the UAE rejected Areva’s EPR for similar reasons, e.g., schedule delays and huge cost over runs at a FOAK plant in Finland. So the US might well be positioning itself to give away the store for nothing in return.

South Korea has the pole position for KSA business because it is completing a $20 billion new build of four 1400 MW nuclear reactors in the UAE. Plus, it has an experienced workforce that has a management team with experience in an Arab country that is very influential with KSA.

Finally, the UAE is very influential with KSA on nuclear matters because of its experience with inking a 123 agreement with the US forswearing enrichment and reprocessing.  The US and the international community have made a big deal out of the fact that this Agreement reflects the UAE’s renunciation of any intention to develop domestic enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in favor of long-term commitments to obtain supply of nuclear fuel from reliable and responsible international suppliers. That’s the essence of the “gold standard.”

Why South Korea has the Pole Position for a KSA Nuclear New Build

KSA is much more likely to want to build small commercial reactors, like the South Korean SMART unit, because they are less costly, easier to manage, and can be acquired one by one over a longer period of time. An agreement between KSA and ROK to build two SMART reactors there could be a model for the US.

The difference is $400M for a SMART reactor v. $4B for one big one from someone else.  The low cost of a SMART unit means that over a 10 year period KSA can ramp up to the same amount of nuclear powered electrical generation capability as buying one large unit with its huge upfront costs. It’s clearly a cash flow issue.

Oil prices determine KSA’s buying power. As long as the price stays under $100Bbl, KSA will be price sensitive about any spending on commercial nuclear plans. As for enrichment of uranium, the global market for uranium has a huge surplus which is why the price of yellowcake is at a record low.  In the make v. buy equation, buying wins hands down.

Where We Go From Here?

President Trump has a mixed bag of motives for wanting to rip up the Iran nuclear deal. One of them is hugely irrational. As I see it his angst over the fact that it was one of President Obama’s signature accomplishments is not a reason to toss valid American interests out the door. The other is he is being egged on by Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu who has his own national security and domestic political reason for wanting regime change in Iran.

There are real and hard reasons why it is in the US interest to keep the Iran deal and to work with KSA toward a 123 agreement that incorporates the gold standard. KSA knows that the road to regional political trouble lies in a commitment to spending on nuclear capabilities it does not want, need, nor can afford. What is everyone waiting for?

Update May 2, 2018 – Can KSA Afford Its Nuclear Program?

The Reuters wire service reported on May 2 that Saudi Arabia would need oil prices to average $85-$87 a barrel this year to balance its state budget, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The current price of “Brent Crude” on May 2nd was $73/bbl according several financial wire services.

According to a CNBC report for April 18th, Barclays sees international benchmark Brent crude to average $68 a barrel in the second quarter, but sees crude prices falling into correction in the back half of 2018. Barclays also said it expects the oil market will swing back into surplus in the final months of the year and remain oversupplied through 2019.

According to Energy experts familiar with KSA’s economy the price of oil would need to be $100/bbl or greater to afford a large scale (16 reactors) nuclear energy reactor construction program. Meanwhile, they point out the 2018 Saudi budget features a deficit of US$52 billion and some observers believe the Kingdom is stretching itself too thin with all its ambitious reform plans.

The current oil price, and long term outlook, make anything more than the first two full size units, or a stretched out program of building SMRs, unaffordable. The country is not going to tap its sovereign wealth fund for this effort.

What the low price of oil means is that KSA is coming up short in terms of financing its ambitious program of building 16 LWR type units at power ratings of 1000 MW or more. Given these numbers, the likelihood that it would spend several billion more on enrichment facilities, and in the absence of reactors to use the fuel, diminishes accordingly.

U.S. nonproliferation experts point out that if KSA really feels provoked by the loss of the Iran nuclear agreement, it could decide to become a nuclear state absent building any commercial reactors.  If that were to be the case, the spending on a weapons program moves into the stratosphere. Not only does the country need the infrastructure to produce the fissile material, it also needs a delivery system(s), which is either planes or missiles.  To mix some metaphors, the KSA finance ministry’s calculators may melt down over the enormous scope of these costs. Also, unlike the commercial nuclear reactor project, there is no revenue stream from a weapons program to offset its costs.

If KSA’s leadership fundamentally commits to a nuclear weapons effort, it will have to sacrifice a great deal domestically to achieve that end.  As we know from watching protests in Iran, when the cost of international military adventures takes a big bite out of domestic spending, the result can be destabilizing for the regime in power.

It follows that any evaluation of KSA’s threat to start enrichment efforts needs to also look at the details of the country’s balance sheet in addition to following the high profile media pronouncements of the defense ministry.

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