South Korea Earns NRC Design Certification for 1400MW PWR

A South Korean light water reactor (LWR) has earned a design certification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) which is a state-run nuclear power operator, said the certification is a first for a non-U.S.-made reactor type. The U.S. design certification for the APR1400 is valid for 15 years and can be extended for another 15 years.

The design certification process determines whether a reactor design meets US safety requirements, independent of any specific site or plan to build. It is a required step before a reactor design can be built in the US, as it can be referenced in combined construction and operation licence (COL) applications for specific reactor projects.


Image courtesy of World Nuclear Association

KHNP said the APR1400 pressurized water reactor (PWR) is now positioned to be built in the U.S. assuming there is a customer for a full size nuclear reactor among the nation’s utilities.  One prospect in the U.S. for KEPCO would not involve the APR1400, but could revive construction of two Westinghouse AP1000s at the V C Summer project. (More on this below)

None of the U.S. utilities which already hold COLs from the NRC referencing other reactor designs have any plans to build new plants.  Following the brief burst of enthusiasm for new full size plants in the 2007-2012 period, 17 utilities cancelled their NRC applications for design certification representing 28 nuclear reactors which in turn potentially represented, if they had been built, approximately 34 GWe of carbon emission free electrical power.

The main reasons for these decisions by utilities were the low price of natural gas, the public fears generated by the Fukushima crisis in Japan, and flat electricity demand following the 2008 recession. Even today 10 years later TVA says it has no plans to build any new nuclear generating capacity despite banking on the NRC approving an Early Site Permit at Clinch River for an SMR to keep its options open. The application does not reference a preferred design, but all of the designs cited are LWRs.

According to the Associated Press for 08/26/19, the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors has approved a 20-year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that includes no new major generating plants. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the plan approved last week envisions getting more power out of existing nuclear, gas and hydroelectric units. TVA completed a $450M upgrade of the Browns Ferry plant this month. TVA’s plan also includes more solar energy projects.

KHNP’s Export Plans

To say that KHNP faces an uphill climb to sell their newly certified reactor in the U.S. is probably akin to a diplomatic communique at its finest.  More likely, KHNP wanted the NRC design certification because on an international basis it is considered to be the “gold standard” for safety reviews and therefore it is a confidence builder in any potential export deals.

A report in Business Korea earlier this year noted that since the NRC’s design approval is recognized as an indicator of technological reliability by the global nuclear power industry, it will strengthen the overall export base for Korean nuclear power plants.

KHNP is also reported to be on track to obtaining a European design approval on the reactor as a standard design for the EU-APR. A version of the APR1400 tailored to Europe passed the screening of the European certification body in October last year.

Saudi Arabia – South Korea is one of five possible bidders for a planned nuclear energy tender by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for two full size reactors which is expected in late 2019 or early 2020.  South Korea has been working on a 100 MW SMR in KSA since 2011 and has a long standing working relationship with the energy ministry.

However, KEPCO is seen by the U.S. as walking on thin ice claiming that a modified version of the APR1400 is unencumbered by U.S. intellectual property (CE System 80+), and that it can be sold to Saudi Arabia even if there is no 123 Agreement in place. KSA has steadfastly maintained that it wants the right to enrich uranium as part of any 123 Agreement. The U.S opposes this position by KSA in the ongoing negotiations.

UK Moorside – KEPCO was at one time in negotiations with Toshiba to take over the UK’s Moorside nuclear project which was slated to be the home for three Westinghouse 1100 MW AP1000s.  Toshiba cancelled the negotiations in what may have been a political move by Japan’s government rather than as a result of differences between Toshiba and KEPCO over financial terms of a deal.

Since then the UK government has also begun considering small modular reactors (SMRs) of less than 300 MWe for some of the sites included in its new build. KEPCO’s 1400 MW PWR type design would have to complete the UK generic design review process to be built at Moorside and it’s at least a four year process.

United Arab Emirates – South Korea’s nuclear industry includes the entire supply chain of domestic heavy industries which are involved in building four APR1400 nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. The first unit is expected to be commissioned in early 2020.

Startup of the first unit has been twice delayed due to problems in getting access to the reference reactor of the same design in South Korea to train plant operators and  the need for numerous corrective actions as a result of an operational readiness review which took place in April 2018. The UAE utility that is building the plants, and will own and operate them, recently successfully completed the training of several groups of plant operators and is now on track for the 2020 startup date.

Other Prospects – South Korea has also submitted expressions of interest in bidding on new reactors in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Financial issues in these nations, in terms of how to pay for new reactors, will have to be resolved in both countries before credible tenders can be released to bidders. Prospects have dimmed for the APR1400 in Romania as that nation has resisted China’s push to supply a Hualong One in favor of completing two partialy built Candu type reactors.

KEPCO in Talks with South Carolina Utilities
about Finishing the V C Summer Project

The State newspaper in South Carolina has learned at least one of the companies proposing the finish V C Summer, which is only about one third-built, is South Korea’s state-run power company, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO).

In an interview with The State this week, new Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall confirmed the state-owned utility is in discussions with “a party from the outside” that wants to finish the twin reactor (2 AP1000s) V.C. Summer project. State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, told The State he met with KEPCO representatives in April about their interest in reviving V.C. Summer.

A key issue that would need to be resolved is a dispute with Westinghouse involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment ordered for the plant. The parts can’t be used in any reactors except an AP1000 which takes the project off the table if South Korea wants to offer its own design of the APR1400.  Then again South Korea may just flat out be interested in finishing the AP1000s because they think they can make money doing it.

The State newspaper listed four key challenges to the project moving forward with a South Korean firm partnered perhaps with Westinghouse and a U.S EPC firm that wasn’t complicit in the failure of the project the first time around when Westinghouse was leading it as well as being its key supplier.  Here’s their list with a few additional comments.

  • A key item is a long process of obtaining necessary regulatory approvals, including a combined operating license for each of the two reactors. Santee Cooper surrendered the licenses to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January 2019. Opponents of restarting the project are likely to throw as many contentions as they can think of against the wall to see if any of them will stick. The NRC will dutifully consider each and every one of them which could drag out a date for a decision on whether to issue a new license for each reactor.
  • Second, a new developer will have to find a way to pay for the construction effort. The price of Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion has more than doubled to $27 billion. If a revival of V C Summer is going to be possible, cost control is a paramount success factor.
  • Third, a developer will have to find buyers for the electricity produced by the completed plants. Given the long lead time to revenue service, the utilities that might buy the power could opt for a faster path to new generation by investing in natural gas plants which are also far cheaper than a nuclear new build and which have far less regulatory overhead.
  • Finally, there is a really complex issue of working out a creative ownership arrangement for the project, since foreign companies legally cannot be majority owners of a nuclear power plant in the United States. KEPCO would have to agree to a minority equity stake which suggests that a new U.S. firm might have to be created to attract investors and address licensing issues.

CEO Bonsall of Santee Cooper told The State newspaper his firm won’t invest any more money or take on any more risk for this project. Santee Cooper would rather sell those left over parts to a new consortium in exchange for cash or electricity generated by the reactors if they are finished. However, he didn’t confirm whether the utility would buy electricity from a completed V C Summer power station. The price of power a half a decade from now isn’t something that anyone can predict.

Bonsall also made clear the utility is not betting on V.C. Summer’s revival. Asked about the likelihood the plant is completed, he told the newspaper, “We are not basing (Santee Cooper’s) new business plan on the assumption that it (a deal with KEPCO) goes forward.”

That statement is consistent with the “prudent investor” paradigm that any CEO in his shoes would have to make to insure that investors don’t react in a negative fashion. A lot of confidence building measures would be needed to restart the effort. A key action would be demonstrated commitment to rigorous project management, the failure of which is one of the main reasons the project went under in the first place.

History of the APR1400

The APR1400 is a next-generation nuclear power reactor that is also an upgrade model of the OPR1000. It was developed through a government-led project from 1992 to 2001 after investing US$189 million.  Principally designed by Korea Engineering Company, it produces 1400 MWe and has a 60-year design life.(IAEA ARIS database entry for APR1400 technical specifications – PDF file)

WNN reports that Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and its subsidiary Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) originally submitted the design to the NRC in September 2013. They then submitted a revised version of their application in December 2014. The NRC completed an acceptance check in March 2015 and ruled that the revised application was sufficiently complete for it to undertake a full design certification review.

The APR-1400 is an evolutionary pressurized water reactor (PWR) with its origins in the U.S. CE System 80+ model. System 80 is a pressurized water reactor (PWR) design by Combustion Engineering (which was subsequently bought by Asea Brown Boveri and eventually merged into the Westinghouse Electric Company). Three System 80 reactors were built at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

This U.S. legacy of the APR1400 design is one of the reasons the U.S. says South Korea’s 123 Agreement with the U.S. prohibits selling the APR1400 to any country that does not also have a 123 Agreement with the U.S.

APR1400 schematic

The APR1400 supersedes the standardized 995 MWe OPR-1400 design, of which South Korea built 12 units. The APR-1400 reportedly features improvements in operation, safety, maintenance and affordability based on accumulated experience as well as technological development. Design certification by the Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety was awarded in 2003.

Construction of the first two APR-1400s, as units 3 and 4 of South Korea’s Shin Kori plant – began in October 2008 and August 2009, respectively. Unit 3, which was originally scheduled to enter commercial operation at the end of 2013, eventually reached first criticality in December 2015, and was connected to the grid in January 2016. It entered commercial operation in December that year. Unit 4 achieved first criticality in April 2019 with grid connection that same month.

Unit 4 of the Shin Kori nuclear power plant entered commercial operation on August 29th according to a press statement by Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP). Unit 3 of the South Korean plant became the first APR-1400 to begin supplying electricity to the grid in January 2016.

Startup of Unit 3 at Shin Kori was delayed after the EPC building the plant discovered that South Korean suppliers had delivered counterfeit parts that had been installed in the plants.

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.

The components includes electrical cables and transformers. All of this equipment, which was delivered with falsified certificates of quality, had to be ripped out of the plants and replaced to insure compliance with nuclear reactor component quality standards.

Construction of two further APR-1400 reactors at Shin Kori – units 5 and 6 – began in April 2017 and September 2018, respectively. Unit 5 is scheduled to begin commercial operation in March 2022, with unit 6 following one year later. Two further APR-1400 units are under construction in South Korea as units 1 and 2 of the Shin Hanul site.

The current South Korean government has tried several times to stop the construction of these plants as part of a broader policy of eliminating all nuclear plants by 2050.  Future administrations in that country may sing a different tune as many nations, especially in Southeast Asia, begin to invest in nuclear energy as a way to slow the global warming of the planet from CO2 emissions of fossil fuel plants.  If South Korea wants a robust export business for the APR1400, the best way to get it is to support it at home.

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Dan Yurman ~ About this blog and disclaimers for NeutronBytes ~ ~ ** Contact Me ~ ~ Text via Signal 216-218-3823 ~ I am NOT active on Facebook, Reddit or Instagram. Attempt no landings there. ** Header Image Credit: ~ ** Emails sent by readers about blog posts are considered to be comments for publication unless otherwise noted. ** The content of this blog is protected by copyright laws of the U.S. "Fair use" provisions apply. The RSS feed is for personal use only unless otherwise explicitly granted.
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