Nuclear news for 10/12/14 is a mix of progress and screw ups

  • Turkey will break ground in Spring 2015 on 1st of 4 1200 MW VVER reactors at Akkuyu
  • Vietnam 1-2-3 agreement opens market for US vendors
  • USEC emerges from bankruptcy, renames itself
  • Rosatom backs off claim of $50 billion deal in South Africa
  • US NRC faulted for review of San Onofre steam generator
  • Los Alamos alleged to have wrecked WIPP over  use of “green” kitty litter

It has actually been kind of a bleak week for the global nuclear industry with more screw ups than good news. The bad news items are no laughing matter since they involve nation states that can’t get their story straight even when they want to, a regulatory agency that is alleged to have contributed to a world class technological failure at San Onofre, and a DOE national laboratory that is alleged to have disregarded WIPP’s stringent waste acceptance rule leading to an underground explosion of volatile chemicals mixed in with radioactive waste.

There is good news in Turkey and Vietnam, but these developments are overshadowed by the apparent evaporation of the “done deal” status of Rosatom’s in plans to build 9.6 GWe of nuclear power, worth $50 billion, in South Africa.

Turkey to break ground at Akkuyu

Turkey says it will break ground in Spring 2015 for the first of four Russian built 1200 MW VVER reactors at Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast. Taner Yidiz made the announcement at a press conference Oct 10th. The first concrete for the $22 billion effort will be poured in 2016 with the first reactor expected to enter revenue service in 2020. That’s an ambitious schedule and industry analysts expect that date to slip.

Turkey awarded a second round of nuclear reactor contracts to a Japanese/French consortium last May for construction of four 1100 MW reactors at Sinop on the Black Sea coast. A start date has not been set.

Press reports from English language news wires in Ankara say Turkey is still considering a third site for nuclear reactors at a location near the Bulgarian border.

Vietnam signs 1-2-3 Agreement

A civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the US and Vietnam went into effect this week. It opens the door for US nuclear vendors to export nuclear equipment to that country which plans to build eight nuclear reactors to provide electricity for its growing manufacturing and also to power up exploitation of its aluminum deposits.

The first four reactors are already under contract. The first two will be Russian VVERs to be built in Ninh Thuan province. The next two will be built by Japanese firms in the same region.

However, Vietnam recently pushed back the date for breaking ground on the first Russian reactor due to a shortage of skilled workers and nuclear engineers. It’s safety program needs to come online to provide regulatory oversight of construction and operation of the power stations.

US firm Lightbridge announced that it recently signed a cooperative agreement with Vietnam to support training nuclear engineers for the nation’s safety program. GE Hitachi said in September that it is training Vietnamese engineers on nuclear reactor fundamentals at a BWR reactor type simulator in Wilmington, NC.

Uranium firm emerges from bankruptcy

USEC emerged from bankruptcy with approval of a federal judge and changed its name to Centrus.   The bankruptcy action restructured $530 million in debt. Long serving CEO John Welch stepped down.

The firm continues to seek a $2 billion federal loan guarantee for its American Centrifuge technology. So far the US Department of Energy has not agreed to grant one. The firm has received federal R&D grants to continue the development of its uranium enrichment centrifuges.

Although the Megatons-to-Megawatts program has come to an end, Centrus, as it is now called, has contracts with Russian suppliers of uranium to be enriched for global customers that operate commercial nuclear reactors including some in the US.

Roastom $50 billion contract with South Africa disappears in smoke and mirrors

After surprising the global nuclear industry in September with an announcement that Rosatom would finance and build 9.6 Gwe of nuclear power worth $50 billion in South Africa, Rosatom now says the announcement was misunderstood. Viktor Polikarpov, Rosatom’s VP in Africa, told the South African media outlet BD Live that a “poor translation” of the original Russian announcement is the reason for the confusion. He coordinated his remarks with more specific comments from the South African government and then confirmed that all the excitement was so much diplomatic hot air.

After weeks of controversy, the South African government’s energy ministry finally said that the only thing the two countries have agreed to is future cooperation on nuclear energy projects. Polikarpov put a stake in the “done deal” paradigm telling BD Live “there is nothing concrete” in terms of actually financing and building the reactors.

That would come in time through “normal procurement processes” says the energy ministry which has ambitions for about $26 billion in new reactors or about half the amount proposed by Rosatom. Also, while Roastom proposes to build the reactors at $5000/Kw, the South Africans’ estimate for costs is $6500/Kw. The issue of who would handle the power purchase agreements was never fully addressed in the original announcement.

On Oct 11 South Africa also signed a similar “nuclear cooperation” agreement with the French government. However, it is unlikely Areva, which has worked hard to land business in South Africa, will see any contracts for new reactors there. The reason is the Russians have offered to finance their deal, and Areva, which just dodged a “junk” rating of its stock, has committed to significantly cut back on new capital expenditures, by over 600 million euros over the next four years, to retain “investment grade” status. For its part, South Africa does not have the money to finance eight new reactors on its own.

NRC faulted for failing to flag design issues in San Onofre steam generators

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspector general writes in a new report that the agency missed an opportunity to flag design changes to the faulty steam generators that eventually shut down both reactors at the San Onofre nuclear site.

Premature wear was found in the steam generators of both San Onofre units that the NRC later blamed on vibration caused by calculation errors in a computer model and modifications to their design.

The differences revolve around whether the NRC should have required the San Onofre plant to submit a license amendment for the new steam generators. The IG writes in its report that had that requirement been imposed on the project, the agency’s engineers would have found the flaws that wrecked the units which cost $630 million.

Additionally, the Office of the Inspector General, “found that NRC does not consistently use one of its primary oversight methods to assess whether licensees are keeping their power plant licensing basis documentation up to date.”

In other findings, the IG report was critical of the NRC’s safety reviews of the plant overall.

The OIG report added fuel to the fire for California Sen. Barbara Boxer who said she would conduct hearings on the report’s findings when Congress returns for its lame duck session in December. Boxer has been a strident critic of the NRC and Southern California Edison on the issue of nuclear safety.

Los Alamos National Laboratory faulted for safety lapses in waste shipments to WIPP

The Department of Energy inspector general issued a report last week which alleges that the LANL failed to follow its own safety procedures in shipping volatile chemicals mixed with radioactive waste. Further the OIG said LANL used an unapproved “green” absorbent to contain them in shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The chemicals exploded deep in an underground vault closing the facility indefinitely. DOE said it could take five years and $500 million to reopen the site for waste acceptance shipments.

The OIG report says that the use of the so-called “green kitty litter” was not approved at LANL and that internal safety reviews had raised the issue that the mixture could be hazardous leading to “adverse chemical reactions.”

The lab relieved four senior level managers of their jobs as a result of the incident. The waste cleanup program at LANL is supported by Bechtel and Energy Solutions. While the OIG report singles out Energy Solutions as being responsible for packaging the waste, the the managers who lost their jobs work for Bechtel which manages the cleanup work at LANL overall.

DOE Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz ordered the LANL nuclear waste cleanup program moved from the NNSA which runs the lab to the DOE environmental management office which runs nuclear waste cleanup efforts at most of the agency’s legacy sites.

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