Japan and US Sync Up for Exports of Nuclear Reactors

  • Japan & US Join Forces to Gain Global Market Share for New Nuclear Power Plants
  • Japan & US in Joint Nuclear Fuel Testing at the Idaho National Laboratory
  • Holtec’s SMR-160 Nuclear Steam Supply System Could Repurpose Coal Plants
  • General Fusion Gets OK to Break Ground for Prototype Plant at UKAEA site

Japan and US Join Forces to Gain Global Market Share for New Nuclear Power Plants

During a state visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida to meet with US President Joe Biden, the two world leaders agreed to cooperate in the development of advanced nuclear reactors and small modular reactors. The agreement follows a major policy decision by Kishida in 2022 to allow existing nuclear reactors to operate beyond the current limit of 60 years as well as support the development of new ones.

In parallel with his domestic policy initiative, Kishida wants to work with US nuclear reactor developers to kick start export sales to gain global market share as nuclear energy evolves as a major factor in decarbonizing electricity generation and process heat applications to reduce CO2 emissions.


US DOE Meets Japan’s METI

Along with Kishida’s visit to the White House, on January 9th, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Nishimura Yasutoshi announced plans to significantly strengthen bilateral cooperation on developing next-generation nuclear reactors.

japan us meeting

The joint statement said the two countries intend to work on leveraging the use of existing reactors and building nuclear component and fuel supply-chains, including uranium fuel for their respective allies. (Full text Joint Statement)

A key area where the the U.S. and Japan have engaged cooperation on new nuclear power matters is the the State Department’s Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) program, which was announced in August 2022 as part of the 2020 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Under the FIRST program, the U.S. and Japan, along with nine other countries ( Estonia, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Latvia, the Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom) agreed to work collaboratively to “facilitate the safe and secure utilization of civilian nuclear reactors, especially SMRs.”

The FIRST program announcement stated that “nuclear energy not only provides clean energy supply, but also supports local job growth, energy security, air pollution and carbon reduction goals, and global clean technology innovation.”

The funds handed out so far by the program have been mostly intended to support programmatic efforts designed to build the capacity of various nations to undertake development of civilian nuclear energy programs. Such efforts could eventually open the doors to joint US/Japan export efforts to compete globally for market share with Russia and China. An early instance has been support for the 3 Seas Initiative with 12 nations in eastern Europe.

Some of this newly announced activity appears to be a repackaging of existing arrangements already underway. The U.S. and Japan had previously announced in November 2018 a Memorandum of Cooperation for research and development in four key areas;

(1) nuclear research and development, including innovative reactors,
(2) decommissioning and back-end fuel cycle management,
(3) industrial cooperation for safety improvement, and
(4) expansion of the global use of nuclear energy.”

Background on Japan’s New Nuclear Energy Policy

The Japanese government announced plans in 2022 to speed up nuclear reactor restarts and to have up to nine reactors restarted by winter 2023 to cope with the looming energy crunch. The combined effort will be a major test of public sentiment towards nuclear energy which has been in the red zone of “no way” since the Fukushima crisis of 2011.

Kishida aims to restart seven more reactors by summer 2023 and to prolong the operational life of other reactors to beyond 60 years from the initial 40 years limit set by his predecessors. He also wants to restart Japan’s efforts to export its nuclear reactor technologies which has atrophied since 2011.

In 2019 nuclear power accounted for 6% percent of Japan’s electricity supply according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The agency says that in 2022 the new goal for Japan is 20-22%. By the summer of 2023, Kishida has expectations that all 17 nuclear power plants that have passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety screening will be back online.

The main drivers are concerns about power shortages and the threat of Russia cutting off natural gas supplies as a result of Japan’s alignment with western powers regarding the war in Ukraine. Energy blackouts, regardless of the cause, are detrimental to the ruling power retaining that status. Keeping the lights on and factories humming is a key success factor for remaining in office.

Joint US/ Japan Cooperation on Advanced Reactors

In February 2022 TerraPower, which is developing the 345 MWe Natrium [tm] sodium cooled fast reactor, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and two Mitsubishi business units to collaborate on sodium fast reactor technology.

The agreement will enable both sides to advance fast-reactor technologies for commercial use and export sales. JAEA, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Mitsubishi FBR Systems will share data and resources related to the development of advanced sodium fast reactor (SFR) technology with TerraPower.

Japan has extensive experience with R&D efforts to develop sodium-cooled fast reactors dating back to the mid-1980s. TerraPower is interested in technical cooperation with several Japanese entities and intends to work with JAEA and Japanese fast reactor industrial firms for advanced testing of certain components of its Natrium reactor,

Testing of materials and functions for components of the reactor are crucial as input to getting a license from the NRC and in issuing specifications to supply chain firms who will make the components needed to build the reactor. The NRC licensing review is considered to be a global “gold standard” for reactor safety and is a door opener for convincing commercial prospects that the design of an advanced reactor is safe to build and operate.

Investment in SMRs

In 2021 NuScale picked up $60 million in equity investments from several Japanese firms. Fluor Corporation (NYSE: FLR) announced in May 2021 that IHI Corporation (IHI) of Japan is investing $20 million into NuScale Power LLC, a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) technology company in which Fluor is the majority investor. IHI’s immediate investment of $20 million may be followed by another $20 million at a later date.

In addition to IHI’s ownership interest, IHI will also become a global manufacturing partner and have the opportunity to provide design services and heavy manufacturing of the steel plate reinforced concrete wall structures for NuScale SMR projects in which Fluor has the lead role.

IHI will develop containment structures to enclose reactor cores, as well as other components. IHI has been producing nuclear reactor components for about six decades including reactor pressure vessels.

NuScale Power announced in April 2021 that it has completed an investment and strategic partnership agreement with JGC Holdings Corporation (JGC HD), a holding company of one of the world’s leading EPC contractor group companies headquartered in Japan.

As part of a commercial relationship with Fluor Corporation, NuScale’s majority investor and EPC partner in the United States, JGC HD will provide a $40 million cash investment in NuScale Power and partner with Fluor on the deployment of NuScale Power Plants.

It positions a key supply chain partner close to potential future customers in Asia seeking smaller, cheaper nuclear energy solutions compared to 1000MWE units being exported by Russia and China. Southeast Asia’s mega cities are key prospects for SMRs as a way to get off reliance on coal filed power plants.

In March 2022 Holtec, which is developing a 160 MWe SMR, signed an agreement with the US division of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation to design and engineer the digital instrumentation and control systems (I&C) for Holtec’s SMR-160 small modular reactor technology.

In February 2019 Holtec announced new agreements with Exelon to join the support team with Mitsubishi and SNC-Lavalin and Ukraine’s Energoatom, with which it had signed an agreement in 2018 with a view to building the SMR-160 in Ukraine.  Like the ambitious plans by Westinghouse to build four AP1000s in Japan, these efforts remain in hold due to ongoing hostilities caused by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of hostilities there, based on current events and sustained support by NATO countries, it is plausible to assume that any future reconstruction program in Ukraine will include building new power stations to replace the sites destroyed by Russian attacks.

Japan’s Tenuous Hold on its Nuclear Energy Future

Japan needs all the help it can get with energy security. Its supply of natural gas from Russia has been cut off due to the war in Ukraine. Expansion of renewable energy is coming up against significant physical barriers. The large land areas needed for new solar energy facilities conflict with the population density of the Japanese islands. Offshore wind literally has a limited shelf life because the ocean gets deep really quickly as one moves offshore.

Japan’s drive to revive its use of nuclear energy faces several challenges. The first is an aggressive regulatory agency which has hobbled reactor restarts with expensive and time consuming requirements that appear to overcompensate for the lax standards used prior to the Fukushima crisis in 2011.

Second, public sentiment is split between some communities which value the payrolls and subsidies of nearby reactors and other that have lasting distrust based on mismanagement by TEPCO, one of Japan’s major utilities.

In 2017, Tepco received initial regulatory approval to restart Units 6 and 7 at Kashiwazaki Kariwa. The station has seven reactors with a total capacity of 7,965 MW, equal to about 20% of Japan’s total installed nuclear capacity.

In 2019 Japan’s TEPCO suspended efforts to restart five of the seven reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Station because locally elected provincial officials have made entire careers out of bashing TEPCO for its multiple missteps in managing one of the world’s largest nuclear power stations. The utility continues efforts to restart units #6 & #7 which are the two newest reactors at the site.

TEPCO has undermined community confidence in its operations with a long history of a lack of transparency at the site. Problems with communications to surrounding communities have included misinformation or no information about fires, the handling of low-level radioactive waste, and earthquake damage to non-nuclear structures.

In short, there is no trust, nor love lost, between TEPCO and local stakeholders who do not care as much about nuclear energy as a tool to diminish the effects of climate change as they do about slamming the door on TEPCO’s restart of the reactors there once and for all. This is a horse that has left the barn and TEPCO does not seem to have any way to get it back at this site.

The situation at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa remains a lightning rod for ant-nuclear activism in Japan although the courts have swatted down some spurious challenges to restarts and allowed reactors meeting the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s stringent requirements to go back online.

New Director of Nuclear Regulatory Agency Lays Out His Vision for the Agency

All this backstory is important because it shows how far PM Kishida has stretched his goals to revive nuclear energy in Japan as a means to achieving energy security. A key personnel change may increase his chances of success

The encouraging note is that the new director of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) seems interested in balancing strict oversight with common sense.

Last September the new chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority vowed to maintain “independence and transparency” as the government agency performs its watchdog role over Japan’s nuclear industry. Shinsuke Yamanaka, 66, an expert on nuclear material science, took over at the NRA on 09/26/22. Yamanaka pledged that the NRA will continue to remain neutral.

“The NRA should sincerely carry out its duties while keeping in mind that the safety of nuclear energy is never a guarantee,” he said.

On the NRA’s prolonged examinations of reactors to assess if they meet the new reactor safety regulations, Yamanaka said his agency will be open to measures to help speed the process.

“Our basic stance is to conduct strict inspections, but we are willing to take measures to expedite the regulation procedures and improve communications between us and nuclear plant operators.”

& & &

Japan & US in Joint Nuclear Fuel Testing at the Idaho National Laboratory

The Department of Energy announced last week that researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) developed a device that can test advanced reactor fuel experiments in its Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility located about 50 miles due west of Idaho Falls, ID.

TREAT Test Reactor

The new experiment device is part of a joint project between the United States and Japan that will be used to perform the world’s first transient tests on fast reactor fuels in more than two decades.

INL recently completed initial testing on the newly developed capsule. The specialized device houses fuel experiments in TREAT where it can mimic the conditions of fast reactors during postulated accident conditions.  The device also hosts state-of-the-art instrumentation required to monitor the fuel’s real-time response to these conditions.

Also, the lab repurposed fresh legacy fuel pins from its former EBR-II reactor for experimental commissioning tests. Researchers are now shifting their focus to transient experiments on high-burnup materials archived from historic irradiation testing in EBR-II.  These tests include mixed oxide fuel used by Japanese and French fast reactor designs, and metallic alloy fuel preferred by the U.S.

The experiments will advance global fast reactor fuel safety research and are part of a four-year cost-shared facility sharing initiative being executed between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) under the Civil Nuclear Energy Research and Development Working Group.

The irradiated transient experiments will be the first of their kind in the world in more than 20 years.   INL’s capsule also brings new testing capabilities to TREAT that will help advance fuel performance research for sodium-cooled fast reactors.

“Execution of these unique experiments is an important step toward developing global confidence in the enhanced performance and safety of advanced nuclear reactor technologies,” said Dr. Daniel Wachs, the national technical director for the U.S. Advanced Fuels Campaign.

INL is currently working to load the first of four irradiated fuel experiments into TREAT. The first transient test is expected to start in February. The lab expects to complete the first three DOE/JAEA fuel experiments by early spring and wrap up U.S. testing before the end of next year.

& & &

Holtec’s SMR-160 Nuclear Steam Supply System Could Repurpose Coal Plants

US-based Holtec International has announced a technical breakthrough that it says would preserving most of the physical assets of coal plants by replacing their boilers with Holtec’s SMR-160 nuclear steam supply system.

In a recent meeting with Indian Ambassador to the US Amarjit S. Sandhu, Holtec CEO Dr Kris Singh said replacing coal with nuclear power produced by Holtec’s SMR-160 was a “game changer for India and the global environment” by enabling coal-fired plants to switch from fossil fuel to uranium while preserving existing coal plants’ assets.

Holtec has ambitions of building its SMR in India with the effort to be supported by construction of a factory to assemble them prior to shipment to a power station site. Localization of the supply chain for components is a key success factor for the project.

A study published in September by the US Department of Energy found that hundreds of coal power plant sites across the USA could be converted to nuclear plant sites, providing huge decarbonization gains as well as bringing tangible economic, employment and environmental benefits to the communities where those plants are located.

Holtec’s SMR-160 advanced small modular reactor (SMR) is a pressurized light-water reactor, generating 160MWe (525MWt) using low-enriched uranium fuel, with flexibility to produce process heat for industrial applications and hydrogen production.

The latest breakthrough involves the use of multi-stage compressors capable of uprating the SMR-160’s relatively low head steam supply (700 psi at 595 degrees F) to the elevated pressure and heat needed to run the turbogenerator of a fossil power plant.

Holtec is probably thinking of relatively small coal-fired power plants. The big ones would require a mid-size or larger PWR type nuclear reactor to support a coal-fired power plant like the one pictured below.

Press Pictures: Copyright

500 MW Siemens multi stage steam turbine with generator set (rear, red) (Wikipedia)

The needed boosts in temperature and pressure can be modified to support continued operation of any plant’s turbogenerator, and in most cases would not require any external energy input  A provisional patent application has been filed paving the way to repurpose any coal-fired plant by replacing its coal-fired boiler with clean steam from the SMR-160 plant.

The ability for SMR-160 to deliver steam at any desired pressure would also enable the use of high-pressure steam as feed stock for industrial applications or to provide low pressure steam for district heating to cities and municipalities.

& & &

General Fusion Gets OK to Break Ground for Prototype Plant at UKAEA

(WNN) Construction of General Fusion’s Fusion Demonstration Plant (FDP) at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA’s) Culham Campus near Oxford, England, is expected to start later this year based on a go ahead from the agency and a local government planning authority.

The demonstration plant will be used to prove the viability of the MTF technology and is a 70%-scaled version of the commercial pilot plant. It will create fusion conditions in a “power-plant relevant” environment, achieving temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius. However, the plant will not be used to produce power.

When construction of the 11,300 square foot building is complete, General Fusion will lease it from UKAEA. The company’s fusion machine is expected to be commissioned in 2026 and fully operational by early 2027.

General Fusion said that siting the facility at the UKAEA’s Culham Campus enables it to “access world-leading science and engineering capabilities, such as knowledge and experience in designing, constructing and operating the record-breaking Joint European Torus.” In addition, the company will benefit from the UK’s existing fusion energy supply chains.

“The UK has been a longstanding leader in fusion energy development,” said General Fusion CEO Greg Twinney.

“The UKAEA welcomes this milestone as it aligns with our strategy to create clusters that accelerate innovation in fusion and related technologies, and support public-private partnerships to thrive,” said UKAEA CEO Ian Chapman.

The UKAEA carries out fusion energy research on behalf of the UK government, overseeing the country’s fusion program, including the MAST Upgrade (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) experiment as well as hosting the JET – Joint European Tourus – at Culham, which is operated for scientists from around Europe.

UKAEA is developing its own fusion power plant design with plans to build a prototype known as STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) at West Burton in Nottinghamshire, which is due to begin operating by 2040.

General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) approach involves injecting hydrogen plasma into a liquid metal sphere, where it is compressed and heated so that fusion occurs. The heat from the fusion of the hydrogen atoms is transferred into the liquid metal. The company aims to construct a fusion energy power plant by the early 2030s.

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