- DOE Decides to Build the Versatile Test Reactor at INL
- NRC To Certify NuScale Small Modular Reactor
- NRC Issues Final EIS for License Renewal of Westinghouse Fuel Fabrication Facility
- Westinghouse & Bechtel Complete Study for Nuclear Reactors in Poland
- Germany May Keep Three Reactors Open
- Japan’s PM Kishida Pushes Nuclear Reactor Restarts
- Saudi Arabia May Seek SMRs
DOE Decides to Build the Versatile Test Reactor at INL
Despite completing the necessary environmental studies and issuing a record of decision, the VTR program has no funding this fiscal year. DOE has requested only $45 million for FYY2023 for what is expected to be at least a $3 billion effort to build the test reactor but only if Congress eventually appropriates funds toward that end.
(NucNet contributed to this report) The Department of Energy has chosen a 300 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor design to build a multibillion-dollar test nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that could help develop fuels, technologies, and materials for advanced nuclear reactors. This policy milestone completes the legal requirements for a formal record of decision based on a final environmental impact statement.
The PRISM reactor, which is the technology basis for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), is based on the EBR-II, an integral sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype that operated at the Argonne West National Laboratory in Idaho from 1963 to 1994. It is the only sodium-cooled reactor to date to have successfully completed the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission pre-application review process. In 2018 INL selected GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s (GEH) PRISM technology for the VTR.
The Versatile Test Reactor, or VTR, will provide a source of fast neutrons for testing and evaluating nuclear fuels, materials, sensors and instrumentation to support the development of advanced reactor technologies. Such facilities are available in only a few locations worldwide, and the US has not operated one in more than 20 years. (INL FAQ on VTR)
FEIS & ROD for VTR
The DOE has issued a record of decision for the EIS, formally documenting its plan to build the VTR at INL. The record of decision also includes establishing facilities at the same site for the post-irradiation examination of test products and management of spent VTR driver fuel.
“The VTR will provide US researchers from industry, academia, and our national laboratories with a critical tool for developing transformational technologies that will expand nuclear energy’s contribution to abundant, carbon-free energy,” assistant secretary for nuclear energy Kathryn Huff said. (VTR Fact Sheet)
Project Costs & Future Funding
The VTR project did not get any money from Congress during fiscal year 2022. DOE had multiple opportunities to make its case to Congress, but somehow never quite got the message in place that would convince the Senate Appropriations Committee to write the checks for this fiscal year. DOE submitted a modest funding proposal of $45 million for fiscal year 2023.
If Congress eventually provides funding, once built it would be the first fast nuclear test reactor to operate in the US in nearly three decades. Initial costs estimates, for a plant that won’t break ground in the near-term, range from $3 billion to double that amount or more. Every year that DOE and Congress kick the can down the road is another step up in cost escalation for a completed facility.
HALEU Fuel Issues
Even if the project were to break ground later this decade, finding fuel for it looks like it will be a problem. DOE has not moved with the necessary speed to even fuel its ARDP reactors with HALEU according to an analysis by NEI. The VTR expected to be fueled using a uranium plutonium zirconium metal alloy fuel using surplus weapons grade plutonium or reactor grade plutonium available from Japan/France/UK.
This fuel profile was originally proposed by the PRISM reactor, which is the design basis for the VTR, when GEH pitched the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to burn its surplus plutonium and the Japanese inventory held in the UK.
The PRISM is also the design basis for the TerraPower ‘Naturium’ reactor planned to be built an a former coal plant in southwestern Wyoming. However, due to differences in fuels, the VTR will have much higher neutron flux which is needed for its research mission.
Just about everyone who has looked at this issue of HALEU fuel supply agrees that time is running short. Everett Redmond, a Senior Technical Advisor at NEI, told Neutron Bytes earlier this month that 20 metric tonnes of uranium (MTU) are needed by 2025 when the two reactors funded under the DOE Advanced Reactor Development Program (ARDP) are scheduled to need to load fuel and start up. Thereafter, 6 MTU a year are need for fuel reloads. The VTR will also run on HALEU fuel and its requirements could hit the supply chain at the same time as the ARDP reactors.
However, Redmond estimates that as things stand now the HALEU fuel that all of these reactors need won’t become available until mid-2028. According to a compendium of advanced reactors in the US published by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, there are at least half a dozen reactor projects that will need HALEU fuels, including the two ARDP projects and VTR, before the end of the decade. For these firms, the need for on time delivery of HALEU is the one of their top ‘keep awake at night issues.’
The Need for Speed
Meanwhile, with the bulk of the capacity of the now restarted Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at INL devoted to defense needs, developers of advanced reactors who want to test materials and fuels may have to go overseas to test reactors in Europe.
Opportunity awaits government and industry backers of the VTR but they must act. This will require concerted action by DOE which must proceed with a sense of urgency aided by support from the advanced nuclear reactor developer industry and also from the supply chain firms that will build the components for these projects.
Competition from Russia
The Russians are building an equivalent test reactor. Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, is promoting the use of its multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor (MBIR) which is under construction at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad in the Ulyanovsk region of Russia, located about 1,600 miles east of Moscow. The state owned enterprise is hawking its capabilities and soliciting partnerships on an international scale. The project is expected to cost $1.1 billion and be completed by 2025.
MBIR will be used for materials testing for Generation IV fast neutron reactors including high temperature gas-cooled, molten salt, and lead-bismuth designs. Experiments that are proposed to be undertaken include measuring the performance of core components under normal and emergency conditions.
The MBIR is a 150 MWt multi-loop sodium-cooled fast research reactor. It will have a design life of up to 50 years, and will use MOX fuel. When complete it will replace the BOR-60 fast reactor which has been in operation at NIIAR since 1969.
It is creating an International Research Center (IRC) to be a home for cooperative R&D and test projects. According to the June 2020 briefing, four nations have signed up so far – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia The briefing says these arrangements, and others like it, will support the IRC’s ambitions to become a world class center of excellence for testing materials to be used in fast neutron reactors.
The threat of competition from the Russian MBIR is stalled out for now due to a combination of the war in Ukraine and western sanctions. However, things could change in a year or two. Cracks in the Kremlin’s destructive military campaign in Ukraine include a surprising “agreement” to let Ukraine export its grain. It appears a world famine due to the blockade was too much even for the Kremlin.
Also, the New York Times reports that US intelligence agencies assess that Russia has terrifying losses in Ukraine with 75,000 soldiers killed or wounded in the war so far. That’s five times the number of casualties in Afghanistan 1979-1989. Overall, the war has not gone according to plan for Russia.
If hostilities were to come to an end this year or next, five years from now the MBIR and Russian HALEU sales could be back in business. If DOE and Congress do nothing about the VTR, it will be right back in the same ditch where it was in 2020.
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NRC To Certify NuScale Small Modular Reactor
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has directed the staff to issue a final rule that certifies NuScale’s small modular reactor design for use in the United States. NRC certification means the design meets the agency’s applicable safety requirements. The NRC staff met its schedule goals for completing its technical review.
The design certification approves the NuScale reactor’s “design control document,” which is incorporated by reference in the final rule. NuScale submitted an application to the NRC on Dec. 31, 2016, to certify the company’s small modular reactor design for use in the United States. More information about the NuScale design review can be found on the NRC’s website.
The design uses natural, “passive” processes such as convection and gravity in its operating systems and safety features, while producing up to approximately 600 megawatts of electricity. The SMR’s 12 modules, each producing 50 megawatts, are all submerged in a safety-related pool built below ground level.
The NRC has previously certified six other designs: the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, System 80+, AP600, AP1000, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) and the APR1400. Of these designs, since 2007 only two units, AP1000s in Georgia, have moved to construction.
According to World Nuclear News, in November 2020 NuScale Power announced a 25% increase in power output for its NuScale Power Module small modular reactor, which it says will lead to significant cost savings. It has also announced options for smaller four-module and six-module plant sizes in addition to its flagship 12-module plant.
The NuScale Power Module is a pressurized water reactor (PWR) with all the components for steam generation and heat exchange incorporated into a single integrated unit. The company said that, following value engineering efforts using advanced testing and modelling tools, it has now concluded that the unit can generate 77 MWe (gross) per module, or about 924 MWe for a 12-module power plant. The increased power output comes without any major changes to the SMR’s technology.
In past press statements NuScale has estimated the cost of the SMR in the range of $4,400/Kw. However, in the November 2020 press release, the company claimed the increase in generating capacity lowers the overnight capital cost of a 12-module facility from an expected $3,600 per kilowatt to about $2,850.
“Furthermore, the scalable, 12-module power plant will now approach a size that makes it a true competitor for the gigawatt-size market.”
According to NuScale the smaller four and six-module power plant solutions will give customers more options in terms of size, power output, operational flexibility and cost, NuScale added;
“This new solution allows NuScale to support a larger cross-section of customer needs including power for small grids such as for island nations; remote off-grid communities; industrial and government facilities; and coal power replacements that require less power and help customers meet clean air mandates.”
The company is expected to engage with the NRC this year to update its design certification for the 77 MWe power rating.
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NRC Issues Final EIS for License Renewal of Westinghouse Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued its final environmental impact statement regarding the proposed license renewal of Westinghouse Electric Co.’s Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in Hopkins, South Carolina. Based on its environmental review, the NRC staff recommends renewing the license, subject to the determinations in the staff’s safety review of the application.
The Columbia facility produces nuclear fuel for use in commercial nuclear power reactors. Its license was issued by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1969 and was last renewed by the NRC in 2007 for a 20-year period. If the current request is granted, the facility would be authorized to operate for 40 years from the renewal date.
The report concludes that renewing the license would result in “small” impacts on all resources, except for groundwater and waste generation during decommissioning with “small to moderate” impacts.
According to information on the company’s website, the site houses fuel manufacturing facilities, product engineering and testing laboratories, as well as fuel marketing and contract administration. It covers 1,155 acres that include 550,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. It is one of three Westinghouse nuclear fuel plants globally. The other two are in the UK and in Sweden.
The staff also considered a 20-year renewal period in its environmental review and concluded the impacts would be similar to those of a 40-year renewal but over a shorter timeframe.
The NRC published a draft environmental impact statement on Aug. 6, 2021. The staff conducted extensive outreach to communities near the facility, including an extended 105-day public comment period, a virtual public meeting, local newspaper and radio advertisements, direct mailings to residents and other measures. More than 70 people submitted comments, which are addressed in the final report.
In December 2021 the firm said it will spend $131 million over the next five years to expand the production capabilities of the plant. The money will cover upgrades to equipment and procedures, as well as enhancements to the CFFF’s pollution prevention systems and controls. The investment will expand automation and digitalization at the facility, improving inspection capabilities and product quality.
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Westinghouse & Bechtel Complete Study for Nuclear Reactor in Poland
- Initial plan is for three AP1000 units at a site on the Baltic Sea coast
(NucNet) The Polish Press Agency (PAP) reported Westinghouse and Bechtel have completed a front-end engineering and design (Feed) study for the construction of nuclear power plants in Poland/
PAP said the Feed study is to be part of the US offer to the Polish government to build Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power plants in the eastern European country. The plants, if the contract is awarded to Westinghouse, would be Poland’s first commercial nuclear units as Warsaw moves away from coal-fired energy while maintaining its energy independence.
According to PAP, the Feed study includes an outline plan for the construction of three AP1000 plants and ancillary facilities at the Baltic seacoast Lubiatowo-Kopalino site in northern Poland. The Feed study includes a timetable for construction, an assessment of project risks and risk management, and analysis of the impact of nuclear power plants on the Polish economy.
In April, Bechtel signed memoranda of understanding with 12 companies in Poland for the potential development of nuclear power plants. In June, Bechtel announced a memorandum of understanding with Toshiba to pursue the nuclear power project in Poland. Bechtel said Toshiba has supplied steam turbines, generators, and services to power plants of all types.
First Unit Planned For 2033
Poland is planning the construction of six nuclear power units with a capacity of up to 9 GWe. Its energy policy to 2040 assumes that the first unit with a capacity of about 1-1.6 GWe will be commissioned in 2033. Subsequent units will be commissioned every two to three years.
There are three companies in the running for the project: Westinghouse, France’s state-owned power company EDF and South Korea’s Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power.
- In October 2021, EDF submitted a non-binding preliminary offer to the Polish government for the provision of engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services for four to six EPR reactors.
- In April, KHNP submitted a non-binding offer for six plants using its APR-1400 reactor technology. The Polish government expects to make a final decision on the project by the end of the year. According to earlier reports,
- Westinghouse is expected to submit an offer for its AP1000 technology by the end of August.
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Germany May Keep Three Reactors Open
Germany is considering keeping nuclear plants running beyond end-2022, when they are due to shut down as Russia continues to reduce natural-gas supply to Europe’s top economy.
“The economy minister has commissioned an intensified worst-case scenario calculation. Let’s have a look at that,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, Bloomberg reported. Scholz was responding to a question on whether he may reconsider keeping the plants online. He may not have much choice.
The development is a big deal as Germany has been phasing out nuclear energy. Just last month, Chancellor Scholz, who is from the Social Democratic Party, rejected a proposal to prolong the operations of the nuclear plants. The prospect of the German population freezing in the dark has apparently influenced his thinking.
Even the German Green Party, which has been the arch nemesis of nuclear energy since the 1970s, has started to panic. The loss of natural gas from Russia could be destabilizing for the government and social unrest may occur if people can’t get gas to keep their homes warm next winter. Job losses could pile up quickly as industries that depend on the gas shut down.
“At every moment in this crisis we need to react according to the current situation and to examine every measure,” Green Party coleader Ricarda Lang told German TV. “We have to prevent a wave of poverty,” Lang added.
The Green Party may not want to own up to it, but its ant-nuclear campaigns over the past several decades have led the country to its current crisis. Dependence on Russian natural gas could potentially put a chokehold on Germany’s economy.
Germany is reliant on piped natural gas from Russia, which accounts for 35% of the country’s imports of the fuel. It imports almost all of the natural gas it uses, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s total energy mix, according to the economy ministry.
However, major natural-gas supplier Russia has been cutting supplies to Germany in retaliation for sweeping sanctions over the Ukraine war. Russia has slashed natural-gas flows to Germany to just 20% of key pipeline Nord Stream 1’s capacity. The supply squeeze has tripled the prices of European natural-gas futures, in turn pushing up power bills.
Germany industry leaders are also warning of a severe economic hardship should Russian gas be cut completely. Earlier this month, the country’s top union official said entire industries could collapse in such a scenario, wiping out jobs. On Monday, a popular measure of German business confidence slumped to its lowest level since June 2020 amid the threats of a gas shortage and soaring inflation.
Germany until March 2011 obtained one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy. It now has just three reactors providing 4,055 MWe. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel more or less had the political equivalent of a panic attack after the Fukushima crisis which set the country on its now disastrous energy policy of relying on renewables and coal. The country has reopened some of its coal mines. Public opinion in Germany remains broadly opposed to nuclear power with virtually no support for building new nuclear plants.
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Japan’s PM Kishida Pushes Nuclear Reactor Restarts
(Japan Times) Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is seeking the restart of up to nine nuclear power reactors this year as his government launched a “green transformation” panel on Wednesday for the fight against climate change.
The nine reactors have already passed screenings by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. Kishida is expected to push for restarting reactors that have yet to clear NRA screenings. In the future, he is also expected to seek building new nuclear plants and expand or rebuild existing ones.
His policy is a strategic move to us nuclear energy by reversing the policy of moving away from nuclear energy following the March 2011 accident at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Kishida apparently aims to restart up to nine nuclear reactors by this winter, as he indicated at a news conference on July 14. He expects the move to secure electricity supplies equivalent to about 10% of total domestic consumption.
In a speech last Friday, Kishida said, “We want to work on the research and development of technologies such as next-generation light-water reactors, small modular nuclear reactors and nuclear fusion.”
Masakazu Tokura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, and a member of the green transformation panel, told reporters after the panel meeting that “there’s no time to lose” in utilizing nuclear plants.
PM Kishida has said he believes nuclear plants are indispensable for green transformation, which means stopping reliance on fossil fuel. The government is also working on issue of limits of fossil fuel supplies from Russia due to the war in Ukraine. It is also warning of possible supply shortages this winter.
Kishida appointed industry minister Koichi Hagiuda to double as minister for promoting green transformation, or GX, with the government slated to draw up a 10-year, $146 million roadmap by the end of the year for Japan’s transition to a greener economy. The government will hammer out the details of how the funds, to be raised via green transition bonds, should be spent.
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Saudi Arabia May Seek SMRs
(Wire services) RIYADH: Saudi energy ministry is interested in developing small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), Saudi energy minister said. “The SMRs will help to generate electricity to power remote areas,” said Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman who has served as the Minister of Energy since 2019.
He added that Saudi Arabia isn’t looking for funding from any country to help it with its energy transition plan.
The Prince, speaking at an economic development conference inn Riyadh, said that the Kingdom will develop more technologies at home.
“The future of the world and society lies not in us waiting for someone else to build the things we should use, but for us to build them ourselves.”
This report indicates the Saudi government may realize that current high oil prices will not last forever. This insight is important because the Saudi nuclear program has been based on paying for it out of current oil revenues and not dipping into the sovereign wealth fund for the billions of dollars that would be needed to build the two 1400 MWe units detailed in the current tender. At $5,000/Kw the reactors would cost $7 billion each for a total of $14 billion and that cost doesn’t include improvements to the regional electrical grid to deliver power to customers.
The Russians are selling their oil to India and China at a 30% discount which makes $100/bbl oil go for $70/bbl to these customers. It also means that every tanker full of Russian oil sold globally at this discounted price means no sale for Saudi Arabia for the volume of each of these shipments.
Sooner or later that loss of market share will have an impact on Saudi finances. The last time oil price took a dive, to $60/bbl in 2015, the Saudi finance ministry hit the brakes for an ambitious plan to build 16 1000 MWe nuclear reactors. The latest tender is for just two units which indicates there was a huge reality check that reduced Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions from 16 reactors to two.
On the other hand, small modular reactors, such as the South Korean SMART design, at 100 MWe, can be built for $500 million each. With an extended timeframe for building a fleet of them, the short term cash flow problem goes away, and at least a dozen of them could be built for the price of one 1,400 MWe PWR. Because the South Korean SMR is an entirely new design, with no US intellectual property in it, South Korea will not have to discuss issues related to its 123 Agreement with the US before doing a deal with the Saudi government.
Lurking in the background is the question of whether the Iran nuclear deal will be renewed and when. Iran has imposed unrelated demands on the negotiations in return for a deal. If one is not inked, it could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
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