UK Gov’t push for SMRs hits Brexit and looming skills crisis

  • Storm CloudsA renewed push by the UK government to plan to meet the nation’s energy needs with small modular reactors is facing two enormous challenges.
  • The so-called SMR competition never awarded any of the $250M{L} in development money due to the distractions of Brexit and possible unraveling of ties to Euratom.
  • These uncertainties if left unresolved will push skilled workers into other professions leaving the nuclear industry with no one to build its full size plants like Hinkley Point or future small modular reactors.

Major vendors of nuclear technologies in the UK may have finally gotten the government’s attention in an effort to restart the SMR competition and get some or all of the money out the door. Four firms – Rolls-Royce, Hitachi, Westinghouse, and NuScale have gone public with their concerns that the government, distracted by Brexit, had dropped the ball on the program.  In response the House of Lords issued a statement that it was “alarmed” by the government’s failure to make the money available.

A spokesman for the government agency in charge of the SMR money told the Telegraph newspaper that it plans to get the ball rolling again, but did not commit to a date to award the money.

One of the problems is that the minister who advocated for the program – George Osborne – is no longer part of the government.  At the time he said that the cash awards for development of SMRs “would revive the UK’s nuclear expertise.”

Osborne vigorously opposed the Brexit vote and was shown the door when PM Theresa May came to power.

Success for SMRs depends on the firms developing them being able to develop factories to build them in modules. In turn this means developing a robust supply chain and having skilled workers for both the factories and the reactor sites.

All of these elements being in place depend on having sufficient orders from customers which so far have not materialized. Without them investors will not put up the money for the factories and the planned economies of scale will not emerge to make SMRs competitive.

Tony Roulstone of the Cambridge Nuclear Energy Center told a nuclear trade journal – the Engineer Magazine – that, “The manufacturing approach works in every other industry. Nuclear is the only one where it’s not.”

UK Nuclear Workers Vote with Their Feet

The Financial Times reports that the UK will not have enough skilled workers to build the next generation of nuclear power plants. The reason is that the government has left too many questions unanswered in terms of how many of the planned full size nuclear reactors will actually be built.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 engineers, skilled trades, and construction workers will be needed if all 19 GWe of nuclear power plants are built over the next 10-15 years.  Even as work is proceeding on the twin 1600 MW Areva EPRs at Hinkley point, problems with investment in the Moorside project make a commitment to breaking ground a distant prospect. The reason is that the plant is supposed to consist of three 1150 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, but the company declared bankruptcy in the U.S.

Other barriers include competition from other large infrastructure projects like a high speed rail line. The likelihood of importing foreign workers will be limited by the fact that the UK is leaving the EU making the labor shortage even more acute.

Training new workers for nuclear project takes longer because safety and security regulations add to the duration and cost of the effort.  The remote sites of new nuclear power plants puts them at some distance from cities where there is surplus labor. Many workers with families will not live at the remote sites in temporary quarters for the long periods of time needed to build the plants – as along as six-to eight years.

The government has started apprentice programs at colleges near the nuclear sites to encourage young people to enter the industry that way.

Nuclear Industry’s Woes Are Putting US Security At Risk

(NucNet): Former US DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz says the decline of the US nuclear energy industry is putting the country’s security at risk. In a report issued by his consulting firm, Moniz that calls for greater federal investment in the industry. The report from the Energy Futures Initiative says a commercial nuclear power sector is necessary to keep uranium-processing technology away from terrorists and to support nuclear-powered Navy vessels.

It says: “The dominant Russian presence in the Mideast nuclear power market does not augur well for US national security objectives.”

The report by Mr Moniz, a nuclear scientist who served as energy secretary under president Barack Obama, calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.It warns that the US faces the threat of a diminished workforce in the nuclear energy sector.

Domestic university programs are likely to tip more towards international students coming from countries with expanding nuclear prospects, which will further dilute the pool of American nationals who can fill national security roles. Retirements are also a significant concern, as the nuclear power sector will soon lose 25,000 skilled workers to retirement. The report is online:

NRC Approves Power Uprate For Three-Unit Browns Ferry In Alabama

(NucNet): The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved a request by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to increase the power generating capacity of Units 1, 2, and 3 at the Browns Ferry nuclear power station in Alabama by a combined total of 14.3%. The upgrades will add approximately 155 MW of electric power output to each of the three units.

This means each unit will have a net capacity of about 1,255 MW after the uprates. The NRC said TVA could increase the reactors’ output primarily through upgrading plant systems and components. The NRC said TVA plans to make the upgrades during a series of refuelling outages scheduled for the units in 2018 and 2019. Browns Ferry-1, -2, and -3 are all boiling water reactor units in commercial operation since the mid-1970s.

What is interesting about this decision by TVA is that two years ago it said in its 20 yeasr Integrated Resource Plan that it would need no new nuclear energy capacity in the foreseeable future. This is a significant uprate equal to a mid-range SMR. Separately, TVA is continuing to pursue an early site permit for an SMR at its Clinch River site.

China Approves Plan to Promote Unified Nuclear Reactor Brand

(Reuters) – China has approved a plan from its two state nuclear developers to promote a single integrated nuclear reactor brand that will help speed up construction and strengthen their ability to compete in markets overseas.

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the China General Nuclear Project Corporation (CGN) have been jointly developing an advanced model known as the “Hualong One”, but despite government pressure, they have continued to work separately on their own designs.

In a plan approved by regulators last week, the two companies agreed to use integrated technical standards when building Hualong reactors. They will also transfer intellectual property rights to Hualong International, a joint venture launched by the firms last year, China’s Energy Observer reported, citing a CGN spokesman.

With China aiming to become a dominant global nuclear player, the government told CNNC and CGN in 2011 to pool technology instead of competing for the same projects.

The aim is for the Hualong One to compete with advanced models such as the Westinghouse AP1000 or the European Pressurized Reactor designed by France’s Areva.

China has a deal with the UK to build two Hualong One reactors at the Bradwell site sometime in the 2020s. It has another deal to build one in Argentina.

Olkiluoto-3 EPR Set For Commercial Operation In December 2018

(NucNet) Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 EPR remains on track to begin commercial operation in December 2018 as it nears a comprehensive test phase, the plant’s project director said on August 17, 2017, according to Reuters. The news agency said the unit is running almost a decade behind its original schedule.

Meanwhile, owner Teollisuuden Voima (TVO) and the plant suppliers, an Areva-Siemens consortium, continue their legal case related to its rising costs.

However, problems at the site are now over, project director Jouni Silvennoinen told Reuters. He said hot functional testing is due to start in the coming months.

Reuters said the project’s total costs have increased from an initial estimate of €3.2bn ($3.8bn) to around €8.5bn.

TVO spokesman Pasi Tuohimaa was quoted as saying plans for a fourth Olkiluoto unit could be revived once Olkiluoto-3 is up and running. The Reuters report is online:

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China to deploy floating nuclear power plants to support geopolitical goals in S. E. Asia

  • The nation has been building a series of artificial islands in the South China sea as a means of projecting military power in the region. The islands need power and potable water which could be supplied by the floating reactors.
  • China’s geopolitical ambitions are to control maritime traffic which the U.S. and its allies, Japan and South Korea, see as an effort to restrain their military presence in the region.
  • Once the reactors are in place China will use the military assets they support on the artificial islands to protect them.
CNNP floating-nuclear-power-plant-399360

Conceptual cutaway drawing of a Chinese floating nuclear power plant. Image source: China National Nuclear Corp.

The China Daily reports this week that a joint venture to develop and produce as many as 20 small, floating nuclear power plants has been set up by State-owned China National Nuclear Power Co and four other domestic companies, according to an announcement released on August 9th. The new venture would start with 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in registered capital, the announcement said.

Exploitation of marine resources is vital to China’s efforts to build itself into a maritime power, said Wang Yiren, deputy director of the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

Such marine plants can sail to where they are needed and be used for many different needs. The demand for such power plants, expected to be in the range of 200 MW, is will grow given that China is building artificial islands in the South China sea as part of an effort to project military power in the region.

The joint venture will seek to strengthen China’s nuclear power capabilities in line with its ambitions to “become a strong maritime power,” the company said in a statement.  The statement did not say how or where the technologies will be used, but observers told Reuters it is likely they will be deployed in areas such as the South China Sea.

According to Reuters Wang Yiren, vice-director of the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, said earlier this year that the expansion of China’s nuclear energy capabilities was a vital part of its five-year plan. The country will prioritize the development of a floating nuclear power platform in order to support its offshore oil and gas activities, and its presence in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, he told state media.

Beijing has increasingly been flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, with the development of artificial islands and more frequent naval patrols. It has declared sovereignty over 85% of the region and is engaged in multiple territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Collin Koh, a military expert from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University, told Reuters;

“China sees securing the ability to develop marine nuclear tech as a manifestation of its maritime power status. It will enhance Beijing’s staying power and assert its claims, as military garrisons and civilian personnel living on those remote outposts would be able to sustain themselves better [and therefore stay longer].”

us destroyer

The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain. Image: U.S. Navy file photo.

In response a U.S. Navy destroyer, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” on August 9th, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.

Carlyle Thayer, a regional security expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that if nuclear power plants were built in the South China Sea, Beijing would have to provide security for them.

“It makes living conditions and life there much improved, and it’s a sign of Chinese permanence. The more infrastructure China puts on there … they can say, we’re only doing necessary defense to protect our people and our facilities.”

Although the nuclear power plants would have both military and civilian uses, it would “raise the cost of the conflict” in the region, he said. A military engagement involving the artificial islands could damage the floating reactors and release radioactive materials from them resulting from explosions caused by the battle. The subsequent contamination might make the artificial island uninhabitable for decades.

In a separate notice the state power giant said the new company will also seek to promote the development of nuclear-powered vessels including a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

China emphasized in its announcement that the floating reactors have commercial uses,. They can be used to operate drilling machinery for offshore oil and gas fields, and remote power and desalination needs. These objectives are expected to bring investors to support the new venture and with the parallel support from the military as the first customer for the plants, the effort seems positioned for growth.

Venture to float new nuke plants

China National Nuclear Power (CNNP) will jointly set up the new company with Zhejiang Zheneng Electric Power Co, Shanghai Guosheng Group Co, Shanghai-based Jiangnan Shipyard Group and Shanghai Electric Group, the statement said.

The new company will be involved in maritime nuclear power research, development, building, operation and management, as well as power sales and seawater desalination.

“It is hard to choose the site for large nuclear reactors as they have high hydrological and geological requirements, and safety is always a major concern for local residents living in places with large nuclear stations, which see 60 to 70 years of service life,” said Han Xiaoping, chief information officer of China Energy Net Consulting Co.

“Small nuclear reactors, however, can provide cheap and sustainable electricity,” he said. One kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by an offshore nuclear plant costs about 0.9 yuan, compared with 2 yuan for the same quantity generated by diesel for use by drilling platforms in the Bohai Sea.

The Economist reported this week building power stations at sea is cheaper than those on land. Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the magazine that electricity from a marine station would cost at least a third less than that from a terrestrial equivalent.

He said it would also make them safer. According to Buongiorno. a reactor anchored on the seabed would never lack emergency cooling, the problem that caused the Fukushima meltdown. Nor would it need to be protected against the risk of terrorists flying an aircraft into it. It would be tsunami-proof, too. Though tsunamis become great and destructive waves when they arrive in shallow water, in the open ocean they are mere ripples.

Buongiorno goes further and suggests that the reactors could be built in a shipyard and then towed to their destination, and then sunk in place. Once underwater (100 meters or so), such a submarine reactor would not even be affected by passing storms.

They also can be moved to isolated areas when they reach the end of their service life, Han said.  For instance, the reactors could be disposed of by sinking them in deep ocean trenches which gives new meaning to the concepts of time, distance, and shielding.

Floating nuclear reactors can also be exported to economies with large populations but scarce land resources, including economies participating in the Belt and Road Initiative such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, Han said. China National Nuclear Power said establishment of the new company also is in accordance with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Han Xiaoping, the chief information officer of China Energy Net Consulting Co. noted that Russia started its own project in 2000. However, China is not lagging behind Han said.

“What matters now to advance in nuclear power is mastering new technology and concepts, such as high temperature gas-cooled reactors. “

In March 2016 China installed the first of two reactor pressure vessels for a demonstration high temperature, gas cooled (HTGR) (Pebble Bed) reactor that is under construction at Shidaowan in Shandong province.

Update 08/17/17

Development of the 200 MWt (60 MWe) ACPR50S reactor design was approved by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in late December 2015 as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan.

In parallel, CGN has developed the ACPR100 small modular reactor for use on land. The ACPR100 reactor will have a capacity of 450 MWt (140 MWe

Russia Ahead of China in Building Floating Nuclear Plants

The Economist also reports that Russia is actually ahead of China having utilized shipyard construction methods to build the first Russian floating reactor. The Akademik Lomonosov, is under construction at the Baltic Shipyard, in St Petersburg.

According to Andrey Bukhovtsev of Rosatom, the agency that runs Russia’s civil nuclear program, it is 96% complete. It will be launched later this year, towed to Murmansk, and then transported to Pevek, a port in Russia’s Far East, where it will begin generating power in 2019. The reactors are expected to be fueled and operating prior to starting the journey.

rosatom floating nuclear power plant

The Akademik Lomonosov a floating nuclear power plant. Image: Rosatom

The Akademik Lomonosov consists of two 35MW reactors mounted on a barge. The reactors are modified versions of those used to power Taymyr-class icebreakers. To add to their safety, the barge bearing them will be moored, about 200 meters from shore, behind a storm-and-tsunami-resistant breakwater.

Russian icebreakers used U235 enriched to about 35% and their small size haws been studied by Los Alamos National Laboratory here in the U.S. for possible use in commercial SMRs.

Altogether, Akademik Lomonosov will cost $480m to build and install—far less than would have to be spent constructing an equivalent power station on land in a remote and hostile environment.

Romania And China Want Cernavoda Negotiations Finished By End Of Year

(NucNet) Romania’s minister of energy, Toma Petcu, said Romanian authorities want to conclude this year the negotiations with the Chinese for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Cernavoda nuclear power station. In a social media post Mr Petcu said he had met the Chinese ambassador and they had agreed that both Romania and China want the negotiations to be accelerated and finalised by the end of the year.

In July 2014, reactor manufacturer Candu Energy of Canada said it had signed an exclusive and binding agreement with China Nuclear Power Engineering Company, a subsidiary of China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), to cooperate on the construction of the two units, both of the Candu-6 type.

In November 2015, Romanian nuclear power operator Nuclearelectrica and CGN signed a memorandum of understanding on the development, construction, operation and eventual decommissioning of Cernavoda-3 and -4. In July, the Romanian government adopted a memorandum for the construction of the units, allowing negotiations to continue with CGN.

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Does the U.S. Nuclear Industry Have a Future?

Maybe not given the the cancellation of the V C Summer Plant and the bankruptcy of Westinghouse

nuclear powerThere is a strong likelihood that future plans by U.S. electric utilities to build full size nuclear reactors are now being put on indefinite hold. Even though the NRC has issued licenses, investors may not see a reason to proceed with projects like DTE’s Fermi III in Michigan, Dominion’s North Anna III in Virginia, and Duke’s William States Lee in South Carolina.

The reasons are already well known. Record low prices for natural gas are likely to persist for decades. The regulatory barriers to building new natural gas plants are surmounted with ease compared to gaining approval for a new reactor.

Worse, the failure of the V C Summer plant proved two things – the U.S. supply chain for nuclear components is broken and the lack of political support for the industry makes the likelihood that it will be fixed to help SMRs is unknown. If you want a list of all the ways the V C Summer project failed to meet expectations, Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner has a list that will make your head spin.

The incumbent Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, has no expertise associated with his agency’s mission and he once famously proposed to abolish it. Later he found out about its massive nuclear waste cleanup program. The mission of the weapons labs must have been a hell of wake up call. Trump’s budget for DOE, mandated by OMB, slashes nuclear energy R&D programs though the House Appropriations Committee has proposed to restore some of the cuts. For his part Perry seems more interested in touting the administration’s skeptical views on climate change than running the agency. Many key posts remain empty.

In the middle of this glum outlook comes Mark Hibbs, a world class expert on the nuclear energy field, who is currently associated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a new report about whether the nuclear energy industry has a future, he offers a qualified “maybe,” but only due to projects organized and funded by state owned enterprises like Rosatom, China’s state owned nuclear firms, and maybe Areva. The era of American publically traded firms that invest in and build new nuclear reactors as EPCs may be over.

Hibbs says the reason is that China and Russia seem “immune” to problems that have caused firms like Westinghouse to fail financially. Further, Hibbs says the U.S., should be concerned about the rising influence of Russian and Chinese nuclear exports.

Dave Dalton, an editor at NucNet, points out that “one of the more pernicious aspects contributing to the rise of these countries’ nuclear ambitions is their state-backed financing and political deal making – a strategy clearly calculated to do more than merely export technology, but to also expand their influence overseas at the expense of the US and its allies.”

Hibbs writes that Rosatom, the flagship of Russia’s nuclear power industry, as of 2015 claimed to have agreements in hand to build 34 nuclear power plants in 13 countries, including firm contracts worth $110bn [€93bn].

Beijing’s leading champion, the China National Nuclear Corporation, predicts that by 2030 China will build nearly one-third of the 100 power reactors that will be exported in the world.

Hibbs points to four underlying factors the are driving this trend.

* The first issue is the the business model. State owned enterprises benefit from having “privileged access” to money and political support which allow them to offer financing for huge reactor projects.

* Second, Russian and Chinese state owned enterprises used reactor projects as means of influence over the economies of the countries that ink deals with them. That said, Hibbs has doubts that Rosatom will complete the four planned VVERs for Turkey or that China will ever build a Hualong One in the UK. Both Russia and China may be over extended due to limits in the global supply chain and available skilled workers to meet the needs of all these projects.

* Third, state owned enterprises invest heavily in nuclear technology R&D. While Hibbs doesn’t mention it in his paper, China is placing multiple bets on advanced reactors including HTGRs and a ground breaking collaboration with TerraPower. Russia has built and commissioned several fast reactors using advanced fuels and connected them to the grid.

* Regulation and nuclear safety regimes depend on the country getting the exported reactor. Although the US NRC has touted itself as the “gold standard” for nuclear safety, other countries actually find themselves relying to some degree on Russia or China to verify the safety of their designs.

Hibbs calls for the U.S. government to get its act together and to remove the shackles on the Export-Import banks to fund nuclear technology exports. While this is a common sense recommendation, it is unlikely that there will be political support for a Westinghouse deal for six AP1000s in India, worth perhaps $24 billion. Domestic critics will, perhaps rightfully, cry “foul” calling for $24 billion to be spent fixing America’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Hibbs recommends that the Trump administration must urgently begin a conversation with energy experts and industry on steps to restore and expand the US commercial nuclear energy sector.

NEI Adds their Voice on the Issue

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents nuclear energy utilities in the U.S., went further in their comment on Hibbs’ study

Nuclear Energy Institute Director of Supplier Programs Ted Jones said. “For our nation, much more is at stake than billions in U.S. nuclear exports and tens of thousands of American jobs.”

He added that if trends continue, the United States stands to lose several historical advantages it has enjoyed in the past half-century. Among these is its pre-eminence in nuclear energy technology and the viable and vibrant global supply chain that goes with it.

Also important are century-long bilateral technical, commercial and political relationships that are a part and parcel of such long lead-time projects.

One other game changer is that South Korea is in the process of dismantling is nuclear energy program and probably will end its exports as well. This will leave a hole in the market in terms of reactor suppliers which Russia and China will try to fill absent am American presence.

The essay by Hibbs , ‘Does The US Nuclear Industry Have A Future?’ is online:

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India Commits to Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility for U-233

  • The scope of work includes the construction of a fast breeder reactor fuel processing plant. 
  • The plant will use plutonium produced in PHWR reactors as well as from PWR reactors to breed U-233 from thorium.

thorium symbol (2)(WNN) India’s Indira Ghandi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) has awarded Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) a contract worth $120 million to construct a fast reactor fuel cycle facility at Kalpakkam.

The scope of the work includes the construction of a fast breeder reactor fuel processing plant, plus associated civil, electrical and mechanical works. The project is to be completed in 48 months.

The plant will use plutonium produced in PHWR reactors as well as from PWR reactors to breed U-233 from thorium. It is part of a massive three part nuclear energy strategy.

A 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu unit will start up in October of this year. Two more FBRs are planned for the Kalpakkam site.

The fast reactor fuel cycle facility is the fourth construction contract awarded to HCC by IGCAR. The company is also executing contracts at an integrated nuclear recycle plant for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Tarapur and for two PHWR reactors under construction at Rawatbhata.

India’s Three Part Thorium Fuel Plan

The first step of the three-stage program involves building indigenously engineered pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWRs) and light-water reactors to produce plutonium. India recently announced it will build 10 700 MW PHWRs

The second stage uses fast-neutron reactors fueled by plutonium to breed U-233 from thorium. This is the focus of the current project.

In the third stage,  the country will use advanced heavy-water reactors for power generation. They will be fueled with U-233 obtained from the irradiation of thorium in PHWRs and fast reactors.

Fast breeder reactors are embodied in the second step to support India’s long-term goal of establishing a fuel cycle to exploit its abundant thorium resources, using the plutonium produced in pressurized heavy water and light water reactors and breeding fissile uranium-233 from thorium.

India has the world’s largest known reserves of thorium. However, despite nearly three decades of being locked out of world markets for commercial nuclear fuel, the country made only modest progress on shifting to its use of thorium (fertile) with uranium (fissile) for use in nuclear reactors for electricity generation. Some of this can be chalked up to its commitment to using its uranium for development of nuclear weapons as deterrents against Pakistan, also a nuclear power, and India’s arch rival on the subcontinent.

The World Nuclear Association notes in its review of thorium fuels (Feb 2017)

  • Thorium is more abundant in nature than uranium.
  • It is fertile rather than fissile, and can only be used as a fuel in conjunction with a fissile material such as recycled plutonium.
  • Thorium fuels can breed fissile uranium-233 to be used in various kinds of nuclear reactors.
  • Molten salt reactors are well suited to thorium fuel, as normal fuel fabrication is avoided.

A US Experience with Thorium Did Not End Well

The 300 MW Ft. St. Vrain nuclear reactor, located in Colorado used thorium / U-233 as a fuel from 1976-1989. It was a unique gas cooled reactor.

It used thorium-HEU fuel in the form of microspheres of mixed thorium-uranium carbide coated with silicon oxide and pyrolytic carbon to retain fission products. These were embedded in graphite ‘compacts’ that were arranged in hexagonal columns (‘prisms’). Almost 25 tonnes of thorium was used in fuel for the reactor.

The Ft. St. Vrain reactor was plagued by operational problems. According to the NRC 279 events were catalogued into seven general categories: (1) water incursion events or failures of moisture detection systems; (2) air or other unwanted gas incursion events and failures of gas detection systems; (3) fuel failures or anomalies; (4) failures or cracks in graphite, pipes, and other reactor structural components; (5) failures of nuclear instrumentation systems; (6) human factors and operator performance issues; and (7) other events or conditions that may be relevant to current GCR designs. Several events were reviewed over a period of years and appeared in more than one monthly report.

Much of the ST. Vrain spent fuel is still located at the now closed nuclear reactor site which is about 40 miles north of Denver. Between 1980 and 1986, spent fuel from Fort St. Vrain was routinely shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory for temporary storage and testing. However, in October of 1991, political and tribal opposition in Idaho halted the shipments, followed by lawsuits in federal court. Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus led the effort to stop the shipments.

An agreement in principle between DOE and Public Service Company was reached in 1995, and an out-of-court settlement was adopted in 1996. DOE took title to the spent fuel and became responsible for managing its temporary storage at the Fort St. Vrain site. The issue continues to haunt the Idaho lab even to this day.

U-233 Fuel Fabrication Notes

Commercial work by US nuclear scientists on fabrication and production of U-233 is documented in a US patent from 1983, which is assigned to Linton W. Lang and Robert L. Stetson.

Linton Lang earned an MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Idaho in 1954. He worked at DOE labs in Idaho Falls, ID, and in Richland, WA. Robert Stetson worked for most of his career at Lawrence Livermore lab in California. Both men have a string of patents for making U-233 for use in fast breeders.

thorium fuel cycle

Thorium Fuel Cycle – Image courtesy of American Chemical Society

Readers interested in more recent work on fabrication of thorium fuels for commercial use are referred to this OECD/NEA study. “Introduction of Thorium in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (2015)”

Kudankulam Phase III Enters Design Stage

(WNN) Russia and India’s have announced plans to build units 5 and 6 at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.  The two countries signed a framework agreement enabling construction of this ‘third stage’ of the plant, including an intergovernmental credit protocol for implementation of the project.

Financial terms of the deal were not immediately available but typically, Rosatom offers developing nations generous lines of credit along with a requirement that all fuel for the reactors over their 60 year lives be supplied by Rosatom and also spent fuel be returned to Russia. Indian firms will get some business such as turbines, but the major components, including the RPV for each reactor, will come from Russia.

The documents were signed last June at the 18th Annual Russian-Indian Summit, held alongside the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, by Valery Limarenko, president ASE Group, and Sri Sharma, chairman and managing director of the NPCIL.

Kudankulam, in Tamil Nadu, is home to two VVER-1000s. Unit 1 entered commercial operation in December 2014, while unit 2 reached 100% of its operating capacity in January this year. NPCIL signed an agreement on 3 April provisionally accepting Kudankulam 2 from its Russian suppliers and thus marking the unit’s entry into commercial operation. The unit reached first criticality in May 2016 and was connected to India’s power grid in August.

Two further VVER-1000 units – Kudankulam 3 and 4 – are to be built at the site in a second construction phase. The first pouring of structural concrete for these units was marked in late June. This is the formal start of construction of a nuclear unit, although site preparation works have been underway at the Kudankulam site for several years.

Egypt, Russia ‘complete Daba’a plant talks’

(WNN) Egypt and Russia have completed their talks on contracts to build a nuclear power plant at Daba’a. The two countries signed an intergovernmental agreement in November 2015 to collaborate in the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant equipped with four 1200 MWe units. Rosatom describes them as Generation III reactor technology that meets the most advanced security and safety standards.

The agreement includes provision of a Russian state-backed loan of $25 billion for the $30 billion project. The Russian state loan will cover about 85% of the plant’s construction costs, with Egypt to raise the remainder from private investors.

The project is to be completed within 12 years and Egypt will start its repayment of the loan at an interest rate of 3% from October 2029.

Egypt told Rosatom it will clear the area intended for the plant construction site in six months. One of the challenges the site manager faces is that the area is littered with mines and other unexploded ordnance left over from several wars. The overall area to be cleared of mines measures 4,533 hectares (18 square miles)

Construction work at the plant – to be built near the city of El Alamein, which is about 3.5km off the Mediterranean coast – is expected to create 20,000 jobs. Once commissioned, the plant will employ around 4000 people.

Contracts between Egypt and Russia will cover the construction of four power units, the supply of nuclear fuel for 60 years, the provision of services as well as waste and used fuel management.

Areva Signs Agreement For Takahama MOX Fuel

(NucNet) Areva has signed an agreement with Nuclear Fuel Industries – Japan’s sole producer of fuel for both boiling-water reactors and pressurized-water reactors – to provide 32 mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel assemblies for Kansai Electric Power Company’s Takahama-3 and -4 nuclear units in Fukui Prefecture, central Japan.

Areva said the supply of MOX fuel assemblies is a follow-up to agreements signed with Japanese utilities from 1975 onwards for the reprocessing of up to 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel at La Hague in France.

MOX fuel contains a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides, providing a way to use plutonium separated during spent fuel reprocessing.

All of Japan’s nuclear reactor units were shut down for safety checks following the March 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi accident. Of the 42 that remain operable, five have resumed commercial service. They are: Takahama-3, Takahama-4, Sendai-1, Sendai-2 and Ikata-3. Takahama-3 and -4 are both 830-MW PWRs that began commercial operation in 1985.

Japan Report Shows Benefits Of Nuclear Restarts

(NucNet) If 10 nuclear power reactors are restarted in Japan by March 2019, the value of imported fossil fuels will fall by $4.55bn (€3.84bn), real GDP will increase by $4.55bn and CO2 emissions will fall by 2.7%, according to a report by the Institute of Energy Economics.

Combined with the restart of several reactors and the increased use of renewable energies, energy-derived CO2 emissions will decline for the fifth consecutive year. They stood at 1,113 million tonnes in fiscal year 2017 and will be 1,096 million tonnes in fiscal year 2018, down 1.6%, said the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (Jaif), quoting the report.

According to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, replacing the electricity that would have been generated by still-suspended nuclear plants with increased oil-fired or gas-fired power resulted in an increase in fuel costs during fiscal year 2016 of some $11.8bn.

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NASA starts work on nuclear propulsion systems to get to Mars

  • nasa-nuclear-rocket-engine_thumb.png

    BWXT Image of a nuclear thermal rocket 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. (video)

  •  BWX Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:BWXT) announced that its BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc. subsidiary has been awarded an $18.8 million contract from NASA to initiate conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor, using LEU, in support of a possible future manned mission to Mars.
  • The scope of the contract includes initial reactor conceptual design, initial fuel and core fabrication development, licensing support for initial ground testing, and engine test program development. Work under the contract is expected to continue through 2019.

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 hydrogen or other propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a very efficient, high-thrust engine.

“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 NASA 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.

“BWXT is extremely pleased to be working with NASA on this exciting nuclear space program in support of the Mars mission,” said Rex D. Geveden, BWXT’s President and Chief Executive Officer.

“We are uniquely qualified to design, develop and manufacture the reactor and fuel for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. This is an opportune time to pivot our capabilities into the space market where we see long-term growth opportunities in nuclear propulsion and nuclear surface power.”

Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) is an attractive option for in-space propulsion for exploration missions to Mars and beyond. NTP offers virtually unlimited energy density and specific impulse roughly double that of the highest performing traditional chemical systems.  Plus, it doesn’t involve the weight of chemical fuels including oxidizers.

As missions aim for targets farther out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only viable technological option for extending the reach of exploration missions beyond Mars, where solar panels can no longer provide sufficient energy and chemical propulsion would require a prohibitively high mass of propellant and/or prohibitively long trip times.

NTP is directly relevant to the Agency’s vision, mission, and long-term goal of expanding human presence into the solar system and to the surface of Mars because it provides the fastest trip time of all currently obtainable advanced propulsion systems.

Fast trip times will safeguard astronaut health by reducing exposure to zero gravity and cosmic radiation and reduce risks associated with reliability uncertainties inherent in complex systems as well as those associated with life-limited, mission critical systems.

Success factors for the NTP project

nuclear propulsion rocket

NASA Copernicus Nuclear Rocket

The overall goal of this Game Changing Development Program project is to determine the feasibility and affordability of a low enriched uranium (LEU)-based NTP engine with solid cost and schedule confidence. Eventually, the nuclear propulsion system would be integrated into a launch vehicle that would go to Mars. The project will be considered a success if these objectives are met.

  1. Demonstrate the ability to purify tungsten to 90 percent purity (or higher if possible) and determine the cost to produce a kilogram at that level of purity.
  2. Determine, to a conceptual level of fidelity, the technical and programmatic feasibility of an NTP engine in the thrust range of interest for a human Mars mission. The thrust range of interest will be agreed to by the Space Technology Mission Directorate and the project as soon as feasible after the start of the project.
  3. Determine the program cost of an LEU NTP system and the confidence level of each major cost element.

New nuclear fuel for deep space travel

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.

A shift to low enriched uranium (LEU)—defined as a concentration of lower than 20 percent uranium-235—offers several potential advantages for a nuclear propulsion development program.

Security regulations for an LEU system could be less burdensome on the project budget and schedule. Handling regulations for an LEU source are similar to those for a university research reactor, opening up the development effort to partnerships with industry and academia.

Note: At the time of launch, there is almost no radiation released from the nuclear reactors. The nuclear-powered rockets are not used to lift off the Earth.

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. (Schematic of test bed and images of test componentsPDF file)

In late September 2017, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project will determine the feasibility of using low-enriched uranium fuel. The project then will spend a year testing and refining its ability to manufacture the necessary Cermet fuel elements. Testing of full-length fuel rods will be conducted using a unique NASA Marshall test facility.

Work on the program will begin immediately. Approximately 15 BWXT employees in Lynchburg, Va., will contribute to this effort.

Nuclear-powered rocket concepts are not new. The United States conducted studies and significant ground tests from 1955 to 1972 to determine the viability of such systems, but ceased testing when plans for a crewed Mars mission were deferred. Since then, nuclear thermal propulsion has been revisited several times in conceptual mission studies and technology feasibility projects.

Update on Russian nuclear rocket

According to a 2013 report by World Nuclear News, Russia is also working on a nuclear rocket that would generate electricity for a plasma thruster. The specific thrust of such a system could be 20 times that of current chemical rockets, cutting the time to travel to Mars to just over a month.

The Russian project to develop the nuclear thrust module began in 2010 with a budget of RUB17 billion ($532 million) and a plan to launch in 2018. The majority of this is allocated to Rosatom’s development of the reactor unit.

In 2016 Wired Magazine published a report that Roastom was working on a plasma thrust system that would get astronauts to Mars in 45 days.  However, the Rosatom web page cited in the article is no longer online.

Searches of the Rosatom web site (in English), and on Google, did not turn up any new material from Rosatom on this R&D work. A state-owned media site RT published these photos of the Russian plasma technology about the same time as the Wired article.

A more detailed report, published by the Daily Mail UK also about the same time as the Wired Magazine piece, provided additional details on the Russian nuclear propulsion program. It included a number of significant images of components and complete rocket systems for a six week transit to Mars. It reported claims by Rosatom the the technology would be ready for a test of a nuclear propulsion system in 2018.

& & &

Thanks to renewed interest in exploring the Red Planet in recent decades, NASA has begun new studies of nuclear thermal propulsion, recognizing its potential value for exploration of Mars and beyond.

The Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project is managed by NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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Utilities Pull the Plug on AP1000s at V C Summer

  • pull the plugMassive cost over runs and the Westinghouse bankruptcy doomed the project.
  • Record low natural gas prices and flat demand for electricity contributed to the decision
  • Santee Cooper refused to go along with a plan to complete just one of the reactors

With sunk costs of $9 billion, and no end in sight in terms of rapidly escalating costs, the two utilities that had been building twin Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000 nuclear reactors at the V C Summer site in South Carolina have pulled the plug on the project. The ultimate cost now estimated to be $25 billion stopped support for the project in its tracks.

The decision to cancel any further work on the reactors is a major blow to the effort to revive the nuclear industry in the U.S.  The AP1000 design was intended to be a jewel in the crown for the nuclear industry.

Westinghouse had at one time hoped not only to build two at V C Summer, and another two at the Vogtle site in Georgia, but also as many as six to eight more units in the U.S. over the next two decades.  Four AP1000s are under construction in China and are expected to load fuel by the end of this year.

The stop work order in South Carolina increases the odds that Georgia Power and its partners at the Vogtle site will have to think harder about whether to proceed. Unlike the V C Summer project, the Vogtle effort has an $8.3 billion load guarantee from the federal government.

Also, the utilities in Georgia are expecting a cost estimate to complete the two reactors at  from two EPC contactors who would propose a path forward for the project.  It is not clear when these proposals will come in. They were reported earlier to be due in mid-August.

Last Friday Georgia Power said Georgia Power said it inked an agreement to replace bankrupt contractor Westinghouse as the lead manager on its troubled Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project.

“We are already in the midst of a seamless transition for the thousands of workers across the site, allowing us to sustain the progress we are making every day on both units,” Mark Rauckhorst, Georgia Power executive vice president for the Vogtle 3 and 4 project, said in a statement on Friday.

The company said “construction momentum has continued uninterrupted” since Westinghouse’s March 29 bankruptcy filing, which followed heavy losses on the Vogtle project and similar work in South Carolina. The Vogtle project is more than 3 years behind schedule and more than $3 billion over original budget.

Toshiba has agreed to pay Southern $3.6 billion related to delays and contractor disputes involving Westinghouse.  It’s unclear what additional claims may be filed against Westinghouse as part of bankruptcy proceedings.  Last January this blog predicted that financial difficulties with Toshiba and Westinghouse would create huge risks for US reactor projects. Westinghouse is seeking to wipe the slate clean of debt and related financial obligations ties to the South Carolina reactor project.

South Carolina Electric & Gas, and its parent firm SCANA, which has a 55% stake, had wanted to proceed with completing one of the reactors, but the utility’s partner on the project, Santee Cooper, refused to go along.

The model was that TVA eventually completed Browns Ferry, but also several decades late. However, Watts Bar II, also a project restarted long after it was mothballed for lack of electricity demand, came in at twice the original cost estimated to complete it.

SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh said in a statement that no other financial backers came forward to invest in completing one reactor now and another at some future date.  Congress never acted to impose a tax on carbon which further sank prospects for success. (SCANA press release)

Marsh said that killing the project was the “least desired option,” but said that he had no other choice. In addition to the spiraling costs, low gas prices, and flat demand for electricity, Marsh laid the blame on manufacturing failures and design changes in the reactors as major factors.

Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter said that when the project got started eight years ago, he never anticipated natural gas would be so cheap.

Efforts by both utilities to find a way to complete the reactors by the end of 2020, the deadline for qualifying for federal tax credits, were not successful and there is apparently no likelihood that the deadline will be extended just for this project. The reason is that Congress has doubts that the reactors would be completed even if the deadline were extended by several years.

The first reactor was supposed to come online in 2016 and the second in 2019 which would have been plenty of time to meet the tax credit deadline. The latest estimate is that the first reactor would not be completed until 2023.

The two utilities also faced an uphill battle to convince the South Carolina Public Utilities Commission to accept a new round of costs that would have to be absorbed by ratepayers to complete the reactors. South Caroline ratepayers have already been charged $1.4 billion for the project.

Meanwhile Toshiba agreed late last week to pay the two South Carolina utilities $2.2 billion. The payment is intended to close out the Japanese firm’s liabilities for Westinghouse costs.  The first payment is $976 million this year with remaining payments to be made through 2022. Santee Cooper said it would use the funds to pay back ratepayers with lower costs for power. The firm also said it would pursue claims for excessive costs on the project by Westinghouse through the bankruptcy court.

Santee Cooper said the two unfinished reactors would be mothballed in place in case another investor at some future time wants to take over the project should economic conditions change for the better.

Westinghouse CEO Jose Gutierrez told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that “the company is disappointed in the decision” to kill the project. He said that over 5,000 people are working at the site and all of them will lose their jobs.

Last week Westinghouse reportedly submitted a 5-year plan to the bankruptcy court which included assumptions that the V C Summer project would continue with the firm being a vendor, but not the EPC project manager.  The firm said it will have to re-evaluate the plan to emerge from bankruptcy now that the V C Summer project is dead in the water.

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Study finds advanced reactors will have competitive costs

  • It uses extensive data from eight leading innovators with products under development
  • It merged “apples & oranges data sets” to draw comparisons

atom1Washington, DC – A new study of contemporary nuclear industry cost projections, previously unavailable to the public, provides new insight into a potential path breaking cost trend for the next generation of advanced nuclear plants.

According to the study, advanced nuclear companies are forecasting cost targets at nearly half the cost of conventional nuclear plants, dramatically improving the value proposition of nuclear energy and presenting a highly cost‐competitive alternative to other baseload options.

The peer reviewed study, undertaken by the Energy Innovation Reform Project (EIRP), with data collection and analysis conducted by the Energy Options network (EON) on its behalf, compiled extensive data from eight advanced nuclear companies that are actively pursuing commercialization of plants at least 250 MW in size.  Full Text of the study (PDF file) here

The anonymized findings signal a potential end to the economic downsides of nuclear energy. In fact, at the lower end of the potential cost range, these plants could present the lowest cost generation options available.

“This study signals the potential for a new chapter in the role of nuclear to address the global demand for economic energy solutions,” said Jeff Merrifield, Partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and former commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“At these costs, nuclear would be effectively competitive with any other option for power generation. At the same time, this could enable a significant expansion of the nuclear footprint to the parts of the world that need clean energy the most—and can least afford to pay high price premiums for it.”

The companies included in the study were Elysium Industries, General Electric (no information supplied by the company; study used publicly available information) Moltex Energy, NuScale Power, Terrestrial Energy, ThorCon Power, Transatomic Power and X‐energy.

study reactors

The study focused on companies developing reactor and plant sizes potentially able to play a significant role in utility‐scale power generation.

study reactors 2

The study found several common cost‐reduction strategies that the surveyed companies are pursuing to achieve these drastically reduced cost projections, including:

  • Simpler and standardized plant designs
  • Incorporation of factory‐ and shipyard‐based manufacturing
  • Modularization
  • Lower materials requirements
  • Reduced scope for engineering, procurement, and construction firms
  • Shorter construction time
  • Higher power density
  • Higher efficiency

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“Understanding the potential economics of advanced nuclear is important for investors and policymakers alike,” concluded Samuel Thernstrom, Executive Director, EIRP.

“Most advanced reactor companies have raised only a fraction of the capital necessary for commercial demonstration of their designs. This study should help dispel common misconceptions on costs and help clarify how this industry intends to compete going forward.”

Study Merged “Apples & Oranges Data Sets

Advanced nuclear technologies are controversial. Many people believe they could be a panacea for the world’s energy problems, while others claim that they are still decades away from reality and much more complicated and costly than conventional nuclear technologies.

Resolving this debate requires an accurate and current understanding of the increasing movement of technology development out of national nuclear laboratories and into private industry. Because the work of the private companies covered in the study is proprietary, they have relatively little incentive to make information public, and the absence of credible information about these technologies and their potential costs gives credence to the claims of nuclear skeptics.

Advanced nuclear technologies represent a dramatic evolution from conventional reactors in terms of safety and nonproliferation, and the cost estimates from some advanced reactor companies—if accurate—suggest that these technologies could revolutionize the way we think about the cost, availability, and environmental consequences of energy generation.

Skepticism about the cost of future nuclear technologies is understandably high, given the infamously unmet promise of energy “too cheap to meter.”

Assessing the claims of technology developers on a standardized basis, as much as possible, is vitally important for any fact-based discussion about the future cost of nuclear. Previous work by the Energy Options Network (EON) found that each company had its own approach to estimating plant costs, making true “applesto-apples” comparisons with conventional pressurized water reactors (PWRs) impossible.

This study was designed to address that deficiency. Comparing the cost of future nuclear technologies to current designs (or other generation technologies) requires capturing cost data for advanced nuclear plants in a standardized, comprehensive manner.

Using the plant cost accounting framework developed by the Generation IV International Forum, EON created a cost model for this study that includes all potential cost categories for an nthof-a-kind (NOAK) nuclear plant. It includes default values for each cost category (based on previous cost studies conducted at national laboratories), and provides capability for companies to incorporate new business models and delivery strategies.

Using this model, EON worked with leading advanced reactor companies to obtain reliable, standardized cost projections for their NOAK plants. Advanced nuclear companies that are actively pursuing commercialization of plants at least 250 MW in size were invited to join this study; the eight that were able to participate are listed in table 1 (above). The intent was to focus on reactor and plant sizes that could have a significant role in utility-scale power generation.

Media Contact

Frank Maisano
Bracewell LLP

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