Cassini’s Nuclear Powered Deep Space Mission Ends

Running out of fuel for navigation, NASA intentionally caused the Cassini spacecraft to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent the possibility it might impact one of the planet’s moons that may support life. The spacecraft sent back data on its flight to the very last second of its existence.

Even as Cassini’s mission was ending in August NASA convened a working group at JPL to plan the next generation of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators.  

cassini_large

All images in this blog post courtesy of NASA JPL and NASA Glenn

Running on Empty – No Gas Stations in Space

The key thing to know about NASA’s decision to end the Cassini mission is that it didn’t run out of electrical power from its PU-238 power source. What did happen is that a separate system that provides navigational positioning with thrusters and a limited fuel supply reached its limits.

The thrusters are used for making small corrections to the spacecraft’s course, for some attitude control functions, and for making angular momentum adjustments in the reaction wheels, which also are used for attitude control.

There are two types of propellant on Cassini: mono-propellant and bi-propellant. The mono-propellant, hydrazine, is used for small maneuvers, dead-band control, and for reaction wheels momentum management. The bi-propellant, mono-methyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, is used for big maneuvers (those larger than 0.3 meters/second).

After nearly two decades in space and billions of miles traveled, Cassini’s journey is finally over. It has nearly exhausted its fixed supply of propellant and needed the remainder to insure a precise trajectory into Saturn’s atmosphere.

History of PU-238 Power Sources

When the NASA spacecraft met its end in Saturn’s upper atmosphere the morning of Sept. 15, 2017, burning up in a fireball of silicon and metal, the last components to disintegrate were some of its most essential: pods of exceedingly rare and vital nuclear fuel that made the mission possible.

Those components were the iridium-clad pellets of plutonium-238 developed by the Department of Energy and NASA decades ago. Contained within three cylindrical power sources called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG), they produced the heat and electricity that kept Cassini powered up and its instruments warm throughout its long journey in the cold depths of space.

The outside temperature in orbit around Saturn was recorded as minus 288F.  By comparison, the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was minus 136F in Antarctica in 2010.

RTGs are lightweight, compact spacecraft electrical power systems that have flown successfully on 23 previous U.S. missions over the past 37 years. Cassini’s RTGs contained plutonium from the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The iridium cladding around that nuclear fuel was produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex. The New Horizons RTG was built at the Idaho National Laboratory’s Space and Security Power Systems Facility.

50 years of rtgs

pu-238 production process

GPHSRTGcutaway2

Cassini launched on Oct. 15, 1997, with the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe. Named after astronomers Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens, the pair of spacecraft reached Saturn in 2004 after a 2.2-billion-mile (3.5-billion-kilometer) voyage. In 2005, Huygens was deployed to the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Over 20 years and two mission extensions, Cassini produced countless key discoveries about Saturn, its rings, and its moons, like liquid methane seas on Titan and a global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity on Enceladus. Its findings expanded our understanding of the kinds of worlds where life might exist.

Although the spacecraft may be gone, the treasure trove of data it collected about Saturn — the giant planet itself, its magnetosphere, rings and moons — will continue to yield new discoveries for decades.

And with the Department of Energy working to produce new nuclear fuel for future space missions, Cassini’s legacy of exploration will be carried on by new spacecraft for generations to come.

Next Generation RTG Requirements

NASA wants to determine the characteristics of a Next-Generation RTG that would “best” fulfill Planetary Science Division (PSD) mission needs.  This study is limited to systems that convert heat to electricity using thermocouples. “Best” is defined as a confluence of the following factors:

• An RTG that would be useful across the solar system
• An RTG that maximizes the types of potential missions: flyby, orbiter, lander, rover, boats, submersibles, balloons
• An RTG that has reasonable development risks and timeline.

More details are available from NASA – NASA Plans for next generation RTGs which is a 78 page slide deck in PDFD file format.  Note that slide 67 contains draft RFI requirements for a contractor to work with NASA to produce a next generation power source that meets these requirements. Slides 73 & 74, and 76 discuss planetary landing scenarios and uses along with potential operating environments and challenges to the technology.

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NuScale Makes Progress in UK and US Markets

Fig-1-Schematic-of-a-NuScale-power-module

Schematic of NuScale Power Reactor

NuScale, which is the Portland, OR, based developer of a 50 MW small modular reactor (SMR) , announced new progress in developing the market for its technology in the UK. Tom Mundy, NuScale’s chief commercial officer and managing director for the UK and Europe, said in a statement:

“Our UK SMR Action Plan sets out a clear vision for NuScale’s technology to be rolling off production lines in UK factories, generating power for UK homes in the 2020s and transforming the UK into a hub for export into a lucrative global market.”

In the US NuScale Power, LLC announced that the company has successfully submitted Part II of its Title XVII loan guarantee application to the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) under the Department’s Advanced Nuclear Energy Project Solicitation.

The small modular reactor design is undergoing a four-year review with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expected to wrap up in 2021.

Additional design and technical work conducted during the review process is being funded, in part, by a $217 million DOE cost-sharing appropriation.

UK Market May Finally Open Up for SMRs

(WNN) NuScale Power of the USA has launched an action plan for the near-term deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK. An SMR could be deployed in the UK within the next ten years, NuScale said. The firm, which is backed by US engineering giant Fluor Corporation, this week sought to highlight the UK’s potential role as an SMR hub with the publication of an action plan detailing how it could deliver the technology by the 2020s.

NuScale Power announced in March 2016 that it would submit its SMR to the UK government’s competition to identify the best value SMR design for the UK. Last year the UK government launched a competition to accelerate the development of SMRs, amid predictions the technology could help cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb the cost of nuclear power.

However, the promised £250m, five year R&D program has been repeatedly delayed and in response a  meeting was recently called between government officials and potential SMR developers over the status of the competition.

NuScale’s Tom Mundy comment reported by wire services was that, “The window of opportunity is closing, and for the benefits of our UK vision of near-term SMR deployments to be fully realized, decisions must be taken by government now.”

NuScale’s plan posits that a fleet of SMRs deployed during the 2020s could provide a low carbon replacement for retiring coal plants, meet demand for power from a growing electric car fleet, and create jobs across a civilian nuclear workforce.

Mundy said the UK government should “seize this once-in-a-generation SMR opportunity by providing long-term political support, the right market conditions, clarity on the regulatory review process, identification of sites, and continued support for UK nuclear capabilities”.

On September 9th the Telegraph reported in its business pages the government ministers are getting ready to approve the development of a fleet of “mini” reactors to prevent electricity shortages as older nuclear power stations are decommissioned.

The newspaper noted that advocates for the new technology expect it to offer energy a third cheaper than giant conventional reactors such as the Hinkley Point project which is composed of two Areva 1650 MW EPRs.

The firms involved in the SMR meeting include Rolls-Royce, NuScale, Hitachi and Westinghouse. They have held meetings in past weeks with civil servants about Britain’s nuclear strategy and development of “small modular reactors” (SMRs).

A report to be published by Rolls-Royce in Westminster this week claims its consortium can generate electricity at a “strike price” – the guaranteed price producers can charge – of £60 per megawatt hour, two thirds that of recent large-scale nuclear plants.

The report to be published by Rolls-Royce, entitled “UK SMR: A National Endeavour”, which has been seen by The Telegraph, claims SMRs will be able to generate electricity significantly cheaper than conventional nuclear plants.

Details of NuScale’s UK Plan

A UK-US partnership offers the best option for near-term delivery of SMRs, NuScale said in a statement, and added that its action plan builds on collaboration it has been developing with UK organizations for the past few years. It already works in strategic partnership with Ultra Electronics, collaborates with Sheffield Forgemasters via a program supported by Innovate UK, and partners with the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Mundy says that the UK has an opportunity to become a global leader in the development and deployment of innovative nuclear technology. The firm has expressed confidence that the UK nuclear supply chain could provide 85% or more of content required for UK SMR deployments. The UK would also be well positioned to capture a significant share of the global SMR export market, estimated to be worth up to £400 billion ($522 billion) by 2035.

In the UK critics of nuclear power have warned that there is a lack of clarity over the future regulatory oversight of the UK’s nuclear industry post-Brexit will further undermine the government’s SMR plans.  Last July this blog reported that Brexitg was creating problems for the entire UK nuclear build. This blog reported in August that the government has not focused on the problem and that Brexit represents a real threat to the development of SMRs in the UK

NuScale Takes Next Steps in US with DOE Loan Guarantee

NuScale Power, LLC announced last week that the company has successfully submitted Part II of its Title XVII loan guarantee application to the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) under the Department’s Advanced Nuclear Energy Project Solicitation.

Under this solicitation, USDOE seeks applications for loan guarantees to finance projects located in the US that employ innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies that avoid, reduce or sequester anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases. The DOE Loan Guarantee Program was established under Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and has $12.5 billion in loan guarantee authority for Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects.

“The application is another step in our successful partnership with the Department of Energy,” said John Hopkins, Chairman and CEO of NuScale Power.

“With their ongoing support, we are well along the path to bringing this innovative design to market, creating jobs and preserving American leadership in nuclear technology.”

“For the Carbon Free Power Project to be successful, we need to be competitive,” said Doug Hunter, CEO of UAMPS.

“This loan guarantee, along with other government support, allows us to be fully competitive with natural gas without adding any greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hunter previously told the Idaho Falls Post Register the loan guarantee would be worth about $480 million, though the figure is calculated using a method dependent on the ever-changing price of electricity created with other fuel sources.

According to the Idaho Falls Post Register, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he has proposed keeping the loan guarantee office open, then appropriating money on an individual basis when an application advances far enough for a company to need the guarantee to proceed with its project.

Other programs affecting advanced nuclear energy development are currently under review, including possible extension of Production Tax Credits and support for supply chain development and construction.

US-Based Lightbridge Signs Agreement With Areva
On New Nuclear Fuel Venture

(NucNet) US nuclear fuel development company Lightbridge Corporation  and Areva Inc., US subsidiary of the French Areva Group, have signed a binding agreement on a joint venture to develop, manufacture and commercialize fuel assemblies based on Lightbridge’s advanced metallic nuclear fuel technology,

Lightbridge said in a statement the technology “significantly” improves the economics and safety of nuclear power, “operating  about 1000°C cooler than conventional fuel.”

In November 2016, Lightbridge and Areva reached an agreement on the key terms for the creation of the new joint venture, including equal-share ownership. The venture will cover fuel assemblies for most types of light-water reactors, including pressurized water reactors (PWRs), boiling water reactors (BWRs), small modular reactors (SMRs) and research reactors.

X-Energy Signs Cooperation Agreement
on Advanced Fuel Development

(NucNet): US companies X-energy and Centrus Energy have agreed to cooperate on the development of a facility to fabricate uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic (UCO-Triso) fuel for “X-energy reactors and advanced nuclear reactor companies around the world.”

A joint statement said the companies will prepare a deployment plan for X-energy’s Triso fuel technology, design a cost-effective, highly automated fuel manufacturing process line, and seek funding for a future commercial fuel production facility.

The statement quoted Kam Ghaffarian, X-energy chief executive officer, as saying that the US Department of Energy has spent nearly $400m (€300m) in “developing and qualifying” UCO-Triso in preparation for advanced reactor commercialization.

X-energy is an advanced nuclear reactor design and Triso-based fuel fabrication company, developing the 76-MW Xe-100 high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed modular reactor.

X-Energy also has a cooperation agreement with Southern Nuclear in development of TRISO fuel for use in a molten chloride salt reactor.  In August 2016 this blog reported the significance of the TRISO fuel for the project.

Centrus Energy, formerly known as Usec, is a supplier of enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the US and overseas.

Finland Plans Phaseout Of Coal With Nuclear To Help Fill Gap

(NucNet) Finland will introduce legislation in 2018 to phase out coal and increase carbon taxes with additional nuclear capacity from two new reactors.

Riku Huttunen, director-general of Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, told Reuters that the current strategy is to get rid of coal by 2030 and that the process will be started by legislation due next year.

According to the International Energy Agency, Finland is highly dependent on imported fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – with coal producing about 10% of the country’s consumption.

To cope with the gap left by coal, Finland will have to increase the amount of energy produced from other fuel sources, Mr Huttunen was quoted as saying.

Nuclear power could take up the slack as two new reactors – the Olkiluoto-3 EPR and the Russia-supplied Hanhikivi-1– are scheduled to come online in 2018 and 2024.

Finland wants to increase its energy security by relying less on imports. Around 70% of coal is imported from Russia. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Finland’s four existing nuclear units at Olkiluoto and Loviisa accounted for almost 34% of electricity production in 2016.

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News About What Went Wrong at V C Summer Gets Worse

hurricaneIf you can tear yourself away from the news about twin giant hurricanes leaving huge swaths of destruction and chaos in their wake in Texas and Florida, there is a man-made disaster taking place in South Carolina.

It is the failure of one of the largest capital construction projects in the U.S.  Every time another newspaper headline appears about what went wrong at the V C Summer project, the dark implications of what it all means for the future of the nuclear energy industry get all the more foreboding.

What we have learned this week is that it appears that some, if not all, of the principals at both SCE&G and Santee Cooper knew and documented to greater or lesser degrees as long as three years ago that the project was a train wreck in the making that was racing towards a derailment of epic proportions.

Now instead of looking forward to a triumph for completion of two massive nuclear reactors generating 2300 MW of CO2 emission free electricity, the nation will get endless political fallout, and lawsuits, which will dominate the the complex contractual debris, left behind like storm damage from a hurricane, for years to come.

Anyone who advocates for nuclear energy as a way to “decarbonize” the electricity generation sector of their home nation will have to understand what went wrong at V C Summer.

The failure of the V C Summer nuclear reactor effort has global implications for every other country that wants to build nuclear reactors as CO2 emission free source of electrical power. Opponents of these projects at the policy level in government have a ready made boogey man in the tangled mess left behind by the decision to cancel the V C Summer project.

The surprise is that there are no surprises. All of the faults that caused the project in South Carolina to come to an early halt are with failures to follow project management schedule and cost control standard practices that have been known since Admiral Rickover supervised the construction of the first nuclear submarines in the 1950s.  Gantt charts were developed as a project management innovation in 1910.

The colossal failure has multiple actors who are to blame starting with Westinghouse, but don’t use up all your lambasting on that firm. CB&I as a key supplier comes in for a fair share of blame as do all the state and federal agencies that have regulatory and oversight responsibilities for a project of this magnitude.

Bad News Ahead

Here’s the latest news. This past week in South Carolina the State Newspaper reports;

For parts of three years, the Santee Cooper power company urged partner SCE&G to address growing problems with the utilities’ failing nuclear expansion project — but SCE&G was either slow to respond or failed to comply with the requests, records show.”

The “so what” of this report is that at least one of the utilities involved in the now cancelled knew that things were not going well, and not just yesterday, and that corrective actions were needed, but had not taken place

The question which is now in front of the South Carolina Public Utility Commission, rate payers, and SCE&G’s investors to what extent that utility will have to eat the billions in costs associated with the now failed project. The PUC is especially in the cross hairs of public interest as it has some explaining to do about its failed role in oversight of the “prudence” of costs and associated progress at the project.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that mind warping mismanagement is the root cause of the failure of the project. It raises again the question of why Westinghouse, with decades of nuclear energy project management under its belt, ignored it and plunged into the construction phase with an incomplete design, and no documented project management or cost baseline information that it was willing to share with its customers.

What About Toshiba?

Some culpability might also be assigned to Toshiba which, as the parent firm for Westinghouse, had a role in giving Westinghouse direction on how to proceed at both V C Summer and Vogtle.

end projectRecall that Toshiba wasn’t been able to file a fully audited financial balance sheet after admitting in 2015 it cooked its books and overstated its earnings by $1.5 billion. This raises questions about whether the firm’s management associated with this overt act of financial malfeasance has some role in the financial disaster at Westinghouse? Scana’s CEO thinks so having accused the firm using exactly this word of being culpable for the Westinghouse failure a year before it filed for bankruptcy.

What we do know is is that once the alarm bells went off in Tokyo, Toshiba began pouring money into Westinghouse, $900M last January. When Westinghouse came back to the well with another bucket, it turned out to be dry. Toshiba’s stock took a hit and the firm began to question whether nuclear energy should continue to be one of the pillars of its business strategy along with computer chips.

Then in June 2017 Westinghouse lost in Federal Court in an effort to recover $2 billion from CB&I for for delays in components as the main supplier to V C Summer. In the end a Westinghouse bankruptcy was the only choice for the firm.

Toshiba has since agreed to multi-billion dollar settlements with the utilities as Vogtle and V C Summer. The payments are due in October. All of of the US firms involved are holding their collective breathes that Toshiba will pay off. Even so the money won’t go nearly far enough to cover current costs nor make it feasible, at least for V C Summer, to finish the job.

The question in South Carolina of who pays for the costs of the project is an issue for the lawyers for the South Carolina PUC and rate payer groups. Some of them have already filed lawsuits seeking to prevent the utilities involved in the project from passing along the costs of the projects to them in the form of increased rates for a project that now will never be built.

Why Can’t We Manage Large Energy Projects?

Also, with regard to poor project management practices, Westinghouse appears to be no better than the Department of Energy which has failed miserably with its major capital projects in some cases by putting mid-level civil servants in charge of multi-billion dollar projects.

In turn historically they have deferred to the contractors hired by the government since the federal agency’s staff have limited capability to conduct effective oversight of the work.  DOE’s failures are due to the fact that it failed to monetize the risks by hiring and paying people on its side of the house, who have this kind of experience, what they are worth. A GS-14 salary falls way short.

Perhaps one of the most serious divergent moves by Westinghouse at the V C Summer project was to sign a fixed price contract for a first of a kind construction of a new nuclear reactor design. Anyone else who has worked large construction projects would think twice about accepting this kind of risk.

According to the State newspaper report effective project management oversight was the key ingredient that was missing in action at V C Summer. An email from a key executive at Santee Cooper said the project had been hurt by “an incompetent engineering firm’’ and a “disingenuous contractor.’’

As far back as May 2014, Santee Cooper told SCE&G the companies needed help from an independent manager to oversee the V.C. Summer reactor project according to documents released by the state-owned power company.

A Nov. 28, 2016, email from Santee Cooper executive Lonnie Carter to SCANA’s top executive, Kevin Marsh, questioned the company’s ability to handle the multi-billion dollar project. SCE&G is a division of SCANA.

“SCANA’s project management team …. does not have the comprehensive skills and depth of experience necessary in engineering, scheduling, project controls and construction to manage a large new build project with complexities.’’

Bechtel’s Report on What Went Wrong

And there is a second source which indicates problems were getting more worrisome as long as 19 months ago.

After Gov. Henry McMaster started looking for political cover from outraged ratepayers in August, he overrode the objections of lawyers from Santee Cooper, which is an agency of the South Carolina state government, and finally released a report by Bechtel late last week. The report outlined indications of trouble at the nuclear construction site which became apparent as early as 2016.

The Bechtel study said the V C Summer nuclear project “suffered from flawed construction plans, faulty designs, inadequate management of contractors, low worker morale and high turnover.”

According a summary by World Nuclear News of Bechtel’s project assessment report for V C Summer, there were significant issues facing the project:

  • While the consortium’s engineering, procurement and construction plans and schedules are integrated, the plans and schedules are not reflective of actual project circumstances;
  • There is a lack of a planned vision, goals and accountability between the owners and the consortium;
  • The detailed engineering design is not yet completed, which will subsequently affect the performance of procurement and construction;
  • The issued design is often not constructible, resulting in a significant number of changes and causing delays;
  • The oversight approach taken by the owners does not allow for real-time, appropriate cost and schedule mitigation;
  • The relationship between the consortium partners (Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC)) and Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I)) is strained, caused to a large extent by commercial issues.

Bechtel, which wrote the report, had a minor role as a contractor at the V C Summer project, and was not the EPC there. Since then the utilities at the Vogtle project in Georgia have hired Bechtel as the EPC as part of the decision to finish the twin reactors there.

V C Summer is a Lost Opportunity for the Global Nuclear Industry

Getting back to the main EPC role for the project, why did Westinghouse, which had the potential with success at V C Summer and Voglte to build AP100s for decades in the US and elsewhere, squander its once in a generation opportunity by cutting corners?

The other lesson learned from this set of circumstances is that at least in the US, this is very likely the last time a nuclear reactor vendor will also serve as the engineering procurement and construction (EPC) manager.  Westinghouse says that when it emerges from bankruptcy proceedings, it will be a vendor of nuclear reactor components, but it will never again manage the construction of one.

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Georgia Utilities to Finish the Twin Nuclear Reactors at Vogtle

  • finish the jobDespite being faced with the disastrous effects of the Westinghouse bankruptcy, the five partner firms have decided to complete the twin AP1000 1150 MW nuclear reactors at an estimated cost of $19 billion.
  • In doing so they have committed to overcome the effects of mind boggling mismanagement of the supply chain, cost overruns, and schedule delays,
  • Key risk assumptions are that Toshiba will make good on its promise to pay the project $3.7 billion and that Congress will pass legislation extending the federal production tax credits beyond their current expiration dates.
  • Bechtel has been hired to be the EPC.  The reactors are scheduled to be finished a year apart in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

After weeks of hand-wringing in South Carolina as SCANA walked away from its plans to build two Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at the V C Summer project, Georgia Power and its partner utilities have decided to move forward with completion of its twin AP1000s.  The utilities laid out their plans in a filing (multiple PDF files, 46 Mb) with the Georgia Public Utilities Commission (PUC). That agency said it would conduct a six month review of the filing before making a decision.

The New York Times report on the decision noted that in July, Stan Wise, the chairman of the commission, argued that Georgia may be better positioned to finish its reactors than South Carolina, in part because costs would be borne by a broader base of customers: 2.4 million for Georgia Power compared with 700,000 for South Carolina Electric & Gas.

In the PUC filing the owners of the Vogtle nuclear station expansion project in Georgia have recommended completing the two AP1000 nuclear units being built there, despite the bankruptcy of main contractor Westinghouse and increased costs.

The utilities – Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton, Georgia – said on August 31, 2017, that they want to complete the partly built units even without fixed-price guarantees from Westinghouse, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization in March 2017.

Many industry observers have pointed out that Westinghouse was unwise to have signed off on fixed price contract in, especially for a first of a kind project of this magnitude in the US. The validity of this observation has been borne out by the missteps Westinghouse took with its suppliers as well as its failure to establish a rigorous project schedule and cost baseline before breaking ground.

The ultimate decision to proceed with completion of the reactors will be made by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), which will determine whether Georgia Power can recover its costs for the project from utility customers.

Georgia Power Lays Out the Rate Case

In its press statement related to the Georgia PUC filing the company said it will have a better chance of controlling costs if it finishes the reactors than if it abandons them and builds gas plants in their place.  Georgia Power said in its statement that it had asked the PSC to approve its decision to continue with construction. It said failure to allow it to recover all its costs would be grounds for all the partners to abandon the project.

Based on all factors considered, completing both units represents the most economic choice for customers and preserves the benefits of carbon-free, baseload generation. Assessments of the project included robust economic analyses; evaluation of various alternatives including abandoning one or both units or converting the units to gas-fired generation; and assumptions related to potential risks including future payments from Toshiba, availability of production tax credits and extension of loan guarantees from the Department of Energy (DOE). The latter two benefits were prescribed in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The total rate impact of the project remains less than the original estimate, after including anticipated customer benefits from federal production tax credits, interest savings from loan guarantees from the DOE and the fuel savings of nuclear energy. Once the project is on line, the company should still be able to offer retail rates below the national average with the additional long-term benefits from this new source of clean and reliable energy. 

“Since the beginning of the Vogtle expansion, we have worked to minimize the impact of this critical project on customers’ monthly bills and, even as we assessed our options of whether or not to continue the project, our focus has been to ensure long-term value,” added Bowers. “Today, the total cost of electricity from Georgia Power is significantly below the national average, and when the project is completed, we expect that the new units will help keep energy bills competitive.”

Total Cost to Complete the Reactors

Georgia Power, which owns 45.7% of the new units, has invested $4.3B in capital costs in the project and estimates that its cost to complete the units is another $4.5B for a total capital cost forecast for the utility of approximately $8.8bn.

The Georgia PSC has already approved $5.68B in capital costs for Georgia Power’s share of the project. With $1.7B in anticipated payments from Westinghouse parent company Toshiba, Georgia Power’s potential additional capital costs are approximately $1.4bn.

Based on the new assessments, the total estimated capital cost forecast for 100% of the project is approximately $19B. The original project estimate was $14B.

The company expects unit 3 to begin commercial operation in November 2021 and unit 4 in November 2022.

The recommendation to proceed, which is supported by the project’s co-owners, was made following assessments made after contractor Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection in March. These analyses included economic analyses; evaluation of alternatives including abandoning one or both of the AP1000 units or converting them to gas-fired generation; and assumptions related to potential risks including future payments from Toshiba as well the deadline for production tax credits would be extended and the extension of federal loan guarantees.

Risk Factor for Completion

Georgia power has made a risk determination that it can succeed if the tax credits, an increase in DOE loan guarantees, and the $3.7 billion payment due in October from Toshiba all come to pass. The company said explicitly in its PUC filing that if any of these actions fail that the firm may have to revisit its decision to move forward to complete the two reactors.

Some of Georgia Power’s partners on the project may not want to pass along rate increases to their customers which might also change overall risk assumptions about the project.  Georgia Power pointed out in its filing that abandoning the nuclear project to build a gas plant would add $585 million to the rates of all customers on top of whatever might be charged from as a result of a decision to abandon the nuclear effort.

Outlook for Federal Production Tax Credits

A critical issue called out in the filing with the PUC Georgia Power is an assumption that the federal production tax credits for new nuclear power, set to expire in 2021, will be extended. Last June the House passed an extension (HR1551) of the tax credit deadline, and the measure is now pending in the Senate.  US Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said in a statement his office is working to get the measure passed this year. Last the June the White House issued a statement in support of the legislation.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act provided a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by new nuclear power plants. The tax credit is available only for the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generating capacity. Originally, to qualify for the nuclear production tax credit, a new nuclear plant would have had to been in service on or before December. 31, 2020. The new bill (HR 1551) would remove the existing deadline for the nuclear tax credit and instead allow the 6,000-MW cap to serve as the limit for the program.

Under current tax rules the units would need to be brought on line before January 2021 deadline to qualify for credits. If the legislation is not passed it could cause real problems for the Georgia utilities.

Congress returns for its work session this week with major legislative challenges facing it. They include raising the debt ceiling, tax reform, another potential run at repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and a new wrinkle which may be an action by the White House to force congressional action on immigration issues. A new issue that may complicate the debt ceiling legislation is relief funding for areas of the country hit by Hurricane Harvey.

Funding the for the entire federal government needs to be approved or extended via a continuing resolution. It’s plausible the product tax bill could be attached to the it as that legislation is often called “a train that will leave the station” insuring that riders agreed to it get swept up in the rush to fund the government.

Congress and the President do not get along so controversies over this short list of critical fiscal issues may doom any of these actions which could lead to a government shutdown. In 2013 congress failed to fund the government shutting down all federal agencies for three weeks.

Nuclear Industry Leadership Lines Up for Vogtle

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute, said Georgia Power’s decision signaled a “new era” for nuclear energy in the USA and was a “shot in the arm” for on-site employees and contractors, and the national nuclear supply chain. She called for the US Senate to vote to lift the deadline for the nuclear production tax credit.

“The Vogtle reactors are a national asset that we can ill afford to lose, and the Senate must act quickly to preserve a critical piece of our strategic infrastructure,” she said.

NEI has thrown its lobbying weight behind extension of the product tax credits.

“Extending the production tax credit for these nuclear plants supports innovation in energy and American competitiveness in a vital industry,” NEI Vice President of Governmental Affairs Beverly Marshall said.

The New York Times reported that Ernest J. Moniz, a secretary of energy under President Barack Obama, warned in July that the decline of the domestic nuclear industry could mean the loss of a valuable tool to tackle climate change, since nuclear plants do not generate carbon dioxide emissions. He also argued that ceding the global nuclear industry to China and Russia could weaken nonproliferation standards.

“The U.S. position as a valued supplier is rapidly being eroded,” Mr. Moniz wrote.

Bechtel Takes the Reins

Engineering News Record (ENR) reports that Georgia Power announced last week it has contracted with Bechtel to manage daily construction efforts under the direction of Southern Nuclear.

Georgia Power wants five more years to complete its Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project and has replaced Fluor Corp. with Bechtel to oversee construction. Both Fluor and Bechtel submitted cost and schedule proposals to Georgia power in bids to complete the reactors.

The utility’s new schedule estimate extends, by 29 months, the current commercial operation dates of Units 3 and 4 to November 2021 and November 2022.

“This is a critically important project for the nation and we’re honored to be chosen,” Barbara Rusinko, president of Bechtel’s government services and commercial nuclear power business, said in a statement.

Bechtel added that it “will assume responsibility for a broad range of activities including day-to-day construction through completion of the project under the management of Southern Nuclear.”

Fluor had been brought in by Westinghouse to work on the two disastrously over-budget and late nuclear power projects in late 2016. Westinghouse had hoped for some kind of miracle to turn the project around, but any experienced construction manager will tell you that once a project goes more than 15% over budget, there are no miracles to be found, only angry customers, or in this case, ratepayers.

Fluor was hired in Fall 2016 by Westinghouse to act as its EPC as it became clear the reactor vendor needed help with the project. That decision came as part of a package in which CB&I sold its nuclear business to Westinghouse.

The deal with CB&I, which was separate from the Westinghouse contract with Fluor to be the EPC, went sour with a follow-on claim by Westinghouse for $2 billion in costs. That claim was thrown out by the Federal Court in June of this year.

It isn’t clear what risks if any are in Bechtel’s contract and the company declined to discuss them, referring questions to Georgia Power. Fluor’s contract with Westinghouse was on a cost-plus basis and it is a plausible assumption that similar terms and conditions are part of Bechtel’s new contract with Georgia Power and its partners.

Steve Kuczynski, CEO of Southern Nuclear, told ENR that the utility decided that Bechtel—which has been managing Vogtle’s nuclear island construction activities via a staff of about 220 provides the “best complete package” as prime constructor. Bechtel will transition as the “sole, main contractor” over “the next number of months,” Kuczynski added.

Ty Troutman, Bechtel’s project manager, said that the team will initially consist of Bechtel’s existing resources, additional resources from throughout the company and resources from Southern Company.

The Vogtle project is majority owned by Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power (45.7%), with co-owners Oglethorpe Power (30%), MEAG Power (22.7%) and Dalton city (1.6%). The units will be operated by Southern Nuclear Operating Company.

Note to readers This report also relied on reporting by NucNet and World Nuclear News.

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Nuclear News Roundup for September 3, 2017

GEH And ARC Nuclear Increase Collaboration On ARC-100 SMR

(NucNet) GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and Advanced Reactor Concepts (ARC) have signed an agreement for ARC to license technology from GEH’s Prism advanced reactor design as part of their joint effort to develop and deploy a sodium fast reactor in Canada.  The US-based companies said in a joint statement that GEH has also agreed to provide ARC access to nuclear infrastructure programs related to quality, safety culture, training, processes, procedures and tools.

In addition, GEH said it will make an “in-kind contribution” to ARC through its agreement to provide engineering and design expertise.

The companies previously announced in March 2017 that they would collaborate on the ARC-100 design with initial deployment in Canada. They have begun work on a preliminary regulatory review of the ARC-100 by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

A joint GEH-ARC engineering team is working to advance the ARC-100 design. GEH and ARC have each developed advanced reactor designs based on the EBR-II, an integral sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype which was developed by Argonne National Laboratory and operated for more than 30 years at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

GEH said that while there are more than 90 advanced nuclear technology and SMR designs under various stages of development, GEH and ARC Nuclear view sodium fast reactors as being “the most mature advanced reactor technology with decades of real operating experience from more than 20 previous reactors.”

Tepco’s nuclear reactors will likely pass safety review
Still unclear if and when Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility will restart

(Nikkei Asian Review) Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority is expected to certify the safety of the two newest two units at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings key nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.

Passing the safety review is a requirement for Tepco to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, which has been shut down since the 2011.

The plant has had a series of minor mishaps involving fires and problems with storage of  low level radioactive waste, but TEPCO has also been found to have covered up some of them. 

The most serious incident occurred in July 2007 when three reactors shut down after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake. A fire briefly broke out in one of the units. TEPCO initially said that the quake caused no radiation leaks, but days later admits that 1200 litres of radioactive water had washed into the sea and several drums containing nuclear waste lost their lids after falling over.

However, Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama remains wary about firing up the boiling water reactors. He is the latest in a series of politicians who have ridden into office on waves of voter distrust of TEPCO.  As of now, Tepco has no prospects of winning local consent. In Japan provincial officials have de facto veto power over the restart process.

The Japanese independent nuclear watchdog has already completed its review of the technical aspects of the safety review on units 6 and 7. When it meets later this month, it will focus on the reliability of TEPCO itself, including the safety culture inside the company and the attitude of its management team.

A group from the agency including Chairman Shunichi Tanaka visited the area of the nuclear facility at the end of July, and their findings will be addressed in the discussions. A successful review will result in the agency issuing a safety certificate for restart of the two reactors.

Tepco applied for safety assessments on the Nos. 6 and 7 reactors of the power plant in September 2013. 

U.S. citizen gets prison for assisting China’s nuclear energy program

(UPI/CNN) A U.S. nuclear engineer was sentenced this week to two years in prison for soliciting help from within the US to support nuclear energy in China, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Justice said 66-year-old Taiwanese-American Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho received two years in prison followed by one year of supervised release and a $20,000 fine for his violation of the Atomic Energy Act.

“Today, Allen Ho is being held accountable for enlisting US-based nuclear experts to provide assistance in developing and producing special nuclear material in China for a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company,” acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente sad in the statement.

Ho’s charge and sentencing for facilitating US-based help to Chinese nuclear energy programs marked a rare instance of the Justice Department invoking the Atomic Energy Act, a Cold War-era law designed to regulate how nuclear technology is shared.

Ho’s indictment was announced in April of last year in the Eastern District of Tennessee. He also was initially charged with conspiracy to act in the US as an agent of a foreign government. He accepted a plea agreement and pleaded guilty in January, the Justice Department said, to violating the Atomic Energy Act, avoiding a charge for working as an agent of China.
close dialog

The indictment said Ho had since 1997 sought to enlist others to assist with developing nuclear reactors and nuclear material in China — without the permission of the Department of Energy. The indictment said Ho paid money to those US-based nuclear energy experts and made clear his intentions.

The Justice Department statement said Ho worked with US-based nuclear experts to provide technical assistance to China and that both Ho and the Chinese nuclear company managed their travel to China.

In April 2016 this blog reported the charges against Ho include a long list of technical data and analyses provided to China General Nuclear (CGN). The evidence cited comes from email traffic between Ho, his contractor engineers, and CGN. The emails from the Chinese firm include specific technical requests for information which could be indicators of areas where they were having difficulty with their work.

The key information passed by Ho to CGN is described in the indictment, referencing the emails, as nuclear reactor outage data for use at CGN’s Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant. Daya Bay has two 944 MWe PWR nuclear reactors based on the Framatone ANP French 900 MWe three cooling loop design, which started commercial operation in 1993 and 1994 respectively. It is located on China’s southeastern coast in Longgang District, Shenzhen.

The six engineers hired by Ho, with skills in various nuclear energy related disciplines, are also described as having provided information on nuclear fuel materials including plutonium used used in MOX fuel, U-233 used in the thorium fuel cycle, and conventional U-235 enriched nuclear fuel. The focus on multiple nuclear fuel cycles is further evidence that a broad development program of new reactor types is  underway in China. According to the Justice Department two of the engineers were paid a total of about $38,000 for their work.

Ho’s defense attorneys negotiated a plea agreement with DOJ, but the terms are sealed. Ho’s sentence might have been much more harsh so the implication is that he provided information about his work with CGN that was valuable to the government.

Brazil looks to China to finish nuclear power plant

(Reuters) Brazil will seek China’s expertise and financing to complete its third nuclear power plant when President Michel Temer makes a state visit to Beijing.

The Brazilian nuclear energy company Eletronuclear will sign a cooperation agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), signaling their intent to establish a partnership to finish the Angra 3 plant, the officials said.

Construction of the 1,405 megawatt reactor on the coast south of Rio de Janeiro has dragged on for three decades and its completion is now scheduled for 2023. Funding is the key issue. Brazil does not have the estimated $5 billion needed to finish the job.

The Chinese corporation is expected to provide these financial resources. The head of Eletronuclear, Bruno Barretto, signed an initial memorandum with CNNC on the Angra 3 completion in Beijing in December when he visited Chinese banks that are potential financiers, Eletronuclear said in a statement.

IAEA Opens LEU Storage Facility For Kazakhstan Fuel Bank

(NucNet) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Kazakhstan have opened a facility where low-enriched uranium (LEU) will be stored for the agency’s LEU bank in Kazakhstan.

The IAEA said on August 29, 2017, that the facility is at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The IAEA LEU bank will be established once the LEU, the basic ingredient to fabricate nuclear fuel, has been bought and delivered to the new facility.

The IAEA decided in December 2010 to establish the LEU bank as an assurance of supply mechanism of last resort for member states which experience a supply disruption due to exceptional circumstances and which are unable to secure nuclear power fuel from the commercial market or any other means.

Owned and controlled by the IAEA, the fuel bank will be a physical reserve of up to 90 tonnes of LEU suitable to make fuel for a typical light-water reactor. The establishment and operation of the LEU bank are funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA member states and other donors totalling $150m – enough to cover estimated costs for 20 years of operation.

The Bank, jump-started by the Nuclear Treat Initiative (NTI) more than a decade ago with an investment of $50 million from Warren Buffett, will be owned and managed by the IAEA and is the first of its kind not to be under control of any individual country.

“The launching of the IAEA LEU Bank is a major milestone for global nuclear security and nonproliferation efforts,” said former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, NTI Co-Chairman.  “The Bank will play an important role in reducing nuclear dangers and serve as a vivid example of the benefits of international cooperation at a time when our world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”

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Interest grows in SMRs despite setbacks with full size reactors

  • CNL Receives Over 70 Expressions Of Interest In SMR Prototype At Chalk River
  • ORNL Expects Good Turnout at SMR Supply Chain Workshop
  • China Inks SMR Cooperation Agreement with Saudi Arabia for HTGR

(NucNet) Canadian National Laboratories said on August 18, 2017, that more than 70 organizations submitted responses to its request for expressions of interest in small modular reactors (SMRs). More than 15 expressions of interest were for the construction of a prototype or demonstration SMR at a CNL site.

gao smr CONCEPT

Image Source: U.S General Accounting Office

CNL, Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology company, said the 70-plus organizations included SMR technology developers, potential end users, potential host communities, members of the nuclear supply chain and academic institutions.  CNL said the responses demonstrated a global interest in advancing SMR technology in Canada and align with its goal of siting a new SMR on CNL’s Chalk River site in Ontario province by 2026.

Kathryn McCarthy, CNL vice-president of research and development, said in the statement that CNL faces a very long journey before the construction of a prototype SMR reactor at Chalk River, but the expressions of interest represent a strong start to the process. CNL president and chief executive officer Mark Lesinski said in the statement that CNL wants to serve as the global hub of the SMR development community. CNL said a report summarising the findings will be made available to the public. For details: http://bit.ly/2v70qsG

Small_Modular_Reactors

Image: Courtesy Third Way

World Nuclear New reported that the Canadian nuclear science and technology organisation earlier this year released a long-term strategy including the goal of siting a new SMR on its Chalk River site by 2026.

It issued the request in June, to inform the conversation on the potential for an SMR industry in Canada and CNL’s potential role in bringing SMR technology to market. CNL hopes to gain a better understanding of its existing capabilities, technology gaps, needs and requirements, and overall market interest. The request for expressions of interest, which closed on July 31, 2017.

Gas-Cooled_Fast_Reactors

Image: courtesy Third Way

SMRs provide a potential alternative to large-scale nuclear power reactors, and CNL said the technology holds opportunities for Canada, particularly for remote communities and industrial sites.

Advantages over traditional technologies include the ability to purchase and construct in a modular way, decreased up-front capital costs through simpler, less complex plants, and a reduced staff complement.

Micro-Reactors

Image: Courtesy Third Way

Designs can also bring greater efficiency and systems which are inherently safe. SMRs could also be integrated in overall energy plans with applications as varied as district heating, co-generation, energy storage, desalination, or hydrogen production. Small modular reactors are being developed with electrical power outputs of as little as 5-10 MW.

CNL president and CEO Mark Lesinski said the organization’s vision is to serve as global hub for the SMR development community.

“The request was issued to give us a better understanding of the industry’s interest in pursuing SMR technology, and the part that CNL could play in that process. I’m happy to say that the response has been beyond our expectations.”

Kathryn McCarthy, CNL’s Vice-President of Research & Development, said it represented a “very strong start” to the process of constructing an SMR at Chalk River. “The feedback we received from these stakeholders allows us to better shape our program, ensuring we have the right capabilities and expertise to meet the needs of industry every step of the way.”

CNL will now review and analyse the submissions received through the request, before publishing a summary of its findings.

ORNL Hosts Small Modular Reactor Supply Chain Conference Sept 6-7

supply-chainOn September 6-7, companies interested in being part of the supply chain and searching for manufacturing opportunities around small modular reactors, next generation nuclear technology, nuclear medicine, and national security programs are invited to attend the Nuclear Suppliers Workshop at Pollard Technology Conference Center in Oak Ridge. It will be hosted by the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council and the East Tennessee Economic Council.

Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be the keynote speaker. The Tennessee Valley Authority, NuScale Power, Duke Energy, AMS Corporation, Teledyne Brown Engineering, and others will also present.

Sessions will be conducted by nationally recognized speakers representing various components of the nuclear industry geared toward strengthening the nation’s nuclear manufacturing supply chain, the press release said. The agenda includes:

  • What Nuclear Reactor Companies Need,
  • Breaking into the Nuclear Power Supply Chain,
  • Building a Regional Supply Chain Cluster,
  • Becoming an Approved Vendor.

To view the full lineup, visit https://eteconline.org/nuclearsuppliersworkshop/agenda-speakers/

This two-day workshop will also include an evening reception for attendees and business/community leaders, and optional tours of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, the Y-12 National Security Complex, Centrus Energy’s Technology and Manufacturing Center at the East Tennessee Technology Park, or TVA’s Clinch River Reactor Site.

Manufacturing companies interested in supporting existing nuclear facilities and upcoming nuclear construction projects in the southeastern U.S. are encouraged to participate, the press release said.

To register, visit https://eteconline.org/nuclearsuppliersworkshop/registration/.

Workshop Organizing Committee Members include representatives from ORNL, Centrus Energy, Teledyne Brown Engineering, AECOM, ORAU, TVA, University of Tennessee, MS Technology/MillenniTEK, and Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS Y-12).

The event is sponsored by: AECOM, Centrus Energy, Container Technology Industries (CTI), MillenniTEK/MS Technology, NuScale Power, Teledyne Brown Engineering, and TVA.

For more information, visit https://eteconline.org/nuclearsuppliersworkshop/. If you have questions, you can contact Vince Gilbert at vince.gilbert@usnic.org or (202) 422-8238, or Tracy Boatner at tracy@eteconline.org or (865) 483-4577.

Holtec Receives Access To Oak Ridge National Laboratory In Support Of SMR R&D

(NucNet) SMR LLC, a subsidiary of Florida-based Holtec International, has been granted access to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) by the US Department of Energy (DOE) in support of the development of the SMR-160 small modular reactor design. Holtec said DOE’s support will come in the form of a voucher worth $500,000, which will be used for access to “expertise and capabilities” at the national laboratory in Tennessee.

The funding will come from DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (Gain) program, established to provide the US nuclear community with technical, regulatory and financial support in commercializing nuclear innovation.

SMR LLC will work with ORNL over the next year to develop the SMR-160 natural-circulation primary flow simulation engine and to perform a series of thermal-hydraulic stability analyses and simulations, Holtec said. SMR-160 is a small modular pressurized water reactor with a design electrical output of 160 MW. Development began in 2011.Saudi Arabia signs cooperation deals with China on nuclear energy

China Inks HTGR SMR Cooperation Agreement with Saudi Arabia

(Reuters) Saudi Arabia and China are to cooperate on nuclear energy projects following discussions between the two countries this week on ways to support the kingdom’s nuclear energy program, state news agency SPA reported.

HTGR2_ns_thumb.jpg

HTGR Concept ~ Image Source: Cameco Inc.

Saudi Arabia has been for years trying to diversify its energy mix so that it can export more of its oil, rather than burning it at power and water desalination plants.

China’s state nuclear project developer China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) to promote cooperation between the two sides to explore and assess uranium and thorium resources.

State-owned The Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co (Taqnia) signed a memorandum of understanding with China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp to develop water desalination projects using gas-cooled nuclear reactors. China has made steady progress with the design of a high temperature gas cooled reactor design in the range of 200-300 MW.

In a separate report, SPA said Hashim Yamani, the president of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), which is responsible for the country’s nuclear plans, met officials in China on Aug. 23-24. Their discussions included cooperation in areas such as pre-feasibility study to build the first two nuclear reactors in the kingdom, and exploration for uranium and thorium.

SPA said KACARE has also held meetings with suppliers of nuclear technology in the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia. It visited France end of July.

Saudi Arabia at one time had ambitious plans for building 15 1000 MW+ nuclear reactors. It scaled back these plans as the price of oil plunged from over $100 bbl to half that amount severely cutting the oil kingdom’s revenue.  In January 2015 the government announced a long-term postponement of its plans for full size reactors.

One of the primary uses of nuclear energy will be to help Saudi Arabia to develop water desalination plants, of which it is a leading producer for domestic use and for exports.

First New Thorium Salt Reactor in 40 Years Comes Online

  • Thorium could power the next generation of nuclear reactors

The New Scientist reports a Dutch nuclear research institute has fired up the first experiment on next-generation nuclear reactors based on thorium in nearly half a century.

NRG, a nuclear research facility on the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, has launched the (ORNL slide deck PDF file >> Salt Irradiation Experiment (SALIENT ) in collaboration with the EU Commission. The researchers want to use thorium as a fuel for a molten salt reactor, which is one of the next generation designs for nuclear power.

thorium_v2

Image: University of Southern California Press Office

Molten salt reactors are expected to be very well suited for using thorium as a fuel. The unique fluid fuel can incorporate thorium and U-233 fluorides as part of a salt mixture, to melt at very high temperatures.  See briefing How a LFTR Works.

A major challenge for the developers is to produce feasible fuel elements on a repeatable basis.  Down the road the developer will have to be able to find a vendor capable of producing it in commercial quantities. In point of fact, infrastructure for an entire new fuel cycle will have to be designed, clear regulatory and safety reviews, and have enough paying customers to justify investors putting up the money for these facilities.

The Petten team said will melt a sample of thorium salt fuel to see if, over time, the neutron bombardment triggers the nuclear reactions necessary to transmute the thorium into uranium isotopes that can undergo nuclear fission, and sustain the chain reaction needed to generate energy.

If they can produce this cleaner reactor fuel, the next step is to study metal alloys and other materials that can survive the bombardment. Later research will examine how to deal with the waste from a molten salt thorium reactor. While safer than the long-lived products from a standard nuke, these will still need special disposal.

Fluorine as highly reactive which means the metallurgy of plant components must stand up to its demands. An old joke told by graduate school chemists illustrates a point. A professor is working in his lab late one night when he suddenly yells, “eureka,  I’ve found the universal solvent.”  In reply the janitor working the late shift asks in reply, “that’s great professor. What are you going to put it in?”

Thorium has long held promise for “safer” nuclear power. A slightly radioactive element, it converts to fissionable U-233 when hit by high-energy neutrons. But after use, U-233 has fewer long-lived waste products than conventional U-235 now used in nuclear power plants.

Except for one test reactor that has been under construction in India since 2004, the last active research into thorium reactors took place 45 years ago.  India has been a world leader in development of prototype thorium reactor technologies.

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Spooked by Scana failure, Duke calls its quits on Lee

  • end of the lineThe publicly traded utility (NYSE-DUK) is cancelling the planned construction of two Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at the Williams States Lee III project citing that firm’s as yet unresolved bankruptcy proceedings.
  • The decision follows a similar move to cancel the twin AP1000s planned for the Levy County site in Florida.
  • Four years ago Duke suspending licensing work on the 2nd & 3rd units at the Harris Nuclear reactor citing economic uncertainties. These units were also to have been Westinghouse AP1000s.
  • Overall, it appears it is the end of the line for any new reactor construction by the giant utility.

This week Duke Energy Corp. asked regulators in two states to cancel its planned nuclear plant in Gafney, SC. It cited as the reason the bankruptcy of reactor manufacturer Westinghouse Electric Co., low natural gas prices, and the lack of regulatory support from the federal government limiting CO2 emissions.

The decision by the Scana project to cancel work on the partially completed twin AP1000 reactors at the V C Summer site is probably the most significant factor. Duke’s investors would most likely be asking “what are you thinking” if it tried to proceed at this time with the Lee project.

“Duke Energy is seeking North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) approval to cancel the development of the Lee Nuclear project because it cannot move forward as originally envisioned due to the recent Toshiba Westinghouse bankruptcy, expected additional costs and the increased availability of other clean energy sources like natural gas and solar to meet customer needs. Duke Energy will maintain the licenses to build new nuclear at this site in the future if it is in the best interest of our customers.”  Duke Press Release

While the planned construction costs of the Lee plant were pegged at “overnight costs” of $5,000/Kw, the experience at V C Summer showed that cost escalation would undoubtedly have pushed that number much higher.  One of the contributing factors is that Wesinghouse, as the EPC, never had a detailed project plan with confirmed cost estimates, before it broke ground.

Last June it was reported that the owners of the V C Summer project believed a detailed construction schedule by their builder was the basis for the timing and cost of building the two reactors. There was also the fact that Westinghouse was committed to building four AP1000s in China which was a significant confidence factor for the firm.

The utilities at V C Summer have since learned the detailed schedules and cost estimates didn’t exist, calling into question repeated assurances made to state regulators by Westinghouse that the new units could be built by 2020 and at a $14 billion price tag or over $6,300/Kw.  The gap in communications also raises questions about the diligence of these utilities in their oversight role of the EPC firm as well as that of the South Carolina Public Utility Commission.  Duke’s investors see just one thing at V C Summer – mind boggling mismanagement.

Westinghouse has since said as part of its bankruptcy proceedings that it will get out of the business of being an EPC and just serve as a components vendor for the future projects, assuming there are any in the U.S.

What remains unanswered is why a company with decades of nuclear related project management experience under its belt would abandon that body of knowledge on a “bet the company” project. It also raises the question of why Westinghouse signed a fixed price contract to built two first of a kind reactors at the V C Summer site.  In terms of 20/20 hindsight some observers have asked why Scana and Santee Cooper didn’t wait to break ground until after Westinghouse had completed the four reactors under construction in China and had absorbed the lessons learned from those experiences to apply to the projects in the U.S.  Both utilities could have built natural gas projects in the interim which they will surely do now to close the 2200 MW gap in generation capacity which will be left by the incomplete reactors.

lee nuclearDuke was always hesitant about Lee. The firm said some time ago that it would make up its mind about the Lee project once it saw how things turned out with the Scana project in South Carolina.  If the Lee reactors had been built they would have served customers in North & South Carolina.

Duke history and outlook with V C Summer and Lee

At one time Duke considered shelving the Lee project altogether and buying a $500M stake in the Scana project. Duke declined to respond to questions from the news media why it pulled out of the deal.  The firm has also said it will not entertain proposals to take over the now cancelled V C Summer project even to complete just one of the two planned reactors.

The bottom line is that Duke Energy is seeking approval from the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC)  to cancel the development of the Lee Nuclear project because it cannot move forward as originally envisioned primarily due to the recent Toshiba Westinghouse bankruptcy but also due to the impact on its investors and customers of the now cancelled V C Summer project.

“Risks and uncertainties to initiating construction on the Lee Nuclear project have become too great and cancellation of the project is the best option for customers,” Duke said in a statement.

Duke faces an uphill battle to convince North Carolina regulators to approve payment to the firm of $353 million it spent on pre-construction costs and licensing for Lee. Almost all expenditures so far have been for site design and environmental reviews and licensing costs. The Lee project received an NRC combined construction and operating license from the NRC in December 2016.

If approved by the regulators, the costs would show up in utility bills over the next 12 years or at a rate of about $30 million/year. Duke wants to allocate an additional $173M in costs to South Carolina rate payers. So far the PUC there has not responded to that request. Coming on top of the expected costs that will hit ratepayers in South Carolina for the cancelled V C Sumner project, Duke’s rate case is likely to get a lot of attention.

With a market capitalization of $61 billion, the estimated $12 billion the two units could cost would be just over 20% of the total value of the giant utility. That’s pretty close to a “bet the company” decision which makes prudence a key factor in assessing the need for the project.

Apparently, stockholders like the fact that the utility is getting out of the business of building new or repairing existing reactors.  Duke’s stock closed Friday 8/25/17 at $87.23/share very near the 52-week high (L$72.34-H$87.75/share). Taking into account the cancellation of the Levy County and Harris projects, along with the latest decision to cancel Lee, and a decision not to repair the Crystal River reactor, Duke will have taken, approximately, 5,400 MW of nuclear power off the table for the foreseeable future.

In terms of return on capital, Duke sees the cheaper natural gas plants, which also have a much less stringent regulatory burden, as a path forward that will keep its stockholders happy. Duke Energy says it is building a $1.5-billion, 1,640 MW combined cycle natural gas-fired power plant on a Citrus County, Fla., site adjacent to its  damaged Crystal River nuclear facility. It is expected to be completed in 2018.

Status of Duke’s Nuclear Fleet

Duke has six nuclear plants that it operates in its multi-state service area. All were built in the 1970s and ‘80s. They represent about 40% of the electricity the utility provides to its customers. Duke acquired several nuclear reactors as part of the its merger with Progress Energy in 2012. Once of them is the crippled and now permanently closed Crystal River reactor which sustained damage to its containment structure during the replacement of a steam generator. Progress was later ordered by the Florida PUC to refund $288 million to its customers for the cost of replacement power.

Status of Other Planned New Reactors

The cancellation of Scana’s nuclear reactor project in South Carolina has scared the socks off other nuclear utilities in the U.S.  Unlike the Vogtle project, Scana did not apply for nor obtain loan guarantees. Ratepayer in South Carolina are going to be socked with the costs associated with the abandoned effort. The political costs for state legislators and the public utility commission in that state are incalculable but may be tallied up at the ballot box in the next election.

TVA – It should be noted that TVA is a close second in making these kinds of decisions with the abandonment of Bellefonte which represented 2,400 MW.  An effort by a real estate developer to pursue completion of these units is a long shot at best. On the other hand,  TVA completed Watts Bar II in June  2016 and recently received permission from the NRC to proceed with a planned uprate at Browns Ferry.

Earlier this month the NRC approved a plan by the Tennessee Valley Authority to increase the generating capacity at its Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant by 14.3 percent.

TVA requested the power upgrade at its Alabama nuclear plant, boosting the output by 155 MW for each of the three reactors at Browns Ferry. The $475 million equipment upgrade will begin during next spring’s refueling outage for Unit 3, during the fall 2018 refueling outage for Unit 1, and during the spring 2019 refueling outage for Unit 2.

“The real advantage of the Browns Ferry investment is that we are maximizing the capability of an existing generation asset that already produces our lowest-cost, most reliable form of carbon-free baseload power,” TVA said in a press statement.

Florida – NextEra Energy Inc. has said it’s decided to “pause” an expansion of its Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida, but the company is still seeking approval to obtain and then maintain a federal license for two reactors there. The project plans to build two Westinghouse AP1000s. (2,300 MW)

Michigan – DTE received a license to build Fermi III, but has not announced plans to break ground. With flat demand for electricity, and record low prices for natural gas, the planning horizon for the reactor could exceed the shelf life of the NRC license which is 20 years. (1,500 MW)

Virginia – Plans for a third reactor at North Anna remain on hold while Dominion, which closed a perfectly good reactor in Wisconsin due to low natural gas costs, tries to figure out whether moving forward is a prudent action.  Like DTE Dominion has an NRC license for the new reactor but no plans to break ground. (1,500 MW)

Ohio – The Associated Press reports that Ohio governor John Kasich  is not backing bailout for state’s nuclear plants. Kasich said this week that he ins not supporting a proposed financial rescue that FirstEnergy Corp. maintains is needed to keep alive the state’s two nuclear plants.

He said it’s up to the utility to figure out how to keep its nuclear plants operating without a state-approved bailout. First Energy owns and operates the Davis-Besse plant located near Toledo and the Perry Plant located northeast of Cleveland. FirstEnergy wants Ohio lawmakers to sign off on an electricity rate increase for its customers to save  which produce 14 percent of the state’s electricity.

This week Kasich toured a new $800 million natural gas plant near Toledo that can produce enough electricity for 700,000 homes which is roughly equal to a new nuclear reactor.

“It’s bringing investment, competition and, most important, lower prices for consumers,” Kasich said at the plant’s opening.

Peter Rigney, who oversaw construction of the natural gas plant in suburban Toledo, told the AP that there are more gas plants like it on the drawing board in Ohio, if the state legislature does not approve financial help for FirstEnergy.

Ohio is a major supplier of natural gas to the nation as a result of the use of fracking technology to reach reserves that could not be tapped with conventional drilling.

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