UK Gov’t Said Ready to Cut China Out of its Nuclear Plans

  • UK Gov’t Reported to Plan Break with China Over Nuclear Energy Investments
  • China ‘Unveils Design’ For Next-Generation Commercial Molten Salt Reactor
  • Nuclear Phase-out Plan a Key Issue in S. Korea Election
  • NuScale Gets Two Investments from South Korean Firms

UK Gov’t Said to Plan to Give China the Boot
from its Nuclear New Build

The Financial Times reported on 07/25/21 that due to increasing diplomatic tensions between the UK and China that PM Boris Johnson’s government is looking for ways to extract Chinese state owned enterprise (SOE) China General Corp from the Sizewell C project. Additionally, the government also has reportedly made plans to stop China from being the lead developer of the proposed Bradwell B plant in Essex.

uk 2 nuclearThe Sizewell C project is slated to cost £20 billion and be comprised of two EDF/Areva 1650 MWe European Pressurized Water Reactors (EPR). The Bradwell site is slated to be built as one or more, of CGN’s 1000 MWe PWR which is the Hualong One (HPR1000) reactor technology. The Chinese reactor design is now at Stage 4 of the UK Office of Nuclear Regulation Generic Design Assessment.

The Sizewell investment is a follow-on to an investment by China in the Hinkley Point C project where two Chinese SOE’s have taken a one-third equity stake in the project. In return the government promised China the right to build the Bradwell project with one and potentially as many as three of its 1000 MWe Hualong One reactors.

China’s involvement in nuclear power in the UK dates back to an agreement endorsed by then prime minister David Cameron and Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015.

Diplomatic Issues Driving Energy Dis-investment Policies

None of these issues have anything to do with the prospects or merits of the nuclear projects themselves. According to the Financial Times, the change in policy is the result of a “chill” in relations between London and Beijing in recent years over issues including;

  • China’s clampdown on dissent in Hong Kong,
  • its repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and
  • its handling of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said last year the UK could no longer conduct “business as usual” with Beijing which led to an earlier controversial action by the UK government to block Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from bidding on Britain’s 5G network.

Reuters reported that a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, said in response to the Financial Times report that “The British should earnestly provide an open, fair and non discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies.”

China and Britain are important trade and investment partners for each other, he added.

“It is in the interests of both sides to conduct practical cooperation in the spirit of mutual benefit and a win-win result.” Zhao said.

Britain’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) declined direct comment on the FT report.

According to the government, as reported by the newspaper, the reason for the 5G contract decision was “security concerns” that China would plant digital “back doors” in the telecom equipment allowing Chinese intelligence agencies broad access to voice and data networks across the UK. Pressure from UK telecom firms that wanted the work also played a role in the decision.

The Financial Times noted that the move to reconsider the UK’s nuclear energy partners comes as the US and its allies in Europe and Asia are increasingly looking to prevent China from obtaining sensitive technology and to protect their own supply chains or critical infrastructure from over-reliance on Chinese technology.

During the closing days of the Trump administration, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made promises of stratospheric levels of US funding to Romania and Poland to deter Chinese efforts to sell its reactors to those countries. The Biden administration has not followed up on these promises.

If Chinese Investors are Out, then are US Investors In?

The removal of CGN from Sizewell could help EDF attract North American infrastructure investors to the project, which nuclear industry leaders said would otherwise be challenging with Chinese involvement. Discussions were already taking place with the lead developer of Sizewell C, the French state-backed utility EDF, about whether it could find new investment partners for the project. So far no US firms have made public expressions of interest about the project. Separately, several US firms have looked into reviving the Wylfa and Oldbury projects.

The US put CGN on an export blacklist in 2019, alleging it had stolen US technology for military purposes, while the Trump administration warned the UK against Chinese involvement in nuclear power.

A similar approach may be needed for the Bradwell project. According to a source quoted by the Financial Times, “CGN’s plans to build the power plant on the coast just 50km from London were now a non-starter.”

“There isn’t a chance in hell that CGN builds Bradwell,” the anonymous government source told the newspaper, adding: “Given the approach we’ve seen to Huawei, [Downing Street] aren’t going to be letting a Chinese company build a new nuclear power station.”

Unraveling Chinese involvement in the UK nuclear new build isn’t going to be easy. An unnamed government spokesman told the Financial Times that PM Boris Johnson and his ministers are are concerned about CGN‘s involvement in critical UK infrastructure and believe Sizewell could be financially and technically viable without the Chinese company.

This level of confidence may be misplaced. EDF, which is building the Hinkley Point EPRs and is expected to build the Sizewell C project, is using technical input, especially lessons learned, from Chinese nuclear engineers who built and commissioned the two EPRs at Taishan, China.

CGN’s Taishan nuclear power plant in southern China was the first in the world to operate using EPR technology and more than 100 CGN engineers have been involved with Hinkley Point C, around 50 on-site in Somerset. The loss of their involvement in both UK projects could be a significant setback for them.

Replacing their expertise won’t be easy as the two other EPRs in the world are still under construction. One in Finland is near completion, but has had repeated run-ins with the Finish nuclear safety agency that have delay startup. The other, in France, has had a series of problems with the quality of welds in several key locations in the plant which has delayed construction.

Has the UK Finally Decided to Use the RAB Financing Method?

(NucNet) Some Conservative Party MPs have called for a review of nuclear contracts on the grounds that China is not a “trusted vendor.” Some believe Britain no longer needs CGN’s money because prime minister Boris Johnson’s government might be willing to contemplate public subsidies or new financing methods for new nuclear such as the RAB method.

Back in 2019 the UK government put its toe in the water with a public consultation on the subject.  It said, “Our assessment has concluded that, by providing regulated returns to investors, a RAB model has the potential to reduce the cost of raising private finance for new nuclear projects, thereby reducing consumer bills and maximizing value for money for consumers and taxpayers.”

Earlier this month the Financial Times reported that ministers were in the process of drawing up legislation that will allow the construction of the two Sizewell C units through a regulated asset base (RAB) financing scheme. The UK government issued a white paper earlier this month indicating its plans to do so.

The RAB model encourages investment in major infrastructure projects by delivering reliable returns, at a reduced rate, before a plant is operational. This reduces the need for large-scale, long-term borrowing at high interest rates, which significantly increases the cost of power.

The RAB model encourages investment in major infrastructure projects by delivering reliable returns, at a reduced rate, before a plant is operational. This reduces the need for large-scale, long-term borrowing at high interest rates, which significantly increases the cost of electric power.

The RAB approach is widely used internationally and has attracted investors for the construction of UK infrastructure projects including the Thames Tideway Tunnel and the Heathrow Terminal 5.

& & &

China ‘Unveils Design’ For Next-Generation Commercial Molten Salt Reactor

(NucNet  contributed to this report) English language media from China say thorium plant could be deployed in desert regions and ease Beijing’s energy security concerns

Government researchers in China have unveiled their design for a commercial thorium molten salt nuclear reactor that is expected to be the first in the world to break ground for a commercial installation that will not use significant amounts of water for cooling or the steam system. The news was first reported last week by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The reactor could generate up to 100 MWe. The prototype reactor at 10 MWe is expected to be completed next month, with the first tests beginning as early as September. This will pave the way for the building of the first commercial reactor, slated for construction by 2030.


Image: Thorium molten salt reactor nuclear energy system (TMSR)
Zhimin Dai – Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP), Shanghai, China

The reactor itself will only be 3 meters tall and 2.5 meters wide, though the power plant will be larger because it incorporates other equipment including steam turbines.

In 2017, the China Academy of Sciences and the government of Gansu, a landlocked province in the northwest of the country, signed a cooperation agreement to work together on the TMSR project and to have a demonstration plant built in the city of Wuwei, Gansu province, by 2020. The government has long-term plans to build several of the reactors in the deserts of central and western China.

Because the thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) plant will not need water for cooling, it can be deployed in desert regions, allowing operators to use otherwise desolate spaces in order to provide energy for large populations.  Although the technical details of the steam system are not available, a plausible assumption is that air cooling of the steam condensate coming off the turbine is one of the features of the system.  This kind of air cooling is also a feature of several other SMRs including some that are based on light water reactor designs

The small size of the reactors allows its components to be transported to the construction site by truck and/or rail.  So far many  of China’s full size light water reactors have been located at coastal sites to allow for the large long lead time components to be delivered by ocean going barges.

Use of Molten Salt and Thorium Fuel

Next-generation molten salt reactor technology is in development by several companies and countries worldwide, including the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet-backed Natrium.  Seaborg Technologies, a Danish company behind a project to develop and commercialize a molten salt reactor, announced it had secured funding of an “eight-digit” sum in euros from private investors. In the US Thorcon has been working with partners in Indonesia to develop a thorium fueled molten salt reactor that can be manufactured in ship yards and then floated to a customer site.

Thorium has long been seen as a potential alternative source of fuel for nuclear reactors. India,, for example, has limited reserves of the uranium needed for traditional reactors, but it has the world’s largest reserves of thorium. Despite over three decades of development work, India has not opted to produce a commercial version of its R&D effort with thorium fueled reactors.

The International Energy Agency says developing a thorium fuel cycle will require a range of tough economic, technical and regulatory challenges to be overcome. Among them are the need for a qualified supply of fuel for the reactor, a plan for regulatory review for safety, and other key issues.

Thorium Reactors for Export?

A Chinese nuclear energy expert told the SCMP China may also consider building thorium fueled MSR reactors for countries that have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Plans include building up to 30 reactors in partnered nations.

However, this may be overly ambitious due to the unknown cost and lack of certainly about the design. A factor in its favor is its small size which is far less costly than a full scale 1000 MWe plants like China’s Hualong One which it built for Pakistan.

China plans to link the reactors with wind and solar plants to power more densely populated areas. The commercial reactor could generate up to 100MWe.

“Small-scale reactors have significant advantages in terms of efficiency, flexibility and economy,” Professor Yan Rui and colleagues at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics wrote in a paper published recently in the Chinese journal Nuclear Techniques.

“They can play a key role in the future transition to clean energy. It is expected that small-scale reactors will be widely deployed in the next few years.”

A molten salt reactor has the advantage of being multipurpose, small in size and highly flexible. It is as easy to design as a small-scale reactor. In recent years, the potential of small-scale molten salt reactors has caught international attention, the scientists said.

Recent History of the Thorium Effort in China

English language media reports indicate that the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced plans in 2018 to invest $3 billion (USD) over the next two decades in development of molten salt reactors of various designs. A first order objective is reported to be the kickoff of design and development of a first of a kind 100MW thorium molten salt reactor in 2020 in the city of Wuwei in Gansu province. Commercial development is targeted for the early 2030s.

The program is called the Thorium-Breeding Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR). According to the media reports, the R&D program has two major components and both are tied to fuel types (solid and liquid) for various kinds of molten salt designs.

The TMSR-SF stream has only partial utilization of thorium, relying on some breeding was with U-238, and needing fissile (U-235) uranium input as well. It is optimized for high-temperature based hybrid nuclear energy applications. The TMSR-LF stream claims full closed Th-U fuel cycle with breeding of U-233 and much better sustainability with thorium but greater technical difficulty including materials to be used with high temperatures and corrosive salts.

& & &

Nuclear Phase-out Plan a Key Issue in S. Korea Election

(Korea Times) Presidential politics in South Korea entered a new phase this month with multiple candidates debating the policy of the current government to shut down the nation’s nuclear reactors. The government’s policy has become a ripe target of opposition candidates.

According to the report in the Korea Times, Unit 1 of the Wolsong Nuclear Plant, the country’s second-oldest unit, was decommissioned in 2019, three years earlier than originally scheduled. The move sparked investigations into the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and two state-run energy firms over allegations of manipulating feasibility studies that were conducted to justify the early shutdown of the facility in line with the Moon administration’s nuclear phase-out policy.

Choe Jae-hyeong, former head of the Board of Audit and Inspection who turned into a presidential contender of the main opposition People Power Party, was the political figure who led the state audit into the early decommissioning of the Wolsong-1 unit and found that the efficiency of the nuclear reactor had been deceptively undervalued. The government’s answer to his findings was to try to discredit them. He quit his post and announced his plans to run for president.

The government’s phase-out plan involved the termination of the construction of units 3 and 4 of the Shin Hanul Nuclear Power Plant in Ulsan. Plans for other new plants have also been scrapped. The government also announced the the permanent closure of the Kori-1 nuclear reactor in Busan, the first nuclear power unit in Korea that had been operating for about four decades.

The heart of the current heat over the government’s anti-nuclear policy is with the premature closure of an operating reactor years before it was scheduled for closures.

President Moon’s nuclear phase-out plan has been branded as being irrational on the grounds that the economic viability research on Wolsong-1 was tampered with to shut down the plant prematurely.

Joo Han-gyu, professor of Nuclear Engineering at Seoul National University said:

“The study at Wolsong-1 lowered the rate of operation of the unit and presumed the cost of electricity lower than the production cost to reduce the economic feasibility of the nuclear plant,” Joo said.

“Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy defied existing laws and killed off Korea’s top-notch technology in nuclear power generation.”

“Korea has stable supply chains in all stages of making nuclear plants, from design, construction to operation and has won contracts in overseas markets, including the UAE. Korea’s nuclear power technology is recognized internationally, but the phase-out plan dampened its export prospects,” Joo said.

Another opposition presidential hopeful, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, also expressed his dissent from the Moon administration’s anti-nuclear policy that resulted in the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor case.

backfireWhen it comes to evaluating the service life of a nuclear reactor in South Korea, cooking the books seems overall to have backfired in a spectacular manner. In addition to firing up several candidates to put Moon out of a job, the government’s ham handed approach to the anti-nuclear policy also displeased the environmental community.

“The Moon administration declared the nuclear phase-out plan, but in fact the number of nuclear power plants in Korea did not decrease under the Moon government. What he only did was cancel the planned construction of new nuclear plants,” Im Sung-hee, an energy expert with Green Korea United, said.

The South Korean presidential election is to be held in March 2022. Under the South Korean constitution, the president is restricted to a single five-year term in office, meaning the incumbent president Moon Jae-in is ineligible to run for a second term.

Nuclear energy is a major power source for S. Korea, producing 29 percent of its electricity as of 2020, just after coal, which accounts for 35.6 percent. There are 24 operating nuclear reactors in the country.

& & &

NuScale Gets Two Investments from South Korean Firms

Samsung C&T Corporation has committed to making an equity investment in NuScale to support deployment of its small modular reactor (SMR) and is developing a business collaboration agreement with NuScale’s engineering, construction and procurement partner Fluor Corporation. The announcement comes only days after after Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction increased its investment to support deployment of NuScale’s SMR to $100M.

Under its agreements with NuScale and Fluor, Samsung C&T will draw upon its nuclear construction experience in the South Korea and the UAE to serve as a strategic partner to Fluor and other potential project participants.

In a press statement the principal parties said;

“The company’s expertise and investment in NuScale will be invaluable as we seek to bring this revolutionary clean energy technology to market,” NuScale Power Chairman and CEO John Hopkins said.

“Samsung C&T is delighted to invest in and explore global carbon-free power opportunities together with NuScale Power and Fluor Corporation, leading companies in the SMR nuclear business,” Se Chul Oh, Samsung C&T’s Engineering & Construction Group president and CEO, said.

“SMR technology is next-generation with eco-friendly energy and this agreement is a crucial step to Samsung C&T to achieve future substantial growth.”

Fluor Group President of Energy Solutions Jim Breuer welcomed Samsung C&T’s capabilities, experience and global footprint in the deployment of NuScale’s SMR technology.

“This investment and partnership with Samsung C&T is aligned with Fluor and NuScale’s long-term strategy to create the preeminent SMR value chain and investor syndicate,” he said.

The virtual signing ceremony took place just two days after South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction (DHIC) agreed to make an additional $60 million investment in NuScale bringing the total investment by the company and its financial backers to more than $100 million.

The NuScale Power Module is a pressurized water reactor with all the components for steam generation and heat exchange incorporated into a single integrated unit. In August 2020 it became the first – and, so far, only – SMR to receive design approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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