US boosts nuclear energy in Asia while neglecting it at home

A paradox of the Obama administration is that this week it inked major new relationships with nuclear energy powers in Asia while continuing its neglect of the use of nuclear energy at home. The two key developments are a revision to the US treaty with South Korea on nuclear energy and a presidential notice of a proposed agreement between the US and China on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

South Korea

In South Korea a new treaty establishes three outcomes;

  • the right of that nation to make decisions on how to deal with spent nuclear fuel,
  • insures reliable fuel supplies for its reactors, and
  • supports South Korea’s continued export of its reactors to other nations.

The new package opens the door for South Korea to eventually enrich uranium for commercial purposes and to further develop R&D efforts related to reprocessing.

South Korea wants to reprocess the spent fuel for two reasons. First is to make MOX fuel for its reactors and second to reduce the volume of highly radioactive material which eventually must be permanently disposed of in a geologic repository.

Finding one and opening it is a big deal for the South Korean government since few sites are available and the population’s NIMBY instincts are easily mobilized when it comes to new nuclear facilities.

South Korea produces 750 tonnes of spent fuel every year adding them to an inventory of over 13,000 tonnes according to statistics published by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Ltd.

R&D work on pyroprocessing is allowed under the new treaty. US work on pyroprocessing has been ongoing at the Argonne National Laboratory and at the former Argonne-West site in Idaho now managed by the Idaho National Laboratory at its Materials Fuels Complex.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has teamed up with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) to develop the Prototype Generation-IV Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (PGSFR). KAERI’s Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor Development Agency has provided $6.78 million funding to date for Argonne’s contributions through a Work-for-Others contract.

The new agreement between the US and South Korea updates the “123 Agreement” so-called after a section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The first of several of these treaties between the US and South Korea was signed in 1974.  It’s the gold standard for any foreign country to acquire commercial nuclear technologies from US firms.

Talks on the new treaty began nearly five years ago and have been driven by South Korea’s desire to have more control over its spent fuel and to become a supplier of nuclear fuel for its own growing fleet of reactors as well as exported units. The original treaty banned uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel since both activities has “dual-uses” with regard to both civilian and military uses of their products of these processes.

South Korean officials pronounced themselves to be more or less happy with the outcome of the long running negotiations. The country has 24 reactors that provide about one-third of its electricity. Additionally, South Korea is building four 1400 MW reactors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under a $20 billion contract. The UAE also has a 123 Agreement with the US in which it agrees to not enrich uranium nor reprocess spent fuel.

The US Nuclear Energy Institute also said in a press statement it is pleased with the new treaty since it will promote trade on nuclear technologies between the two countries.

The new treaty must be signed by President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  It is also subject to a 90-day review by Congress.


With China the Obama administration said the proposed agreement would allow the transfer of nuclear energy technologies, components, and information for nuclear R&D and for commercial development of nuclear power.  Like the agreement with South Korea, President Obama is seeking a new 123 Agreement with China.

In doing so he must overcome domestic suspicions that China’s interest in nuclear trade will not lead to theft of intellectual property. From China’s perspective, the fact that it has technology transfer agreements with Westinghouse, and is building four of its reactors, is evidence of its good intentions.

Mark Hibbs, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in an OP ED in the Hill that technology transfer provisions will be added to the new agreement. The provisions are intended to protect the intellectual property of US firms and make China accountable for holding up its end of the deal.

The new agreement would have a duration of 30 years. Like the South Korean treaty, this one also drew praise from the US Nuclear Energy Institute. NEI said in its statement;

“In response to soaring electricity demand and its severe air quality challenges, China is implementing an expansive national plan to develop up to 58 gigawatts of nuclear energy generation by 2020, 150 gigawatts by 2030 and considerably more by 2050. For the foreseeable future, China will be the single largest market for nuclear technology, goods and services . . . “

“The strong U.S. presence in China’s nuclear energy market and China’s adoption of U.S. technology has served to deepen its relationship with the United States that has brought about significant advances in China’s safety practices.”

The China Nuclear Energy Association predicts that the central government will authorize eight new construction starts this year. If these numbers come to fruition, it will be the largest single year increase in nuclear power in China’s history.

All of the new construction starts will be Gen III designs and most if not all of them will be the indigenously produced 1000 MW Hualong one. The first two will be built at the Fuqing nuclear power station and the next new start using the design is expected to be the Fangchenggang power station in Guangxi province.

China is offering the Hualong One for export and has recently been negotiating deals with Pakistan, Argentina, and Romania. Not all of these deals will bear fruit or necessarily result in a sale of the new design.

China has 23 reactors under construction and most of them are Gen II designs. China needs to strengthen its nuclear regulatory capabilities. Insuring an independent oversight agency with inspection and enforcement powers for  nuclear power station will be a significant task.

Once the 123 agreement is negotiated, it will need to be signed by President Obama, or his successor, and whomever is his counterpart in China at the time. Congress will have 90 days to review it.

US losses of nuclear units

While these developments in South Korea and China were taking place consider that in the past two years the US has lost nearly 5,000 MW of carbon emission free generating capacity. Overall, five perfectly good nuclear reactors in the US have shut down forever in the past two years

Neither the President nor Congress seem to see this as a problem.  In fact, what it means is that 5000 GW of newly deployed fossil generating capacity will be at work along with the CO2 missions from these plants.

It’s not that the government is solely at fault by policy decisions. Consider that of the five reactors that shut down in recent years, three of them resulted from utilities shooting themselves in the foot. Here is the near-term score card and it is not a pretty sight.

Two reactors, one in Wisconsin and one in Vermont, closed over electricity rate issues having nothing to do with their technical capabilities. Two more shut down in California resulting from a botched steam generator replacement by Mitsubishi, the vendor, with accompanying questions about the effectiveness of the technical oversight of the NRC, and the degree of due diligence by the owner /operator Southern California Edison. A fifth reactor in Florida closed because the utility executives opted for a do-it-yourself steam generator replacement instead of hiring specialist firms with multiple successes under their belts.

  • States have played a growing role in this trend.

Aging equipment, and hostility from the State of New Jersey, play a role in Exelon’s decision to shut down Oyster Creek earlier than the term of its current license. The State of New York, driven by the ambitions of 2nd term Governor Cuomo and his green friends from Riverkeeper, is seeking to shut down Indian Point which supplied 2200 MW of carbon emission free power to the New York city region. In Maine when the current governor sought to open the door for SMRs, he got pounded for it in a media meltdown.

Missouri refused twice to grant Ameren CWIP to build a new reactor at Callaway. Utah sees CWIP for a new reactor as a colonial intrusion from power hungry Los Angeles.

In Florida local officials complained at a recent NRC hearing that two proposed new 1100 MW reactors at Turkey Point near Miami will have no real impact on global warming.  Nearby, the US Secretary of Interior, instead of making the strong case for carbon emission free energy sources, instead wrung her hands over possible impacts to the Everglades in what looks like an attempt at political appeasement of the Democratic Party’s green wing which is vociferously opposed to nuclear energy.

What’s wrong with this picture is that the twin reactors will be cooled by 80-90 million gallons a day of municipal waste water that will be treated to rigorous standards before being discharged into Florida’s waters.

TVA, the nation’s largest nuclear utility, in a newly published strategic plan, now says it will not complete one of the two partially built 1200 MW Bellefonte reactors. Watts Bar II, expected to be finished in early 2016, may be TVA’s last nuclear plant for the foreseeable future. Both President Obama and Congress have fired shots across TVA’s bow reminding it not to breach a decades old debt ceiling to build new reactors.

Overall, it is a grim picture and one that shows up in stark contrast to the recent efforts with 123 Agreements with South Korea and China.

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