Delays in the startup of the first of four South Korean 1400 MW PWR type nuclear reactors being built for the Emirates Nuclear Energy Program in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have cascaded forward affecting the next three due to a combination of safety issues and quality assurance problems with components and systems.
The first unit was scheduled to begin the process of fuel loading and startup in 2018. However, that milestone has now been pushed back to late 2019 or early 2020. This is the second significant delay in startup of the first of four reactors being built at the site.
This blog post steps through some of the issues covered in the MIT Technology Review magazine article and looks at how they have affected not only the construction of four plants in the UAE, but also South Korea’s future as a global leader in nuclear energy.
These issues are not new. The New York Times first reported the problems in 2013 with construction of three nuclear plants in South Korea in 2013. At the core of the issue are fabricated safety certificates for parts shipped to nuclear reactors under construction in South Korea and bribes paid by supplier chain firms to nuclear construction managers to accept the substandard components.
Note to Readers – the 2013 New York Times article includes a deep dive into the culture of relationships between supply chain firms and managers at nuclear utilities.
According to the report, counterfeit parts, cables and possibly other components, sidelined construction and startup of a key South Korean nuclear reactor in 2014 to 2016 which also setback training of NAWAH operators at that plant.
The reference South Korean plant for the training work is the Shin Kori-3, an APR-1400, which is the same design as the units being built in the UAE. It was supposed to start up in 2013/2014. However, it didn’t have its first criticality until December 2015 and wasn’t connected to the grid for revenue service until December 2016. The delays were caused by the need to rip and replace counterfeit cables and other components installed in the plant.
Separately, the MIT Technology Review magazine article documents a long history of double dealing among firms supplying components and systems to be used in the construction of South Korean nuclear reactors. Two kinds of problems are reported – first, substandard transformers for the switchyard, a reported 300 units in all, and second, and more significantly, counterfeit cables which impacted both PWR and CANDU type reactors being built in South Korea.
According to the magazine, some of the counterfeit parts made their way to the UAE units under construction which resulted in a loss of confidence by Emirati nuclear officials in the reliability of the South Korean supply chain. The magazine’s report did not cite evidence that anyone in the UAE knowingly accepted parts with false safety certificates
“Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. “It’s still creating a problem to this day,” Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told the magazine
“They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.”
It isn’t clear whether parts were intended to be installed in the nuclear island or in the non-nuclear areas such as turbine or electrical switch yard, where power is transferred from power station to the regional grid. We don’t know the extent of the problem because neither the UAE nor South Korea provided those details to the magazine’s reporter.
An 18-24 month delay in startup based on the need to clear hundreds of RAIs in an April 2018 Operational Readiness Review (ORR) points to numerous and serious findings, and may also be related to the report about counterfeit components having been shipped to the UAE from South Korean suppliers.
Outcome of the Operational Readiness Review for Unit 1
The primary cause of the delay in startup of Unit 1, which was the second postponement of startup process, is that the unit had problems with a management process called an “Operational Readiness Review” or ORR. This led to a statement by the UAE Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) about problems with the “safety culture” at the plant. FANR had been raising the issue of “safety culture” since 2016.
As readers of this blog well know the ORR is a standard check point or milestone in the startup of any new commercial nuclear reactors, and the process is more or less the same for any new commercial reactor globally.
The basic intent of an ORR is to check that ALL of the equipment is installed properly, and that EVERY piece of equipment functions exactly as specified in terms of its function within the reactor system.
On the human factors side, an ORR checks that staff are fully trained and that they are following all of the procedures for safely operating the reactor.
If deficiencies are found either in terms of equipment installation or operation, or in terms of staff correctly following procedures, a “finding” is documented and the plant operator has to take “corrective actions” to fix the problem. The ability of the Emirates Energy utility to license the plant depends on a successful ORR with closure of all findings. The more serious the issue that is found, the longer it usually takes to fix it.
Organizational Readiness Inspections at Barakah 1
The ORR included multiple areas resulting in approximately 70 inspections which took place. Organizational issues are as important as technical concerns. In terms of safety culture, key items included;
- Control room crew readiness
- Training and qualification of All Technical Staff
- Staffing levels of the operating company
- Implementing procedures in all technical areas
The result is that first UAE reactor, same design as the one in South Korea, has twice postponed startup dates due in part to this delay. The unit also did not pass its operational readiness review.
Nawah Energy Company said it “has completed a comprehensive operational readiness review (ORR)” in April 2018 for an updated start-up schedule for the reactor, but in May as a result of over 400 “findings” from the ORR postponed startup by 18-24 months. (Briefing on April 2018 UAE ORR – PDF file)
Examples of the findings include problems with radiological control management programs and monitoring systems. (UAE April 2018 ORR summary report – PDF file)
FANR Inspectors identified several Issues of Concern. Here are a few examples.
Descriptions are not sufficient to address all the elements of the Program scope.
• IOC2 – Quality Control Issues associated with the REMP Program.
• URI1 – Unable to verify that the alarm/trip set points for effluent radiation monitors will alarm/trip as required by Technical Specifications
Radioactive Effluent Control Program (RECP)
o Radiological Environmental Monitoring Program (REMP)
o Radioactive Effluents Controls
Once the ORR has documented findings, the plant operator has to take “corrective actions” and document the closure of each finding. According to the ORR report, it found more than 400 items requiring this response from the plant operator.
The Case of the Counterfeit Parts
The first reports of problems with parts not being up to code that had been installed in three nuclear reactors under construction in South Korea surfaced in 2012 and by May 2013 South Korea had suspended the operations of two nuclear power reactors and extended a shutdown of a third to replace cables that were supplied using fake safety certificates.
The new case relates to forged documents on cables worth a reported $5.35 million. Of the three reactors, two are in Kori, about 320 km southeast of the capital Seoul, and one is in Wolsong. Significantly, for the UAE, the Shin Kori 3 reactor was one of the affected units.
And there were consequences for the suppliers who shipped bogus parts to the plants. The MIT Technology Review magazine article provides this summary of how the government responded to the scandal.
“By the time it was completed in 2014, the KHNP inquiry [over counterfeit parts] had escalated into a far-reaching investigation of graft, collusion, and warranty forgery; in total, 68 people were sentenced and the courts dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time. “
“Guilty parties included KHNP president Kim Jong-shin, a KEPCO lifer, and President Lee Myung-bak’s close aide Park Young-joon, whom Kim had bribed in exchange for “favorable treatment” from the government.”
Updated Schedule for Unit 1
NucNet reported in May 2018 that the second delay and updated schedule for Unit 1 was announced on May 26, 2018, and follows “a comprehensive operational readiness review” (ORR) by Nawah Energy Company, the joint venture company formed by Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPKO) to operate the four-unit Barakah nuclear power station.
Nawah said the schedule review was carried out “in strict accordance with the principles of a healthy nuclear safety culture, which requires conservative decision-making to support nuclear safety.”
“Consequently, the resulting projection for the start-up of Unit 1 operations reflects the time required for the plant’s nuclear operators to complete operational readiness activities and to obtain necessary regulatory approvals, all of which are all designed to ensure safe, sustainable nuclear operations after start-up,” the company said.
The first delay occurred in May 2017 and was updated in January 2018. ENEC said at that time commercial operation of Barakah-1 had been put back from 2017 to 2018.
Christer Viktorsson, director-general of UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), told Reuters in January 2018 that while the reactor was almost technically ready, the regulator could not yet issue an operating licence to Nawah and could not say when the firm would get its licence.
ENEC said the first delay in 2017 was to “ensure sufficient time for international assessments and adherence to nuclear industry safety standards, and “as a reinforcement of operational proficiency for plant personnel.”
A translation of this statement is that the lack of access to the Shin Kori 3 reactor denied the UAE the use of the unit for training purposes. The language of the press statement for the second delay, announced in Spring 2018, is in a way a statement of confidence that the ORR process worked and that the findings documented in the ORR would require more work to get the plant ready to be licensed.
ENEC also said that the second delay followed a series of assessments and lessons learned from Shin-Kori-3 in South Korea, the reference plant for Barakah.
Shin Kori-3, an APR-1400 which was supposed to start up in 2013/2014, but which didn’t have its first criticality until December 2015 and wasn’t connected to the grid for revenue service until December 2016. The primary reason for the delay was the issue of forged safety certificates for cables and components installed in the plant.
UAE Invests in Reactor Control Room Simulation
So what do you do if you don’t have a real operating reactor to train your people? The next best step is to build a simulation facility which is a mock up of the real thing.
ENEC said in a press statement in 2015 that critical part of its safety culture and ongoing work toward operational readiness is simulation training. The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant has two full scope, digital training simulators, which are housed in the 7,000-square-meter Simulator Training Center.
Individuals who are working toward their certification to operate the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant gain hands-on experience by interfacing with an exact replica of the Main Control Room. Trainees are exposed to a series of virtual scenarios that prepare them to play a key role in delivering safe, clean nuclear energy to the UAE.
ENEC said the teams have completed more than 20 emergency response drills and will continue to conduct these exercises at regular intervals during construction and operations of the plant.
Overcoming Language Issues at a Globally Sourced Site
The plant operator also invested in addressing the language issues at the plant. Nawah Energy Company (NAWAH), the operator of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, says it is among the first sites to develop English language standards for nuclear plant operations. These standards are need for safety communication as part of a viable nuclear safety culture.
Consider that there may not be more than a handful of nuclear engineers in the world who speak both Arabic and Korean. And it is a bigger problem than just these two cultures.
Suppose you are a South Korean Senior Reactor Operator and your boss shows up one day with a dozen or so trainees from the UAE none of whom speak a word of Korean. Actually, you would have known they were coming, but unless everyone in the room speaks a common language, like English, or that you have very good translators, getting the trainees certified is going to be a slog.
Nawah Energy Company took action in October 2018 because it had become acutely aware of the problem, which was an underlying contributor to some of the findings on safety in the ORR in April 2018. If the staff all don’t talk the same language, how are they going to run the plant?
“With employees from more than 40 nationalities, NAWAH is the most multinational and multicultural nuclear operating company in the world.”
“As we prepare to begin operating the first nuclear energy reactor in the Arab World, everyone at Nawah has been working to maintain high standards of effective safety communications,” said Mark Reddemann, NAWAH CEO, in a press statement.
“With the development of the first ‘Nuclear English’ standards, we can now ensure that our staff have the language ability to effectively communicate, to support safe, reliable operations.”
“Our current focus is to finalize the assessment of the people who are essential to the Fuel Load and start-up of Barakah Unit 1, comprising operators, maintenance and security personnel, and emergency response officers.”
He added that the Organizational Effectiveness team “is working around the clock to ensure that these people sit the exams and obtain the official certification needed to meet the Nuclear English standard,” added Mr Reddemann.
“So far, we have evaluated about 90 percent of the staff and around 55 percent have already achieved the required level.”
Reddemann added, “In fact, Peter Dietrich, Nawah’s Chief Nuclear Officer who is from the US, recently took the Nuclear English Test as this is a requirement.”
Implications of Problems in UAE for South Korea’s Nuclear Future
The prosecution and punishment of the people in South Korea responsible for the problems with substandard parts won’t bring back the lost money, or time, or restore the reputation of the South Korean nuclear program.
These delays, and the problems with substandard parts, produced serious consternation at the UAE and, the situation may eventually affect South Korea’s prospects for winning new export work with Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.
South Korea has had an aggressive posture in terms of seeking new export deals, and is well on its way to getting its 1400 MW design through the US NRC safety review process.
South Korea has also been negotiating to sell its reactors to the UK, but has not yet started the equivalent safety review process there, called the Generic Design Assessment (GDA), for its products there. The key reason is that it lost its “preferred bidder” status from Toshiba for the Moorside project after the two firms came to loggerheads over differences on costs and related finances.
In all South Korea’s nuclear industry has some serious challenges ahead. The government doesn’t trust it, wants to shut it down, and its key foreign customer is bent out of shape over the delays in start up of the first unit which cascades into delays for the next three.
Insofar as shutting down the domestic reactors in South Korea are concerned, that may not happen right away if at all. South Korea would have to wind up either buying LNG on the global market or natural gas from Russia via an undersea pipeline. The shutdown deadline is 2045 so a lot can happen by then.
The World Nuclear Association, which prepares profiles of nuclear energy in each country, describes the current domestic nuclear energy profile for South Korea in this summary.
- Reactors provide about one-third of South Korea’s electricity from 22 GWe of plant.
- Nuclear energy has been a strategic priority for South Korea, but the new president elected in 2017 is aiming to phase it out over some 45 years.
It will be tough for South Korea to give up its commitment to nuclear energy, and meet climate change goals at the same time. A loss of one third of the power generation capacity for this heavily urbanized and industrialized sectors seems to be simply unthinkable.
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