Saudi Arabia’s Ambitious Plans for Nuclear Energy

It’s not clear that the saudi-nuclear_thumb.jpgplans will work as expected in terms of the announced timeline of completing 16 reactors (17.6 Gwe) by 2032.

The cost of the program is close to $90 billion which over a period of more than two decades for a feasible schedule would involve a significant diversion of oil revenue even at $100/BBL. The current price is about $60/bbl and has been in that range since January 2015. 

Key issues for success are adequate sustained financing, supply chain logistics and reliability, as well as cost control, for three separate sites, and managing the fleet of reactors once they are built.

The demand for long lead time components for a new build of this size would raise the prices for them on a global scale.

The Reuters wire service reports that Saudi Arabia plans in April or May 2018 to release a short list of qualified bidders for two nuclear reactors and to make the contact award by December.

It plans to build 17.6 gigawatts (GW) (16 1100 MW reactors or a mix of various sizes) of nuclear capacity by 2032.  The date is wildly ambitious and even a simply exercise in looking at the schedule of building 16 reactors of this size shows a minimum 20-to-25 year time frame.

If the first two units breaks ground in 2020, the last one will be finished in the early 2040s. (See table below). The analysis that follows is an intended to show, using a simple linear model, why the plans appear to be overly ambitious.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, told Reuters last month that he expects to sign contracts to build two nuclear reactors by the end of 2018. Commissioning of the first plant, which will have two reactors with a total a capacity between 2.0 and 3.2 GW, is expected in 2027.

These numbers suggest that the specifications in the RFI have changed from an initial requirement for two 1400 MW units, which is the size the ones being built by South Korea in the UAE, to a more flexible requirement to either open the bidding to wider competition or to put pricing pressure on a South Korean deal.

Saudi Arabia has sent a request for information (RFI) to international suppliers to build two reactors. An RFI is the first step in the procurement process. Once there are expressions of interest, the Saudi government will pre-qualify firms or countries to submit actual bids.  Based on experiences with other countries, the Saudi government should count itself lucky if it even gets bids by December. It will take a minimum of another six months to make an award putting the contract date well into 2019.

According to wire service reports the Saudi government is evaluating requirements from five countries; China, Russia, South Korea, France and the United States.

Russian and South Korean companies have said they plan to bid and sources have told Reuters that Toshiba-owned U.S. company Westinghouse is in talks with U.S. rivals to form a bidding consortium. French state-controlled utility EDF also intends to take part in the tender.

“Currently we are in the evaluation process for RFI (request for information) and we will hold discussions with them (suppliers) next month,” Abdul Malik al-Sabery, a consultant at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy told Reuters in Abu Dhabi.  He added that financing would be provided in part by the winning vendor.

From the time the units break ground until the time they are commissioned for revenue service could take six-to-seven years with a cost of $5-6 billion each.  Bear in mind the Saudi government has selected three coastal sites for the 16 reactors which means site mobilization will also be a factor.

There is no guarantee costs would remain in the range of $5,000/kw for the reactors.  Given the scale of the project, cost escalation is probably inevitable.

The Saudi plan gives up certain economies of scale by mixing reactor vendors, sizes, and locations. Three sites were short-listed as of September 2013: Jubail on the Gulf; and Tabuk and Jizan on the Red Sea.

Why the Saudi Nuclear Plan Will Take More Time

While the Saudi government has claimed it would be able to finish all 16 reactors by 2032, as a practical matter they will only be able to complete eight units by that time. It will take until the early 2040s to commission all 16 units at three sites.

The table below shows that if the first two reactors at the first site break ground by 2020, they will enter revenue service by 2027.

There are practical limits to financing, supply chain capacity, and available workforce that will force the Saudi project to start each two unit module at least two years apart.  Also, to achieve maximum economies of scale, the project managers would not start units at all three sites at the same time.

saudi table 3Financing is a crucial element.  The ability of the Saudi oil infrastructure to produce oil is estimated to be about 12.5 million barrels a day.  The price of a barrel of oil has been in the doldrums at less that $60/bbl since January 2015.  Oil analysts point out that market conditions in the future might reduce that level of output to maintain price.

Overall , the project would represent a substantial diversion of oil income on an annual basis for the next two decades. The total cost of 17.6 Gwe at $5,000/Kw is $88 billion over a period of about 22 years

saudi table 1

The assumption here is that Saudi Arabia will lean out the construction schedule to start two units every two years. First, this move will lessen demands on the supply chain and available manpower. Second, it will reduce the amount of revenue from oil sales that will have to be diverted to reactor construction.

Why Saudi Arabia Wants Nuclear Energy

The main driver for the Saudi plans to build reactors, which were initially announced in 2011, is that at the rate that it is burning its own oil, it may have substantially less to export in just a decade or so. At a minimum, it may lose the excess capacity the rest of the world relies on when there are disruptions in supplies from other countries. One scenario suggested by energy analysts that follow oil markets is that within two decades most of the Saudi output would be used for domestic consumption.

Electricity demand is predicted to increase from 75 GWe by 2018 to more than 120 Gwe by 2030. This growth can’t be sustained by fossil fuel alone and also maintain the income stream the nation depends on from oil exports.

Nuclear reactors are an obvious choice to intervene in an unsustainable growth scenario. The 16 reactors KSA plans to build will be part of a strategy of being a regional exporter of electricity. When complete they would provide as much as one-third of all the electricity used in the country.

For more information see the World Nuclear Association’s profile of nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia last updated in October 2017.

Lack of a 1-2-3 Agreement is a Problem but not a Barrier

American firms like Westinghouse and Curtis-Wright will not be able to participate in the project unless Saudi Arabia signs a 1-2-3 Agreement with the U.S. That prospect looks problematic at best due to statements from Saudi officials that they do not want to give up the right to uranium enrichment as a strategic hedge against Iran.

The Obama administration sought but did not complete a 1-2-3 agreement with Saudi Arabia along the lines of the one it signed with the UAE, which committed to reliable fuel services rather than developing its own enrichment capabilities. The UAE has been touted as a model for other nations as a so-called “gold standard” as it has a a $20-billion contract with South Korea to build four nuclear reactors. The first of the four units will come online in 2018.

According to Mark Hibbs, a nuclear energy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the lack of a 1-2-3 agreement with the United States could impact Saudi Arabia’s ability to import nuclear technologies from other nations.

France and Japan would not transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies to Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries, along with the United States and the other members of the G8, pledged indefinitely not to export these items to newcomer countries. Saudi Arabia could get these technologies from Pakistan .

Brazil Suffers Setback in Financing for Angra-3

The Reuters wire service reports that Brazil’s government is struggling to attract investors to restart construction on its Angra 3 nuclear plant, where work has been halted since 2015.  The State controlled electric utility Centrias Electras Brqasileiras SA told the wire service it had held exploratory discussions with Russia and China but that no agreement had been reached with them nor EDF nor any other potential investor.

So far spending on the project has totaled about $5 billion with an anticipated additional spending needed of about $4 billion.  The project is said to be two-thirds complete. The utility hopes to raise the needed funds by 2019 and complete the reactor by 2025.

Brazil has plans for additional nuclear reactors, but given its inability to fund the current project to completion, investors who would want guarantees of future work, like China National Nuclear Corp., are reported to be wary of making commitments.

Once complete the price of electricity from the plant will be set at close to $0.13/KwH to cover the costs.

Budget woes were not the only reason work stopped on the project.  A major bribery and money laundering scandal involving construction firms working on the site claimed the careers of several high level government officials.

In August 2015 Federal police in Brazil have arrested Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, CEO of Elecrtrobas Termonuclear, which is building the country’s third nuclear reactor, Angra 3, on charges he took bribes from construction firms involved in the project. The investigation into the bribes got its start in an unrelated investigation into a money laundering scheme.

Standard & Poors said at the time the arrest of the nuclear chief was another “political uncertainty” that caused the rating agency to change Brazil’s credit outlook to negative.  U.S. investors have sued Electrobas for failing to disclose the arrest of the company’s CEO. Bond yields for the firm, reflecting the higher risks associated with the company’s CEO being caught up in a bribery case, rose to 8%. Elecrobas has denied any wrong doing and put the CEO on a leave of absence.

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NRC Says NuScale SMR Won’t Need Backup Electrical Power

  • The regulatory agency’s decision is a first for light water reactors and may set a precedent for future LWR type SMRs with similar designs
  • NuScale responds to questions from this blog about the NRC finding
  • NEI’s CEO applauds the NRC decision

nrc sealThe U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has told NuScale that it is satisfied that firm’s small modular reactor (SMR) design can operate safely without the need for safety-related backup electrical systems. The reactor uses passive safety features relying on convection, not pumps, to circulate water in the primary circuit.

The agency determined that NuScale Power’s safety design eliminates the need for class 1E power for its small modular reactor (SMR). Class 1E is the regulatory standard set for the design of safety-related nuclear power plant electrical systems.

In regulatory terms, the NRC approved NuScale Power’s “Safety Classification of Passive Nuclear Power Plant Electrical Systems” Licensing Topical Report. This document is where the company established the bases of how a design can be safe without reliance on any safety-related electrical power.

NuScale’s SMR is fully passive relying on natural forces like convection and gravity instead of electrically-operated pumps to circulate coolant. This means that if necessary the reactor can shut down and cool itself for indefinite periods without the need for human intervention, water being added, or external electrical power.

Currently, all nuclear plants in the U.S. are required to have class 1E power supplies to ensure safety. The NRC has limited its approval to only NuScale Power’s design. NRC’s conclusion is a key step in the review process of NuScale’s Power Module Design Certification Application (DCA).

“We appreciate the NRC staff’s focused and thorough analysis of the safety and reliability our SMR design offers and for issuing their findings so early in our DCA review,” says NuScale Power Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nuclear Officer Dale Atkinson.

“Our approach to safety is a first in the nuclear industry and exemplifies the inherent safety of NuScale’s SMR. This validation brings us another step closer to achieving our mission of delivering scalable advanced nuclear technology to produce the electricity, process heat, and clean water needed to improve the quality of life for people around the world”.

The NRC’s review of NuScale’s DCA began March 2017 and the NRC’s final report approving the design is expected to be complete by September 2020. Once approved, certified NuScale SMRs will be available to domestic customers to be licensed for construction and operation. NuScale Power is the only company to have submitted an SMR DCA.  Regulatory approval will support its first U.S. deployment by the mid 2020’s.


Conceptual drawing of the NuScale SMR  Image: NUScale

  NuScale expects the NRC to approve the reactor design by September 2020. The first commercial NuScale power plant, eventually consisting of 12 modules 50 MW linked together for a single plant installation of 600 MW, is planned to be built by NuScale and its consortium partners at the Idaho National Laboratory. It will be owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and operated by utility Energy Northwest.

Interview with NuScale

In an interview with this blog the company responds via email to a series of questions about the NRC decision.

Q: If no emergency electrical power is required, does this reduce  the cost of delivering each 50 MW unit, and the time to deliver each 50 MW unit?

A: Yes, because non-1E systems are considerably less expensive to purchase, operate and maintain than equivalent 1E systems. There is no expected reduction on the time to deliver each 50 MW module.

Q: Does it make the technology more cost competitive for utilities? What is the order of magnitude of each – approximately?

A: Yes. NuScale has not yet quantified the cost savings.

Q: Does the decision speed up the overall time to complete the SER?

A: The decision will not speed up the overall schedule.

Q: Does the NRC decision signal, from NuScale’s perspective, an possibility of flexibility in other key areas including;

  • Staffing and number of control rooms requires for a multi-module facility
  • Physical security, emergency planning zone

A: The NRC has shown flexibility with respect to NuScale’s innovative design. They are taking the time to understand the safety of the design and a willingness to accept our new approaches since we can demonstrate they are safe. Although NRC approval has not yet been obtained, other examples of NRC flexibility include control room staffing and emergency planning zone size (EPZ).

Q: Overall, what is your impression of the NRC’s approach to its first review of an LWR type SMR?

A: Overall, NuScale believes the NRC’s review is going well. Our extensive engagement with the NRC prior to submitting our application (over 250 meetings) laid the groundwork for an effective review by identifying and initiating work on many of the potential technical, regulatory, and policy issues associated with an innovative design. To date, we have found the NRC responsive and willing to discuss and understand our position so that issues can be successfully resolved.

Q: What is the expected time frame for completing the SER and applying for a COL?

A: The NRC’s current schedule is to issue the Final SER in September 2020. It appears the review is on schedule and may be slightly ahead of schedule. Our customers can submit their COL applications before our Final SER is issued. UAMPS currently plans to submit its COL application in the second quarter of 2020.

Q: Does NuScale have a target date to break ground in Idaho for its customer UAMPS?

A: Site mobilization is targeted for the second half of 2021.

NEI Applaud NRC Decision

The Nuclear Energy Institute applauded the landmark approval. In a press statement NEI President and Chief Executive Officer Maria Korsnick said;

“Scientists and engineers have long believed that small reactors have inherent safety characteristics. Now the NRC has formally endorsed that principle with its evaluation of this portion of NuScale’s design. This moves small reactors closer to commercial deployment,”

NEI added that SMRs have applications beyond utility-scale electricity generation. One 50-megawatt module can power a community of 35,000 people without needing to be connected to the national grid—a potential lifeline for isolated regions or military bases that are dependent on fossil fuel deliveries.

“Small reactors are one of the most promising new nuclear technologies to emerge in decades. There is great potential for small reactors in energy markets—domestic and overseas,” Korsnick said.

It can be used to desalinate water, provide process heat for industrial applications, or be integrated with intermittent renewables for a combined power plant that can provide 24/7, zero-carbon, affordable electricity.

Canada and the United Kingdom have expressed interest in U.S.-designed small reactor technologies, while other countries including Argentina, China, Russia and South Korea are developing their own SMR designs, both for domestic use and export markets.

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Recent Developments in Advanced Reactors in China, Russia

  • China Reported to Commit $3 billion to Development of Molten Salt Reactor Designs
  • China Begins Construction of a 600 MW Fast Reacto
  • Update on China’s HTGR, and an MOU with Saudi Arabia
  • Taishan 1 EPR Startup Delayed to 2018
  • Russia to Build Fast Reactor Fuel Plant for Brest-OD-300 Reactor. 

English language media reports indicate that the Chinese Academy of Sciences has announced plans to invest $3 billion (USD) over the next two decades in development of molten salt reactors of various designs. A first order objective is reported to be the kickoff of design and development of a first of a kind 100MW thorium molten salt reactor in 2020 in the city of Wuwei in Gansu province. Commercial development is targeted for the early 2030s.

The program is called the Thorium-Breeding Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR). According to the media reports, the R&D program has two major components and both are tied to fuel types (solid and liquid) for various kinds of molten salt designs.

tmsr roadmap

TMSR R&D Roadmap  ~ Image Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) is the lead organization operating under the sponsorship of the Academy. It has also signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for developmental work on the use of lithium-beryllium-fluoride salts as a coolant and heat transfer medium. (Technical briefing 2016 PDF file) The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is a collaborator on the project.

The Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS) Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) and the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to accelerate the development of fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactors (FHRs). The CRADA evolved from US–China interactions under a Memorandum of Understanding between the DOE and the CAS on Cooperation in Nuclear Energy Sciences and Technologies.

The CRADA is organized into a series of phases. The approved first phase tasks are 1) to commission and ORNL’s liquid salt test loop and use it to perform pebble bed heat transfer testing, 2) to perform component evaluation and testing, 3) to provide analysis software support, 4) to develop and participate in international FHR training activities, and 5) technical information exchange on FHR supportive technologies.

The lead principal investigator at SINAP is listed as Dr. Kun Chen, Professor and Director, Reactor Systems Engineering, SINAP.  He is expected to give a presentation on the technical scope and status of work in May at the Asia Nuclear Business Platform conference to be held in Shanghai, China, May 9-10..

According to a 2015 U.S. conference bio and presentation given at the University of California, Berkeley, Kun Chen received his bachelor degree in applied physics from University of Science and Technology of China in 2001, and Ph.D. in nuclear physics and scientific computing (minor) from Indiana University in 2006. After graduation, he worked for Argonne National Laboratory as a postdoc and then as a staff member for four years. He joined Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) in 2011 and served as the group leader and then the director of the Nuclear Safety and Engineering Division.

According to the World Nuclear Association the SINAP has two streams of TMSR development – solid fuel (TRISO in pebbles or prisms/blocks) with once-through fuel cycle, and liquid fuel (dissolved in fluoride coolant) with reprocessing and recycle. A third stream of fast reactors to consume actinides from LWRs is planned. The aim is to develop both the thorium fuel cycle and non-electrical applications in a 20-30 year timeframe.

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. It is optimized for high-temperature based hybrid nuclear energy applications. The TMSR-LF stream claims full closed Th-U fuel cycle with breeding of U-233 and much better sustainability with thorium but greater technical difficulty. It is optimized for utilization of thorium with electrometallurgical pyroprocessing. The Fluorine design is expected to follow the sodium cooled design by about a decade.  (January 2017 Gen IV Briefing – PDF file)

China Begins Construction of a 600 MW Fast Reactor, Announces HTGR Progress

  • Fast Reactor Update

(WNN) China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announces it has broken ground an poured first concrete for a 600 MWe fast reactor in Xiapu, Fujian province. It is scheduled to be complete by 2023.

The CFR-600 is based on a 65 MWe experimental unit which achieved criticality in July 2010 and was connected to the grid in 2011.

The 600 MWe design (IAEA profile PDF file) is considered to be a GEN-IV designs and was developed by the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy and will use a sodium cooled system. It will be powered by MOX fuel and will have two coolant loops producing steam at 480C / 896F.

There are plans to build a 1000-1200 MWe design that will use a uranium alloy metal fuel. Construction of that unit could start in 2028.

Both designs have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal.

  • Update on China’s HTGR includes MOU with Saudi Arabia

In October 2017 China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) reported that it completed the installation of its high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) project. SNPTC’s project, which consists of two 250-MW high-temperature reactor pebble-bed modules located in Shandong province. Tests at the project are expected to end in April 2018. The reactor is scheduled to enter revenue service later in 2018. ,

Construction began on the reactor in late 2012. The project is a joint venture of China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Group (CNEC) and Tsinghua University.

World Nuclear News (WNN) reported in September 2017 that the technology was praised during a roundtable discussion held at the IAEA General Conference.

“Unlike typical reactors, high-temperature reactors are particularly suitable to generate high-temperature process heat in addition to electricity. High-temperature heat from advanced nuclear reactors may be able to have a direct role in climate change mitigation as an alternative energy source for industrial processes.”

CNEC highlighted some potential uses of HTGR technology including power generation, and for process heat for the petrochemical industry.

CNEC also told the IAEA the steam outlet temperature can reach up to 1,000C which can be applied in steel making, coal gasification and hydrogen production.

WNN also reported that CNEC is currently working with Saudi Arabia on the early stages of an HTGR desalination joint venture. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in August 2017, by Zu Bin, deputy general manager of CNEC, and Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammed Al-Saud, chairman of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and chairman of the board of directors of Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co.

“According to the MOU, the two parties will work together to carry out [a] feasibility study on developing seawater desalination projects using HTGR.

The reactor uses helium as a coolant instead of water. The primary loop of helium comes out of the reactors at a temperature of 750C. The secondary loop is water to steam which goes to a conventional steam turbine and generator plant., The reactor uses TRISO fuel which makes it a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and a once-through uranium fuel cycle.

Taisahn 1 EPR Startup Delayed to 2018

(WNN) Areva’s First 1600 MWe EPR in China, the Taishan 1, has completed its hot functional tests according to China General Nuclear, but startup has been delayed until mid-2018. CGN did not provide specifics on the reason for the delay other than to say that additional verification of equipment and systems was needed which will result in the delay.

CGN said that Taisahn 2 is expected to start in 2019, but that date may change based on progress towards completion of installing all equipment and the results of system testing of the reactor in cold and hot modes.

Taishan 1 is the third Areva EPR to approach revenue service the others being units at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland which began hot function tests in December and Flamanville 3 in France which is conducting cold functional tests.

Russia to Build Fast Reactor Fuel Plant for Brest-OD-300 Reactor

(WNN) Russia plans to start a nuclear fuel fabrication plant for its lead-cooled Brest-OD-300 reactor. The Siberian Chemical Combine (SCC), a subsidiary of TVEL, the nuclear fuel manufacturing unit of Rosatom, said the plant will be located in Tomsk, Siberia, one of Russia’s so-called “nuclear cities.”

The decision to proceed is part of a larger effort that also includes construction of a 300 MW fast reactor and a spent fuel reprocessing facility, in addition to the fuel fabrication unit.

The BREST-OD(ODEK)-300 is part of Rosatom’s effort to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle using Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) fuel derived from the uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors.

According to WNN, Alexander Rodovikov, Director of Fuel Fabrication at SCC, said the equipment to fabricate the fuel had been delivered to the plant.  Nuclear Engineering International Magazine reported on Jan 2, 2018 that in late November, equipment was delivered for sintering fuel pellets.

The equipment included a unique sintering furnace lined with zirconium oxide and equipped with heating elements from tungsten. The complex is fully automated and equipped with a high-temperature furnace. Furnace equipment is manufactured by Sosny LLC (Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region) together with the French specialists of ECM Technologies.

Last year at this time there were reports that the reactor that will use the fuel was scheduled to begin construction in 2016, but that startip of the reactor project was postponed to 2018 the Russian business daily Kommersant reported in January 2017.

It is not clear how far along the procurement of components for the reactor is in terms of lining up suppliers. The cost of the reactor is also an issue and questions were raised at the time whether Rosatom can afford to build it given overall budget pressures and the state of the Russian economy. There have not been any English language updates on the progress of the reactor itself since 2017.

The World Nuclear Association reported in its most recent update of reactor technology in Russia that the reactor commissioning is expected in 2022. A budget of $809 million has been allocated for the reactor and $550 million for the fuel cycle facilities.

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Recent Developments in Nuclear Power for Space Exploration

KiloPower: A Gateway to Abundant Power for Exploration

( NASA Glenn – Cleveland, OH )– NASA is pushing forward to test a key nuclear energy source that could literally empower human crews on the Mars surface, energizing habitats and running on-the-spot processing equipment to transform Red Planet resources into oxygen, water and fuel. ( video )

The agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has awarded multi-year funding to the Kilopower project ( NASA slides – PDF file ). Testing started this Fall and will go through early next year, with NASA partnering with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site to evaluate fission power technologies.

kilopower slide from NASA 2016

Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters, explains;

“The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development. We’ll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working.” 

NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, is managing all phases of the Kilopower Project, from designing and building the hardware, with contributions from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, through developing the test plan and operating the tests. The Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is providing the uranium for the reactor core.

The DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration infrastructure and expertise are instrumental for success, Mason points out, are the talents of Los Alamos National Laboratory engineers in New Mexico.

Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says;

“A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar energy or orientation, and the ability to operate in extremely harsh environments, such as the Martian surface.”

David Poston, Los Alamos’ chief reactor designer, adds;

“The reactor technology we are testing could be applicable to multiple NASA missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration. Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design, but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety and testing.”

Moving Beyond Solar power  – Mason points out the pioneering Kilopower reactor represents a small and simple approach for long-duration, sun-independent electric power for space or extraterrestrial surfaces. Offering prolonged life and reliability, such technology could produce from one to ten kilowatts of electrical power, continuously for 10 years or more.

“What we are striving to do is give space missions an option beyond RTGs, which generally provide a couple hundred watts or so,” Mason says.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, with that heat then converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines. A Stirling engine uses heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity.

Having a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would be a game changer, Mason adds. There would be no worries about meeting power demands during the night or long, sunlight-reducing dust storms.

Mason emphasizes that it solves those issues and provides a constant supply of power regardless of where you are located on Mars. Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes, where ice may be present.

“The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars, and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power. This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts, or even megawatts of power. We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less.”

The novel energy-providing technology also makes possible a modular option for human exploration of Mars. Small enough in size, multiple units could be delivered on a single Mars lander and operated independently for human surface missions.

BWXT to Develop Advanced Nuclear
Thermal Propulsion Technology for NASA

As NASA pursues innovative, cost-effective alternatives to conventional propulsion technologies to forge new paths into the solar system, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, say nuclear thermal propulsion technologies are more promising than ever, and have contracted with BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia, to further advance and refine those concepts.

bwxt LEU

  • Fact Sheetincludes a conceptual design of a totally contained engine ground test.

Part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project could significantly change space travel, largely due to its ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine.

A nuclear thermal rocket has double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle main engine, one of the hardest-working standard chemical engines of the past 40 years. That capability makes nuclear thermal propulsion ideal for delivering large, automated payloads to distant worlds.

“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond,” said Sonny Mitchell, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at Marshall. “We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”

An NTP system can cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to radiation. That also could reduce the vehicle mass, enabling deep space missions to haul more payload.

Given its experience in developing and delivering nuclear fuels for the U.S. Navy, BWXT will aid in the design and testing of a promising, low-enriched uranium-based nuclear thermal engine concept and “Cermet” — ceramic metallic — fuel element technology.

During this three-year, $18.8-million contract, the company will manufacture and test prototype fuel elements and also help NASA properly address and resolve nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements.

BWXT will aid NASA in refining the feasibility and affordability of developing a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, delivering the technical and programmatic data needed to determine how to implement this promising technology in years to come.

Background on RTGs

Plutonium_pelletNASA has used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for decades to convert heat from the natural decay of radioactive elements (PU-238) directly into electricity.

Nuclear fission provides a compact, reliable source of electricity, especially in situations where solar panels would be ineffective.

The radioactive decay of the PU-238 isotope causes a temperature difference across plates of two different kinds of metal — one connected to the reactor and the other to a radiator, which produces a voltage. RTGs have the benefit of containing no moving parts, which could wear down on long missions, with no chance for maintenance or replacement.  Advanced nuclear power systems, like Kilopower, use a Stirling Engine, which does have moving parts, and which also has an estimated 14 year operational life.

Infograpohic on Nuclear Energy for Deep Space Missions

Source (used with permission): All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

For more than 50 years, NASA's robotic deep space probes have carried nuclear batteries provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. Even the crewed Apollo moon landings carried nuclear powered equipment.


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Vogtle 3 & 4 Nuclear Reactors are a "Go" for Completion

The twin reactors are the only new construction of Gen III+ designs currently underway in the U.S.

PSCSealIn a tough vote the Georgia Commission voted unanimously to give a conditional” approval for completion of the Vogtle 3 & 3 AP1000 nuclear reactors now under construction in Georgia. The project was in danger of being cancelled like its counterpart in South Carolina where the V C Summer project has ended in disarray.

In voting 5-0 the commissioners overruled the recommendation of their staff who said that there was not an economic justification for a decision to go forward with the reactors.

The failure of Westinghouse to execute basic project management methods as the EPC lead was a major contributing factor to the problems at both Vogtle and V C Summer. Westinghouse is now in bankruptcy proceedings, and Toshiba, is parent firm, is also in financial distress having lied about its earnings by saying it booked $1.2 billion in revenue that never happened. A buyer is being sought for Westinghouse so that Toshiba can exit the nuclear energy industry.

Paul Bowers, CEO of Georgia Power, said the recommendation was based on the results of a comprehensive schedule, cost and cancellation assessment that was prompted by the bankruptcy of former primary Vogtle contractor Westinghouse in March 2017. He added that Vogtle 3 is expected online in November 2021 and Vogtle 4 in November 2022.

Costs Were a Driver of a PSC Staff Recommendation to Cancel the Project

cancelThe original cost of both of the reactors was estimated at $6.1 billion in 2009.  That works out to about $2,350/Kw.  These cost estimates may have been optimistic since the overnight cost of the twin ABWRs at the South Texas Project, announced two years earlier in 2007, were in the range of $2,700/Kw.

Completion cost of the twin AP1000s is now slated to be $23 billion for both units that works out to about $10,000/Kw which is well above the current global average “overnight cost” of $6,100/Kw.

Even with a 30% swing factor, which would put the overnight cost at a high of $7,900/Kw, the reactors are still perceived as being over priced which has led to howls of protest from rate payers and may lead to lawsuits aimed at the PSC decision from anti-nuclear groups bent on shutting down the entire project.

These numbers led to a staff recommendation that was based on the cost issue. The Washington Post reported 12/04/17 that they told the Georgia Public Service Commission that the Vogtle power station “is no longer economic” because of its huge cost overruns, construction delays and “the burden that would be placed on ratepayers while the company profits.”

They added that the economic costs of the nuclear reactors would outweigh the benefits by $1.6 billion.  According to the Post, the staff advised the commission to block rate increases for costs due to mismanagement, the Westinghouse bankruptcy, and construction delays.

“It is unreasonable for ratepayers to have to bear increased costs as a result of the Units not being constructed efficiently,” the staff report said.

PSC Defends its Decision

Georgia PSC chairman Stan Wise said the decision came down to the importance of fuel diversity. It appears that not everyone thinks that low natural gas prices are going to last forever. Here are some highlights from the PSC’s decision (full text).

  • The Commission determined that Plant Vogtle Units Three and Four should be completed.
  • The Commission approved and verified $542 million in expenditures on the Vogtle Construction project from January 1, 2017 through June 30, 2017.
  • The Company will take a portion of the amounts received from the Toshiba Parent Guaranty and credit customers with three $25 monthly credits to be received no later than the third quarter of 2018.
  • The Commission approves and finds reasonable the Company’s revised schedule and cost forecast. The approved cost forecast will be reduced by the actual amounts of the Toshiba Parent Guaranty applied to the project’s construction in progress.

World Nuclear News (WNN) reported that a new conditional commitment of about $1.67 billion in additional loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, announced in September, and the recent payment by Toshiba of 100% of parent guarantees which had been scheduled to take place over several years, will also help to minimize the impact of the new units on electricity bills, the company said. The parent guarantee payments, in addition to penalties, are expected to contribute $2.75 billion.

The utilities building the V C Summer projects factored their payment from Toshiba to get all of the money upfront.  Reuters reported that Georgia Power held onto its settlement. It said that Toshiba would pay the remainder of its $3.68 billion guarantee settlement by Dec. 15. Those payments were originally agreed to run through 2021.

Tax Legislation Faces Uncertain Fate

A key item is that Georgia PSC Chairman Wise emphasized that the PSC’s approval is conditional on Congress approving $800 million worth of tax credits for the project. The tax credits were not included in the legislation passed by Congress on 12/20/17. New legislation will be needed in 2018 to achieve this result.

The Vogtle project will face competition for these tax credits from a developer in Tennessee who wants them to pay for completion of the partial completed Bellefonte reactors located in Scottsboro, Alabama.  That project will have two state congressional delegations in its corner compared to just one for Voglte in Georgia.

Additionally, developers of small modular reactors are asking for similar financial support in terms of tax credits to jump start their industry. Entrepreneurs developing both LWR and advanced fast reactors, such as molten salt designs,  are spread out all over the U.S. Whether they could mobilize vendors in their planned supply chains to support the tax legislation remains to be seen.

All of these pleadings for tax credits will face an uphill battle due to the fact that the republican controlled congress passed a tax reform bill in December that creates a $1.5 trillion deficit.

House and Senate leaders are talking about massive cuts to health insurance and other entitlement programs to pay for the tax bill’s budget busting effects.

The tax bill is not popular with voters as it is seen, correctly, as primarily benefitting people in upper income brackets. With 55 million people depending on Medicare, and in others like Medicaid which has 73 million people enrolled in it, that’s a lot of “no” votes to reductions in these program,

However, media reports said senators began laying the groundwork for approving the tax credits when the finance committee introduced legislation that would effectively guarantee the $23 billion costs of the project.

WNN notes that Georgia Power supports the legislation which would enable the Vogtle plant to continue to qualify for advanced nuclear production tax credits if the units enter service after 2021. Under existing tax rules the units – expected to start commercial operation in November 2021 (unit 3) and November 2022 (unit 4) – would need to be brought on line before 1 January 2021 to qualify for credits.

Construction has continued uninterrupted at Vogtle following Westinghouse’s bankruptcy, with Southern Nuclear taking over as project manager at the site and Bechtel managing construction. More than 5,000 people work at the site.

Two Georgia PSC Commissioners Explain their Votes

In a widely distributed OP ED, Chuck Eaton and Tim Echols, Georgia Public Service Commissioners, explained their votes and why it is important for the project to move forward.

The two commissioner acknowledged the frustration of ratepayers, and pointed out that the utilities building the plants will be held accountable.

“We most certainly understand the frustration from our ratepayers.  For this very reason, we voted this week to put in place risk-sharing mechanisms to save consumers money—especially if the project runs later than expected.  Even as we approved a new higher cost and schedule for the beleaguered project, we have imposed penalties on Georgia Power reducing their overall revenue collection from current ratepayers by over $1.7 billion.  And at the end of the project, we are prepared to disallow every single penny of imprudent expenditures—including schedule delays because of such. “

The OP ED also points a well-deserved finger of blame at Westinghouse. Once the nation’s premier nuclear energy developer, it was driven into the ditch by mismanagement from its senior leadership team.

“Let’s be honest. It was the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the prime Vogtle project contractor and reactor designer, that has put us in the pickle we are in. All the protections we had built into their contract were made null and void by their self-serving action to walk away from their contract with Georgia Power.”

Eaton and Echols also noted that the pain of the Westinghouse debacle was mitigated by a cash payment from Toshibva.

“It is important to note that Toshiba, Westinghouse’s parent company has paid a significant penalty for Westinghouse’s failure – $3.68 billion or 40 percent of the original contract price. This payment will reduce the cost of the project and that benefits customers. That payment made a difficult vote a little better.”

Finally, they point out the economic benefits of completing the reactors.

“Based on a consulting study by the Brattle Group, a single nuclear plant produces about $450 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community.  Moreover, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show the median nuclear plant operator earns an average annual wage of $91,170, so the 800 permanent jobs created by these new reactors will go a long way to boost the Georgia economy too.  So too are the 6000 construction jobs now on site at the plant.

Ceasing construction on the new units would have been like pulling $115 million in annual payroll from the regional economy.  In lieu of building this project, we could consider shorter-term options such as “leasing” a gas plant or out-of-state wind turbines.  But having Georgia-grown nuclear power that can last 80 years provides reliable baseload electricity over the longer term despite the higher upfront costs. “

In closing they address the case made by anti-nuclear groups that the reactors should be cancelled and investments made in renewable energy projects.

“Georgia Power also looked at renewable energy. In this case, the total cost to replace Vogtle capacity with solar PV coupled with battery storage is roughly $25 billion, accounting for a 60-year asset life.  That’s $7 billion for 4,000 megawatts of solar panels, and another $18 billion for 3000 megawatts of lithium ion batteries.  And these estimates don’t include the cost of the 30,000 acres of land needed.”

Echols said in a separate online essay that,

“The Commission passed my motion to approve a new cost and schedule forecast for Georgia Power to finish this massive project. At the same time, we are requiring them to share in the “pain” by reducing their overall revenue collection from current ratepayers by over $1.7 billion. And at the end of the project, we are prepared to disallow every single penny of imprudent expenditures — including schedule delays because of any mismanagement or failure to perform.”

NEI Weighs In

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) was consistently a strong supporter of completion of the Vogtle reactors.  NEI CEO Maria Korsnick testified before the PSC on December 12, 2017.

“NEI believes that building new nuclear power plants in the United States is vital for this safe, reliable, clean air electricity source to maintain its important role in our nation’s energy mix,” Korsnick stated. “I urge the commission to consider the overall benefits of nuclear generation as part of its deliberation on the specific issues before it in this proceeding.”

At the hearing, Korsnick also sounded a note of warning on the strategic importance of maintaining U.S. expertise in nuclear technology and manufacturing.

“Completion of the Vogtle reactors will signal that the United States continues to be a significant force in the global nuclear industry. If the U.S. forgoes its role as a leader in the global nuclear industry, the world will look to active nuclear nations like China and Russia for leadership, which will put them in a position to develop future international standards for nuclear energy technology use.”

Nuclear energy is the largest and most efficient source of carbon-free electricity in the United States, with 99 reactors in 30 states generating nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity—and nearly 60 percent of its carbon-free electricity.

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Hitachi-GE ABWR Passes UK GDA

  • Horizon Nuclear Power is proposing to build and operate two of these reactors in Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey and two more Oldbury-on-Severn near Thornbury in South Gloucestershire.
  • Construction on the first two units at Wylfa is expected to begin in 2025. When all four units are complete they will provide 5.4 GWe of electricity to the UK.

The UK Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (UK ABWR), designed by Hitachi-GE is suitable for construction in the UK, the regulators confirmed following completion of an in-depth assessment of the nuclear reactor design.

At the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) the regulators who undertake the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) of new reactor designs, said they are satisfied that this reactor meets regulatory expectations on safety, security and environmental protection.

ONR has issued a Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) and the environment agencies have issued a Statement of Design Acceptability (SoDA) to Hitachi-GE.


Conceptual view of Hitachi-GE ABWR/  Image source: Hitachi-GE

Mark Foy, ONR’s Chief Nuclear Inspector said:

“The completion of the generic design assessment of the UK ABWR is a significant step in our regulation of the overall process to construct this type of reactor in the UK, ensuring that the generic design meets the highest standards of safety that we expect in this country. “

“We’re already working on our assessment of Horizon’s site license application and on the development of the site specific safety case to progress, in due course, the construction and operation of these reactors at Wylfa Newydd.”

According to a report by WNN the GDA is a voluntary process for reactor vendors that applies to England and Wales, and is a policy rather than law, but it is a British government expectation for all new build projects.

A reactor vendor, or the ‘requesting party’, has completed the GDA process when it receives a Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) from the nuclear regulator and a Statement of Design Acceptability (SoDA) from environmental regulators.

Hitachi’s UK ABWR began the Generic Design Assessment process for its UK subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power in April 2013. The process has entailed detailed assessments and submissions across 20 topic workstreams.

There are four ABWR plants operational at three sites in Japan: two at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa site; one at Hamaoka site and one at Shika site. There are further plants under construction at Shimane and Ohma sites in Japan.

At full power, a single ABWR reactor produces around 1350MWe of electricity – enough to power more than two million homes.

The design is also licensed in the U.S. though no new ABWRs are expected to be built there. A new design, the 1535 MW ESBWR, has been developed by GE-Hitachi and passed the safety review by the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in October 2014.

Two utilities have referenced the ESBWR in their COL applications to the NRC – DTE for FERMI III in Michigan and Dominion for a new reactor at North Anna in Virginia. Neither utility has set a date for the start of construction.

Four ABWRs Planned for UK

Horizon Nuclear Power hopes to build two ABWR units at Wylfa Newydd site on the island of Anglesey in north Wales and start them up in around 2025. The units would be the first commercial boiling water reactors in the UK. Horizon also plans two UK ABWR units for its site in Oldbury, Gloucestershire.

NucNet reported that Duncan Hawthorne, Horizon’s chief executive, said:

“This is a huge milestone for Horizon and a major leap forward for us in bringing much-needed new nuclear power to the UK.”

Horizon said today that “steady progress” is being made with the Hitachi-backed Wylfa Newydd project, including the submission of the site license application and completion of a third public consultation. Attention will now turn to financing the Wylfa Newydd project.

Earlier this year Horizon said: “We have always been clear that we are looking to bring other investors into Horizon. Based on the strengths of our project, we are in positive discussions with a number of parties.”

UK ABWR Executives Chart Path Ahead for Horizon

(WNN) Successful completion of the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process for Hitachi-GE’s UK Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (UK ABWR) is a “huge step forward” for Hitachi’s UK subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power, two senior executives said this week.

Hitachi-GE Regulatory Advisor Dave Watson and Horizon Technical Director Mark Lunn spoke to World Nuclear News as the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales announced yesterday they had awarded the UK ABWR a Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) and a Statement of Design Acceptability (SoDA).

Lunn said: “It’s a huge step forwards for us with the project because it shows an ability to deliver to schedule. The number of the assessment findings that we’d consider to be technically challenging is also significantly lower than what previous GDAs have seen.”

Read the full report at World Nuclear News.

UK to Develop New Financial Mechanisms for its Nuclear New Build

(Reuters) Hitachi’s Horizon Nuclear Power unit expects to see an outline in 2018 from Britain’s government how it will help finance a nuclear project in Wales.

Britain is seeking new ways to fund nuclear projects after criticism over a deal awarded to France’s EDF to build the first nuclear plant in Britain for 20 years at the Hinkley Point site. There two Areva 1650 MW EPRs will be built. When complete they will provide 7% of the electricity used in the UK.

The government has said it is reconsidering using a rate guarantee to attract investors for new nuclear plants. Instead, one of the alternatives being looked at its direct investment in new projects. At some point after the plants have been operational and proven themselves the government might then sell off the units to equity investors.

Separately, Reuters reported that South Korea’s state utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) said last week it had been picked as a preferred bidder for Toshiba’s NuGen nuclear project in Britain, throwing the troubled project a lifeline.

KEPCO said in a statement the company planned to negotiate with Toshiba over the next few months to buy a stake in the nuclear project and sign a deal in the first half of next year if the negotiation progressed smoothly.

Improvements Needed in Processes that Support UK New Nuclear Build

A report by a professional society of engineers says the government should hold an independent review of the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process, a necessary step for the approval of any reactor in the UK. The review is needed to prevent unnecessary costs and enable the faster approval of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

Other “key actions” include adding nuclear construction skills to the shortage occupation list ahead of Brexit – allowing experienced workers from overseas to enter the UK, and running a new Strategic Siting Assessment to identify further nuclear sites beyond Hinkley Point C’s potential completion in 2025, including locations for SMRs.


Major Nuclear New Build Sites in UK: Image: WNA

“The delays and escalating costs of the Hinkley Point C project have provoked a public backlash in recent years against nuclear power,” said Jenifer Baxter, lead author of the report an head of energy and environment at the IMechE.

The key challenge to the nuclear sector is reducing costs and delays, she said. An independent review of the assessment process will make it easier to approve SMRs and ensure unnecessary costs are not incurred, she added.

“SMRs present a lower-cost option, with comparatively straightforward construction and, potentially, a more attractive investment proposition than conventional larger-scale nuclear plants.”

More licensed sites are needed around the country to make the most of SMRs, said Andrew Storer, CEO of the University of Sheffield’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to Professional Engineering.

All of the large full size nuclear plants planned for the UK are at coastal locations to take advantage of sea water for cooling purposes and to facilitate delivery of large components via barge.  SMRs could take advantage of inland sites since component manufacturing would allow them to be delivered by truck or train.

See also the World Nuclear Association profile of the UK nuclear new build for details of all projects at all sites.

Finnish Cities To Explore Small Modular Reactors For District Heating

(NucNet) The Finnish cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Kirkkonummi have begun studies to find out if it would be feasible to replace coal and natural gas in district heating with small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), the environmental group Ecomodernist Society of Finland said.

The society said a feasibility study will be carried out into the potential for SMRs to replace fossil fuel-burning in cities around the Helsinki metropolitan area. Several advanced SMRs are in development and coming to market by 2030 that could meet the specifications.

Most of the district heating in Finland is produced by burning coal, natural gas, wood fuels and peat. While many Finnish cities have progressive climate policies and goals, they have struggled to decarbonise heating and liquid fuels.

Rauli Partanen, vice-chair of the society and an independent energy analyst and author, said there are “significant economic possibilities” in producing combined heat and power (CHP) with nuclear reactors.

“With CHP, the reactor could produce roughly twice the value per installed capacity compared with just electricity production, while at the same time decarbonising heat production.”

He said nuclear is great for baseload needs, but with advanced technologies such as high temperature reactors and high temperature electrolysis, nuclear can also be used to decarbonise not just electricity, heat but also transportation fuels and many industries.:

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White House May Relax 123 Rules for Westinghouse Saudi Nuclear Deal

  • atoms for peace stampThe U.S. government is pursuing an effort to promote the sale of Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia.
  • Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act requires a bilateral agreement with any country that wants U.S. nuclear technology exports. The U.S. has insisted that countries signing such agreements set aside any plans for enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.  (See summary below)
  • A total of 48 countries have signed such agreements but Saudi Arabia is not one of them. Saudi Arabia has for years resisted accepting a 123 agreement with these conditions.
  • The Trump Administration is now considering accepting Saudi Arabia’s objections in order to support a Westinghouse bid for at least two and as many as 16 nuclear reactors. At $5,000/Kw, the projects would be worth about $12 billion for the first two units.

The Bloomberg wire service reports that U.S. President Donald Trump considering easing nuclear rules for the Saudi project.

The wire service reports that Westinghouse is looking for new markets after it emerges from bankruptcy. Past deals have barred uranium enrichment for international projects which is an issue which has prevented Saudi Arabia from signing a 1-2-3 Agreement with the U.S. Without it U.S. nuclear firms cannot do business with that country.

The change that is on the table is that the Trump administration wants Saudi Arabia to consider bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other U.S. companies such as Curtis Wright, which makes reactor pumps, to build nuclear reactors in that country. To get to that point it may make a policy change and allow enrichment of uranium as part of that deal.

The action by the Trump Administration follows an unsuccessful effort by Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, working with several consulting firms, to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia and Jordan in return for lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia.

Paradoxically, while Flynn claimed he was promoting U.S. reactor firms, had he been successful, Russian and/or Chinese firms would have won the business. Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about lifting the sanctions.

Alarm bells go off among weapons control experts

This proposal has alarmed nonproliferation experts at the Lawfare Center / Brookings Mieke Eoyang and Laura S. H. Holgate, both experts in these matters, point out that Flynn’s plan was dangerous because it could set off an arms race in the Middle East. They write that “Flynn’s actions could have further destabilized an already volatile region.” The experts say Saudi Arabia wants the enrichment capability so that it could eventually develop a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran

Bloomberg quotes Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, who said weakening the prohibition against enrichment and reprocessing, often referred to as “the gold standard,” is disturbing given what he said was Saudi Arabia’s “sub-par nuclear nonproliferation record.”

“We shouldn’t compromise our longstanding efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons in order to play favorites with certain companies or countries,” he said in an email, calling the idea “disturbing and counterproductive.”

At the Nuclear Policy Education Center executive director Henry Sokolski and nonproliferation expert Victor Gilinsky published an essay in November critical of efforts by DOE Energy Secretary Rick Perry to promote Westinghouse reactors for export to the Middle East.

Perry, told Congress in October 12 testimony,  that “we have to support this industry,” because, among other things, it is important to the success of our nonproliferation policy. Sokolski and Gilinski argue that Perry’s position actually would, if implemented, do the opposite.

For its part Westinghouse told Bloomberg “Westinghouse is pleased that Saudi Arabia has decided to pursue nuclear energy,” Sarah Cassella, a spokeswoman, said.

“We are fully participating in their request for information and are pleased to provide the AP1000 plant, the industry’s most advanced technology.”

Is Saudi Arabia ready to buy nuclear reactors from Westinghouse?

There are a a few reasons why the Saudi Arabian government isn’t 100% ready to to want to do business with Westinghouse even if the U.S. loosens the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act.

What the firm has in terms of a reputation is that it ran the V C Summer project into South Carolina into the ditch with bad project managers and is bankrupt for it. That project is now cancelled by the utilities that got started with it with little prospect that another firm will want complete it.

The surprise about the failure at V C Summer is that there are no surprises. All of the faults that caused the project in South Carolina to come to an early halt are with failures to follow project management schedule and cost control standard practices that have been known since Admiral Rickover supervised the construction of the first nuclear submarines in the 1950s.

This is not a sterling recommendation. Note that the UAE decided not to accept a bid from Areva for four nuclear reactors after learning of costly schedule delays at a project in Finland. The Saudi energy ministry would undoubtedly do similar reviews of the track record of any bidder for its program.

South Korea seems to be in a better position to win the Saudi contracts

In September 2017 the Saudi energy ministry released an RFP that cites the power rating (1400 MW of the nuclear reactors being built by South Korea in the UAE.  It follows that the Saudi government, if they do anything, will be to try to get the South Korean units.

Most importantly, the Saudi procurement team can kick the tires of the UAE units, so to speak, prior to signing on the bottom line.  The first of four UAE units comes online in 2018 and South Korea has a similar reactor in revenue service at home which is where the UAE plant operators are learning how to run it.

Another reason is that the experienced skilled trades that are building the four units in the UAE would be available. This experience is invaluable and could shave costs of construction since the workers would have already built these types of units. The UAE units will be operating in revenue service and available to train the Saudi plant operators in Arabic.

Add to that the experience of the South Korean project managers, and the supply chain for long lead time large components like steam generators and reactor pressure vessels that is in place in South Korea, and the choice becomes more attractive

The UAE model of eventually returning the spent nuclear fuel to its suppliers (Areva and Tenex) is an obvious model for any commercial deal with Saudi Arabia. It would be the one reason Congress might accept a Westinghouse deal, but it would thwart the Saudi desire for enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

South Korea’s 123 agreement, updated in 2016,  with the U.S. still prohibits reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel so it would not be able to take back fuel from Saudi Arabia for this purpose. The agreement between South Korea and the U.S. opens the door for enrichment of uranium by South Korea, but only after further consultations. In diplomatic speak, that means the door is open without a specific timetable.

In signing the updated agreement South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the fact that it is exporting nuclear reactors to the UAE and hopes to do the same to other countries, including the USA.  South Korea has recently entered into negotiations to supply its reactors to the UK’s NuGen Moorside project following its abandonment for financial reasons by Toshiba, the parent firm of Westinghouse.

It occurs to me, and other observers, that Westinghouse has asked the White House for help to promote the Saudi deal in an effort to get the price up for sale of the troubled and bankrupt business unit to a buyer. By touting the potential for a Saudi deal, a buyer might be more interested. Hopefully, any buyer will have good help with their due diligence.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty Picked for DOE Nuclear Security Undersecretary Post

nnsalogoLisa Gordon-Hagerty, president of national security consulting firms Tier Tech International and LEG Inc., will be nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as undersecretary for nuclear security at the Energy Department.

Gordon-Hagerty previously worked at DOE as director of the department’s emergency response office and acting director of its nuclear weapons surety office.

She also served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and spent more than five years as director for combating terrorism at the National Security Council, where she helped coordinate U.S. governmental efforts to prevent, deter and respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and conventional threats.

Her professional career also includes time as executive vice president and chief operating officer of enriched uranium fuel supplier USEC Inc. (now Centrus) and a health physicist at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Under Secretary for Nuclear Security, in the United States Department of Energy, is the Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  At DOE nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is one of its key missions.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s responsibilities include designing, producing, and maintaining safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons for the U.S. military, providing safe, militarily effective naval nuclear propulsion plants, and promoting international nuclear safety and nonproliferation.

Summary of a 123 Agreement

Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act requires the conclusion of a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement for significant transfers of nuclear material, equipment, or components from the United States to another nation.

Moreover, such agreements, commonly referred to as “123 Agreements,” facilitate cooperation in other areas, such as technical exchanges, scientific research, and safeguards discussions.

In conjunction with other nonproliferation tools, particularly the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) ,123 Agreements help to advance U.S. nonproliferation principles.  They establish the legal framework for significant nuclear cooperation with other countries.

In order for a country to enter into a 123 Agreement with the United States, that country must commit to U.S.-mandated nuclear nonproliferation norms.

The U.S. State Department is responsible for negotiating 123 Agreements, with the technical assistance and concurrence of DOE/NNSA and consultation with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As of January 20, 2017, the United States has entered into 23 such agreements that govern peaceful nuclear cooperation with 48 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governing authorities on Taiwan.

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