South Korea expands its nuclear energy export horizons

  • Saudi Arabia to buy two South Korean 100 MW PWRs
  • UAE expands bilateral ties with South Korea for energy projects
  • South Korea to start APR-1400 certification review with US NRC

Among the powerhouse nuclear energy export nation, South Korea has inked some impressive accomplishments in the past month. Most significantly, it inked the first sale of commercial nuclear energy technology to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This is a market that other state-owned nuclear companies, and private firms, have been trying to crack for years.

In January the Saudi government backed off of an ambitious plan to build 17 Gwe of nuclear power plants at three sites within a 20 year time frame. Without going into specifics, the government’s energy officials said they were reconsidering their options. The new plans push out completion of the new build of 16 1000 MW units to 2040. Now we know what one of the near term plans is going to be – buy small first.

The South Korean SMART reactor, which is a 100 MW PWR design, comes with its own steam generators, and can be used for electricity generation, process heat steam, and desalinization of sea water. On the latter point it isn’t clear whether the KSA energy program will use reverse osmosis, powered by electricity, or the heat from the reactor, to distill the water.

SMART stands for ‘system-integrated modular advanced reactor.’ It received its design and safety review in South Korea in 2012. A demonstration unit is slated to break ground for construction in 2017 in South Korea.  It has a 60-year operating life and a three-year fuel cycle. It will use commercial nuclear fuel enriched to 4.8% U235. A single unit can produce 90 MWe plus 40,000 m3/day of desalinated water.

The contractual arrangement is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and KSA’s King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE). The document was signed this week in Riydah by South Korean President Park Guen-hye and KSA King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud.

Saudi Electricity, which will be the customer for the reactors, also signed agreements with Korea Electric Power Co., Doosan Heavy Industries, and with LG Electronics for instrumentation of the reactor cooling system.

The scope of work for the MOU is to conduct a feasibility study focused on construction of two first-of-a-kind units which could cost up to $1 billion each. By the time they get build to unit 10, the cost could be in the range of $600-700 million each. South Korean heavy industry firms are expected to supply most of the components for the first two reactors and fleet assuming orders follow.

The MOU calls for multiple units to be built at locations around the country, possibly the same three sites as slated for the larger units. The MOU also calls for the two countries to promote the design for export. Other terms of the MOU cover R&D, detailed design, safety and security issues.

Like other Middle East oil rich countries, KSA sees two objectives in going nuclear. The first is that it is burning gas and oil for electricity generation at home that it wants to put into the export pipeline. Second, at some point, like the North Sea oil fields, the reserves start to run out. Then what?

South Korea to pursue smart cities in the UAE

While it is building four 1400 MW PWR type reactors in the United Arab Emirates, South Korea is also expanding its business in that country to help it manage the electricity that will come from the plants. All four of the units are expected to be in revenue service by 2020.

As part of a Middle East trip, South Korean President Park-Geun-hye  met with his counterparts in the UAE to lay out the groundwork for a program of smart buildings and smart cities to maximize energy efficiency in the desert heat.

Another aspect of the discussions focused on development of infrastructure including electrified rail transport and to channel the reliable power from the reactors into high tech factories.

NRC to start APR-1400 certification review

The NRC said this week that it would begin a certification review of the APR-1400 light water on behalf of the Korea Electric Power Corp. and Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power. The application was submitted for review in December 2014. The agency’s first step will be to go over the tens of thousands of electronic pages to see if the application is complete.

This is the second try for the review. In January 2014 the NRC found that the submitted application did not contain sufficient information to conduct its review. According to a report in Nuclear Engineering International Magazine, there were substantial deficiencies in the application.

“Application ‘deficiencies’ exist in the areas of instrumentation and control, human factors engineering, probabilistic risk assessment, and in the environmental report, NRC noted in a 19 December letter to KHNP. These were communicated to KHNP during a public meeting on 11-12 December 2013, NRC said.

In particular, NRC noted that the application “did not provide sufficient information are the software common cause failures of non-safety related control systems” nor on the critical characteristics of the safety I&C system platform.

It also lacked enough detail for some specific technical issues, including reactor coolant pump design, potential corrosion of some internal reactor parts, radioactive waste management and radiation protection.

The NRC staff also noted that KHNP has not yet submitted technical reports in four areas, including fuel seismic response evaluation and spent fuel criticality analysis.”

Typically, the review takes about 4-5 years depending on what questions the NRC asks the vendor about the design and a dizzying array of regulatory, environmental, and technical requirements. When done, if the reactor gets the agency’s finding that the design is safe, it can enter the US market.

Whether the firm will actually do so is a question since the drastic drop in the price of natural gas in the US has all but cancelled the “nuclear renaissance” that briefly emerged in the period 2005-2009. It may be what South Korea wants is the “gold standard” stamp of approval from the NRC to convince customers in other countries to buy the units.

The APR-1400 reactor design was certified by the Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety in May 2002. The Shin-Kori 3 reactor in South Korea, which uses it, is expected to enter revneue service 2016 which will make it. the first APR-1400 reactor to go on line. Having built and commissioned one is a major selling point for exports.

KEPCO is leading a consortium of firms contracted to build four APR-1400 reactors at Barakah in the United Arab Emirates. Construction began in July 2012 and May 2013, respectively, for the first two reactors as part of a $20 billion contract that is aiming for a 5.6 GWe total. The reactors are expected to have life cycles of 60 years each.

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