Looming Closure of Davis-Besse, Perry Puts Focus on Advocacy for Future of Nuclear Energy in Ohio and the Nation

  • First Energy to declare bankruptcy and close David-Besse and Perry nuclear plants
  • Ohio Millennials Organize Over Future of Advanced Reactors
  • ‘Titans of Nuclear’ Podcasts Launch to Promote Nuclear Energy Message to Address Climate Change
  • Third Way’s Todd Allen Interviews CEO of X-Energy on Firm’s Game Changing Reactor Design

Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. Image: First Energy file photo

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the fate of FirstEnergy’s Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear power plants could be sealed before the end of April 2018 as the company signs a deal for $2.5 billion in new investments from a consortium of global hedge funds.

The investors will support the Akron-based company with restructuring the plants’ legal owner, as FirstEnergy Solutions, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

According to the newspaper, four private investor groups have agreed to bring the $2.5 billion to FirstEnergy for 18 months (cashing out at that point) in exchange for helping the company shed its money-losing power plants, or to get them returned to regulation and protection from competition.  Note that so far neither Ohio’s governor nor its legislature has shown any interest in returning to regulated markets for electricity generated by nuclear reactors.

What will happen is that the four private investment groups will buy $2.5 billion in FirstEnergy shares — $1.62 billion in preferred stock and $850 million in common stock.  After 18 months, the investors must convert their preferred stock into common stock, which they may sell.  The risk is that the stock will not fall in price, and the reward is that it will go up as the parent firm emerges from its planned bankruptcy process. The private funds include;

  • Affiliates of New York-based multi-billion dollar Elliott Management Corp.,
  • Dallas-based Bluescape Resources Co.,
  • Singapore-based GIC Private Limited (formerly the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.) and
  • New York City-based Zimmer Partners LP.

The announcement resulted in buying on the New York Stock Exchange and FirstEnergy’s share price (NYSE:FE) closed up 10.4 percent or $3.05 a share, at $32.45. The firm said in a letter to investors that it may not choose to make a $100M debt payment in April and instead would seek bankruptcy protection. It’s long-term goal is to exit merchant markets and only invest in regulated markets.

FirstEnergy told the newspaper late last week that “market design and federal energy policies, not technology, are the reasons its nuclear plans cannot compete effectively against gas turbine plants and wind farms.”

The move could raise energy prices for consumers throughout Ohio if the two reactors at shut down. Meanwhile the Ohio legislature has not taken any action to address the issue of losing the plants which have a combined output of over 2 Gwe of CO2 emission free electrical power.

According to a news report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer last last week Senate Public Utilities Committee chairman Bill Beagle said he had no plans to hold additional hearings and no plans to vote the bill out of committee. The effort to move this legislation stalled out last June.

Senate Bill 128 would add a flat fee of $2.50 a month to residential bills. Commercial and industrial customers would see a 5% monthly increase to their bills.

The increases, called Zero Emission Credits or ZEC, would give the company an additional $180 million a year for 12 years to subsidize its nuclear plants. The bill has been stalled in committees since last fall.

Like other nuclear plant closures the replacement power will come from coal and natural gas, both of which pour CO2 into the atmosphere. Short-term profit taking is dooming future generations to more difficult climate conditions and may put the very existence of the human species at risk.

Ohio Millennials: We Need Advanced Reactors

  • Movement for a thriving U.S. nuclear industry continues in cities across America
  • More young voices turn up volume in Ohio to save operating reactors
  • Innovative storytelling, partnerships is  necessary for advanced reactors to succeed

What are the thoughts of the next generation which will inherit the earth with or without concerted effort to mitigate climate change?

What if we had energy with no CO2 negatives?  That is the vision of eGeneration Executive Chairman Bill Thesling, an experienced “serial entrepreneur” now working on the development of liquid core molten salt reactors (LCMSRs). (Note: Dr. Bill Thesling holds a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering from Cleveland State University, where he performed research for NASA and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.)

Thesling joined an expert panel last week for a gathering of the Millennial Nuclear Caucus in Columbus, Ohio, hosted by U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and the Michigan-Ohio Section of the American Nuclear Society. (Photo album on Facebook)

Ohio Millennial Nuclear Caucus

DOE-NE Chief of Staff Suzie Jaworowski (left) with a panel of nuclear experts
at the Ohio Millennial Nuclear Caucus. [Photo: DOE]

More than 70 participants came together at the Ohio State University Riffe Center Studio Theaters to hear from DOE officials, industry experts, grassroots advocates and thought leaders from The Ohio State University. (Video on Facebook)

Advocates in the audience included Ohio state representatives and represented a wide range of the nuclear energy field, from young leaders operating nuclear reactors to those designing advanced nuclear technologies.

The panel discussion was followed by a “Nuclear Reimagined” art reception featuring sketches and renderings from the Third Way of what the future of nuclear energy could look like. 

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor Suzie Jaworowski opened last week’s caucus.

“Electricity is definitely an undervalued commodity that really is the platform for our whole culture and our society in the United States and around the world,” she said. “So I think that it’s something that we often take for granted and forget about, but we want to be able to raise the awareness of where that comes from and what makes up a diverse and resilient and clean energy resource.”

Panelists discussed the numerous benefits of nuclear energy—carbon-free electricity, grid resiliency, high-paying jobs, price stability—and the consequences of letting these irreplaceable assets disappear.

“The current fleet is an economic driver. It’s helping ensure our energy security, our national security. The expertise that we have because of the nuclear industry has important implications around the world. And the world is moving towards nuclear,” Senior Advisor to the DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Bradley Williams said.

“Simply put, if we let the industry die and the current plants close, we won’t have people or knowledge or a supply chain or a regulatory body to move forward the next generation of nuclear technologies.”

“When someone comes to you and says, ‘Why should I care about nuclear?,’ have an answer for them. A good place to start is by telling them why you care about nuclear,” Generation Atomic Co-founder and Managing Director Tay Stevenson said.

Ohio State Representative Dick Stein was in the audience, and urged those invested in the success of nuclear to join together to create a national ad campaign. “To me the biggest issue here is messaging and … how you get that message out.”

This was the second meeting of the caucus. Last October its members met with DOE Secretary Rick Perry in Washington, DC. Each of these events connects the next generation of leaders in nuclear innovation with environmental, economic and scientific experts in industry and government. The next Millennial Nuclear Caucus will take place at Texas A&M University in College Station on Feb. 20.

Energy Impact Center Launches
Titans of Nuclear Podcasts

titans of nuclearThe Titans of Nuclear is a podcast featuring interviews with experts throughout the field nuclear energy. Its host, Bret Kugelmass, is a Stanford educated mechanical engineer, former robotics entrepreneur, inventor of the internet-connected drone, and climate change thought leader.

Bret’s identified both a severe disconnect and steep learning curve between nuclear and tech adjacent communities as impediments to innovation, financing, and social acceptance. He seeks to bridge this gulf by creating an audio encyclopedia of the greatest minds in Nuclear Energy opening the field to environmental-minded technologists who might otherwise favor alternate approaches.

There have been three episodes so far.

  • Ep. 3 – Todd Allen, University of Wisconsin; Released Jan 24, 2018 — In this episode an interview with Todd Allen, one of the top U.S. experts in nuclear energy
  • Ep. 2 – Per Peterson, Kairos Power; Released Jan 17, 2018 — In this episode an interview with Per Peterson, professor at one of UC Berkeley’s Nuclear reactors groups. He’s the world expert on Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature reactors
  • Ep. 1 – Michael Shellenberger,  Environmental Progress; Released Jan 10, 2018 — In thjsa episode an interview Michael Shellenberger who has been on the forefront of nuclear advocacy for over a decade. He’s the founder of Environmental Progress, a research and policy  organization. He is also a candidate for governor of California.

You can hear the podcasts on Apple devices on iTunes or on Android and Windows devices on Stitcher.

The home for Titans of Nuclear is the Energy Impact Center which is a research institute that explores climate risk, environmental data, and energy technology.

It’s mission is to put better information into the public sphere regarding the risk and potential paths forward associated with carbon emissions. It aims to educate on technical concepts using both scientific data coupled with a rigorous analysis. Our program is divided into three categories:

  • Understanding climate risk   
  • Assessing geo-engineering options    
  • Determining an appropriate energy portfolio 

The group’s education work takes the form of interviewing a broad-based group of scholars, experts, and policy makers to engage in thorough exploration. Producing long-form written and audio content from these conversations prepares an informed public to tackle the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

Third Way’s Todd Allen
Interviews CEO of X-Energy  Kam Ghaffarian

xenergy ceo

Kam Ghaffarian, CEO of X-Energy

In late December 2017 Todd Allen, collaborating with the Third Way think tank in Washington, DC, sat down with Kam Ghaffarian to talk about his firm’s work on a TRISO fueled HTGR reactor design.

The interview covers a lot of ground. Here are some highlights.

Q: What’s your earliest memory associated with nuclear energy?

A: Fundamentally I know that the generations to come will have a big problem if we didn’t start delivering technologies to provide abundant and clean electricity.

Q: So you jumped in. Who pitched you on starting X-energy?

A: As I looked into the air pollution problem and the need for clean energy alternatives, I realized that there were ideas and solutions all around us. I reached out to a few long-time associates, leading technologists that I worked with at NASA to investigate the problem further. They brought in a nuclear physicist affiliated with MIT to begin devising solutions to those problems – namely how to get power that is affordable, safe, clean, and secure to the communities and regions that need it the most.

Q: And that led you to high temperature gas-cooled reactors?

A: The evolution to advanced nuclear, and more specifically high temperature gas cooled reactors (HTGRs) happened after I had a chance to meet with our current Chief Nuclear Officer, Dr. Eben Mulder and our Vice President of Engineering, Dr. Martin van Staden.

Having established a core team of HTGR experts to inform me on the technical decisions, we set out to add broader capabilities in licensing, fuel development, business development, and systems engineering.

Q: Of the other 50-something advanced nuclear projects being developed in North America, can you pick one or two that stand out to you for having a particularly good product and/or business model?

A: I love the concept of developing advanced reactors with the capability of using reprocessed spent fuel as their primary fuel source. I believe this duel-purpose reactor (create energy + reduce spent fuel stockpiles) will create a new revolution in advanced nuclear at some point in the future.

Q: What has NASA done well to encourage private-sector innovation, and could any of those “best practices” be applied to private-public partnerships in advanced nuclear?

A: I think NASA has been a great example of the right balance between government-funded development of highly-risky technology and industry being the implementer of those technologies after the risk has been retired. This is the standard approach NASA takes for new deep space and earth-observing instruments – because the degree of risk that industry would have to be willing to take would make the development cost-prohibitive.

So NASA either performs the initial development, or performs it collaboratively with industry. Then, after the technology has been proven, you can see commercial industries forming and applying that technology effectively, with NASA relinquishing the role in order to focus on the next risky adventure.

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Posted in Nuclear | 2 Comments

US Nuclear Industry Faces Watershed Year – NEI

  • NEI’s Kotek: Keeping existing reactors operating is fundamental and the nuclear industry must also demonstrate it can build new reactors
  • In the news two important nuclear utilities end their NEI memberships

This may be a watershed year for the U.S. nuclear industry as it works to keep existing nuclear plants operating, works to ensure we can build new ones and paves the way for advanced reactors, John Kotek, vice president for policy development and public affairs at NEI, told a panel at the U.S. Energy Association’s State of the Energy Forum on Jan. 18.

“It is critical that we maintain a strong domestic nuclear sector; this begins by keeping our existing plants operating,” Kotek said.


Image Source: Sandra James, Research Chromatic https://visual.ly/users/sandrajames/portfolio

He noted that much of the action to preserve existing plants will take place at the state level, adding that New York, Illinois and Connecticut have “shown the way,” that other states need to follow.

“We’re encouraged by the states’ recognition of the need to keep nuclear plants open, whether for emissions reduction or energy diversity,” Kotek said.

Not everything nuclear energy brings to the market is valued appropriately and that is contributing to an uneven playing field that has forced nuclear plants to close prematurely, Kotek noted, adding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s recent decision provoked an important conversation about the important role that nuclear plants play in ensuring a resilient, reliable grid.

The decision to proceed with the Plant Vogtle expansion project in Georgia is significant because it offers an opportunity for the U.S. nuclear sector to show it can successfully build new reactors.

“We must demonstrate that we can build and complete new nuclear plants,” Kotek said.

A recent approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of a key aspect of NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design is another positive development as it offers “a new paradigm for regulatory efficiency,” Kotek said.

Entergy and NextEra End Membership in NEI

Two major nuclear utilities announced this month they are dropping their memberships in the industry’s flagship trade group which works closely with government decision makers inside the DC beltway.  Neither utility gave a reason for their decision.

While there is no clear cause and effect to point to for their decisions, based on external events, the past couple of years have not been kind to either utility.

Entergy closed Vermont Yankee, plans to close Pilgrim, and lost the chance to renew the licenses for the twin reactors at Indian Point.  Some advocates says that all of these closures might have been avoided if there was a national public policy in place that gives reactors credits, in the form of rate guarantees, for CO2 emission free electricity.  That’s a tough sell since rates are determined on a state-by-state basis and by regional auctions based on bids to supply power and not on fuel type.

The concept is that it would have been a formidable push back in Vermont and New York since it would have split the greens and possibly thwarted the drives by governors in both states to force the closure of three reactors equal to 3 Gwe of nuclear power (800MW in VT, 2200MW in NY).

The more logical green groups would have supported baseload power that doesn’t emit CO2.  The ones that were hard over anti-nuclear, or which get contributions from natural gas firms, would have had a much smaller political base to work with.

As for NextEra its subsidiary FPL last May postponed work on the next two AP1000s for Turkey Point Units 6 & &) by at least four years.

Then in October the PUC denied the utility’s request for cost recovery for the license preparation costs.  The regulatory agency said it doubted the two new units would ever be built.

fish out of waterAs for Rick Perry’s FERC initiative, lumping coal and nuclear together in hindsight it appears to have been a doomed effort because it pitted multiple conflicting interests against it.

Some of NEI’s members, who have both nuclear and natural gas plants, found themselves in an ambiguous situation.  It could have made them feel like a fish out of water.

Whether these utilities has policy differences with NEI over support for the FERC initiative is a fair question. NEI may have seen it as the only train leaving the station and got onboard as a result.

Further, NEI hasn’t got much to work with at DOE. There is no Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and only a lead deputy.

Where this leaves NEI, which last year named a new and dynamic CEO (video profile of NEI CEO Maria Korsnick), changed out personnel in some senior leadership roles and laid off 16 staff in January 2017, is that like others in the industry association business, it appears to be struggling to come to terms with the alternative reality of the Trump administration.

As a trade group it isn’t alone. The only lobbyists that seem to be thriving are the ones that got their client’s interests embedded in the recently passed tax legislation.

The problem for any lobbying group is that President Trump has frustrated his supporters in Congress by abruptly changing his positions on key issues. According to the Washington Post he has made over “2000 lies in 355 days.”

Is there a new emphasis on the role of pro-nuclear citizens activism?

In a new blog post this week longtime nuclear advocate and former EPRI project manager Meredith Angwin said the decisions by the two utilities to drop their NEI memberships was “bad” for the industry.

“This could simply mean that these companies prefer to hire their own public relations firms and lobbyists. Eliminate the middle man, etc. Another possibility is that nuclear energy issues are so state-specific that an institute focused on Washington has become less relevant.”

“But I think it is bad, really. I consider these major withdrawals from NEI to be very bad news for the nuclear industry. The big institutions may not be doing their part in the future.”

Angwin goes on to say that citizens groups need to be active more than ever.

“[We] need the people who are willing to write letters, talk to their representatives, speak to a high school group or a Rotary, hold a rally, teach a class at the local community college, everything.”

In 2017 Angwin published a book “Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy” which describes the actions citizens can take to be effective in bringing the nuclear energy story to the general public.

Millennial groups have similar views.  In a December 2017 blog post Generation Atomic wrote on its website that a group of them met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry In October. They agreed that waiting for the federal government to take action isn’t always the best strategy.  In addition to keeping existing plants open, the group also raised the issue of reducing regulatory burdens for developers of advanced reactors designs.

perry meets next generation

Secretary Perry meets on 10/19/7 with members of the Millennial Nuclear Caucus at Energy Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Photo: DOE

Insofar as its future influence in DC on behalf of the nuclear industry is concerned, NEI has a choice of doing the traditional nuclear energy bunker mentality thing and not commenting on why two high profile members left. Or it can say something that gives the nuclear community outside the beltway a positive message that things are not unraveling there.  Kotek’s speech is a start. Here’s hoping there is more to come. There is no shortage of issues where it can make a difference.

California Commission Approves Closure
Of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Station

diablo canyon

Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors. PG&E file photo.

(NucNet): The California Public Utilities Commission has voted unanimously to approve a plan to close the two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear station in 2025, but did not approve a proposed $85m settlement to mitigate the economic impact on local communities.

PG&E said it was disappointed that the commission did not approve the community impact mitigation program, but was also noted that the decision increased the amount of funding for employee retention beyond its original proposed decision.

Because the full proposal was not approved PG&E will be meeting labor unions, community and environmental group partners to decide on its next steps.

PG&E filed an application to shut down Diablo Canyon in August 2016, saying the state’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for the station’s electricity output.

Under the proposal, the two units, which began commercial operation in the mid-80s, will be retired when their operating licenses expire in November 2024 and August 2025.

Separately, Michael Shellenberger, MD, who is running for governor of California as a Democrat, attacked the California Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, for his energy policies related to the shutdown of Diablo Canyon.  Shellenberger says that Brown’s anti-nuclear policies are driven by “enormous wealth” derived from oil and gas companies own by the Brown family.

.Shellenberger points to what he says is “the crucial role Brown played in legitimizing anti-scientific anti-nuclear ideology, and creating the anti-nuclear movement — one which has replaced nuclear plants with fossil fuels.”

He adds that while financial motives alone do not explain the anti-nuclear movement, “the heavy and sustained involvement of Gov. Brown and others with a direct financial interest in killing the main competitor to petroleum and natural gas can no longer be ignored as a key factor to its rise and continuing power.”

Shellenberger’s candidacy for governor is the first in the nation to put nuclear energy as a strategy and climate change as being central issues of a drive to win a statewide office. Before getting into politics Shellenberger started a pro-nuclear advocacy group called Environmental Progress.

NASA Tests Small Uranium Fueled Nuclear Reactor
That Could Power Missions To Mars

(Reuters) – Initial tests in Nevada on the KiloPower system, a compact nuclear power system designed to sustain a long-duration NASA human mission on the surface of Mars, have been successful and a full-power test is scheduled for March.  (See NASA factsheet January 2018 “What’s next for Kilopower.”)

Testing began in November at DOE’s Nevada National Security Site. The goal is to provide energy for future astronaut and robot missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations.

A key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA’s six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is having a power source strong enough to sustain the mission. However, the power unit must be small and light so that it can be sent into space with an existing rocket.

“Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA‘s Space Technology Mission Directorate, told Reuters.

He added that Kilopower’s compact size and robustness will support delivery of multiple units on a single lander.

Testing on components of the system has been “greatly successful — the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly,” Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Reuters.

Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage, told Reuters Mars has been the project’s main focus. He said that a human mission likely would require 40 to 50 kilowatts of power.

According to the statements from NASA officials, reported by Reuters, the technology could power habitats and life-support systems, enable astronauts to mine resources, recharge rovers and run processing equipment to transform resources such as ice on the planet into oxygen, water and fuel. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.

Poland’s Energy Ministry Report Recommends Gen IV HTGR Technology

(NucNet): A report by Poland’s Energy Ministry says Generation IV high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology is the best option for deployment in Poland because it offers an affordable and reliable heat source for domestic industry and will help reduce the country’s dependency on imported gas.

The report, prepared by a team from the Polish National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) and commissioned by the ministry in July 2016, said HTGR deployment could also reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal-fired boilers and pave the way for potential HTGR exports by Poland’s nuclear industry.

The report found that the HTGR’s main technological advantage over other high-temperature reactor designs lies in its “inherent safety”, which prevents core melting, and its technological maturity.

The report said the HTGR’s technical parameters are “optimal” to the heat needs of the Polish industry.

The report recommended the establishment of a special purpose company, owned mainly by Polish industrial heat consumers, which would develop a preconception study based on the findings of the NCBJ team and carry out negotiations with potential foreign partners.

According to the report, the cost of designing and licensing an HTGR is estimated at €120M ($147M), while the cost of building a single HTGR would be between €480-€620m. The report said the future price of steam produced by an HTGR would be comparable to the price of steam from gas boilers.

The report said the first commercial HTGRs could be commissioned in Poland around 2031. Design work would be carried out between 2019 and 2023 and construction could begin in 2026.

The report said the project company should simultaneously start design and construction work on a low-power HTGR demonstration reactor. This would speed up the design and licensing of commercial HTGRs. The report recommends the design phase for the experimental reactor to begin in 2018 and the licensing and construction phase to take between 2020 and 2025. Preparation for the demonstration project will be supported by the European Union’s Gemini+ initiative, which is being funded by Euratom.

Poland does not have any nuclear units in commercial operation, but is considering a new-build program. The HTGR project is a standalone initiative by the Polish energy ministry’s nuclear department and the NCBJ, which operates the Maria research reactor on the outskirts of Warsaw.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said significant efforts are underway to develop HTGRs. All these reactors are primarily fuelled by TRISO (tri iso-structural) coated particles.  In a report on HTGR technology the IAEA said there are “many advantages” of HTGRs over conventional water-cooled reactors from the safety point of view. The large mass of the graphite moderator provides high heat capacity and core materials are made of ceramic materials and usable at elevated temperatures. The helium coolant is inert and so chemical interactions between fuel, moderator, and coolant can be avoided.

Poland has struggled to develop comprehensive project and especially financial plans to build a full size nuclear reactor to replace coal fired plants.  The date for project start has been pushed into the future several times.  This announcement is the first time a smaller and potentially less costly unit has been put in the picture.

The challenge is that so far only China has made significant progress with TRISO fueled HTGRs. That nation is considering its HTGR designs for export.

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Posted in Nuclear | 6 Comments

Saudi Arabia’s Ambitious Plans for Nuclear Energy

It’s not clear that the saudi-nuclear_thumb.jpgplans will work as expected in terms of the announced timeline of completing 16 reactors (17.6 Gwe) by 2032.

The cost of the program is close to $90 billion which over a period of more than two decades for a feasible schedule would involve a significant diversion of oil revenue even at $100/BBL. The current price is about $60/bbl and has been in that range since January 2015. 

Key issues for success are adequate sustained financing, supply chain logistics and reliability, as well as cost control, for three separate sites, and managing the fleet of reactors once they are built.

The demand for long lead time components for a new build of this size would raise the prices for them on a global scale.

The Reuters wire service reports that Saudi Arabia plans in April or May 2018 to release a short list of qualified bidders for two nuclear reactors and to make the contact award by December.

It plans to build 17.6 gigawatts (GW) (16 1100 MW reactors or a mix of various sizes) of nuclear capacity by 2032.  The date is wildly ambitious and even a simple exercise in looking at the schedule of building 16 reactors of this size shows a minimum 20-to-25 year time frame.

If the first two units breaks ground in 2020, the last one will be finished in the early 2040s. (See table below). The analysis that follows is an intended to show, using a simple linear model, why the plans appear to be overly ambitious.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, told Reuters last month that he expects to sign contracts to build two nuclear reactors by the end of 2018. Commissioning of the first plant, which will have two reactors with a total a capacity between 2.0 and 3.2 GW, is expected in 2027.

These numbers suggest that the specifications in the RFI have changed from an initial requirement for two 1400 MW units, which is the size the ones being built by South Korea in the UAE, to a more flexible requirement to either open the bidding to wider competition or to put pricing pressure on a South Korean deal.

Saudi Arabia has sent a request for information (RFI) to international suppliers to build two reactors. An RFI is the first step in the procurement process. Once there are expressions of interest, the Saudi government will pre-qualify firms or countries to submit actual bids.  Based on experiences with other countries, the Saudi government should count itself lucky if it even gets bids by December. It will take a minimum of another six months to make an award putting the contract date well into 2019.

According to wire service reports the Saudi government is evaluating requirements from five countries; China, Russia, South Korea, France and the United States.

Russian and South Korean companies have said they plan to bid and sources have told Reuters that Toshiba-owned U.S. company Westinghouse is in talks with U.S. rivals to form a bidding consortium. French state-controlled utility EDF also intends to take part in the tender.

“Currently we are in the evaluation process for RFI (request for information) and we will hold discussions with them (suppliers) next month,” Abdul Malik al-Sabery, a consultant at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy told Reuters in Abu Dhabi.  He added that financing would be provided in part by the winning vendor.

From the time the units break ground until the time they are commissioned for revenue service could take six-to-seven years with a cost of $5-6 billion each.  Bear in mind the Saudi government has selected three coastal sites for the 16 reactors which means site mobilization will also be a factor.

There is no guarantee costs would remain in the range of $5,000/kw for the reactors.  Given the scale of the project, cost escalation is probably inevitable.

The Saudi plan gives up certain economies of scale by mixing reactor vendors, sizes, and locations. Three sites were short-listed as of September 2013: Jubail on the Gulf; and Tabuk and Jizan on the Red Sea.

Why the Saudi Nuclear Plan Will Take More Time

While the Saudi government has claimed it would be able to finish all 16 reactors by 2032, as a practical matter they will only be able to complete eight units by that time. It will take until the early 2040s to commission all 16 units at three sites.

The table below shows that if the first two reactors at the first site break ground by 2020, they will enter revenue service by 2027.

There are practical limits to financing, supply chain capacity, and available workforce that will force the Saudi project to start each two unit module at least two years apart.  Also, to achieve maximum economies of scale, the project managers would not start units at all three sites at the same time.

saudi table 3Financing is a crucial element.  The ability of the Saudi oil infrastructure to produce oil is estimated to be about 12.5 million barrels a day.  The price of a barrel of oil has been in the doldrums at less that $60/bbl since January 2015.  Oil analysts point out that market conditions in the future might reduce that level of output to maintain price.

Overall , the project would represent a substantial diversion of oil income on an annual basis for the next two decades. The total cost of 17.6 Gwe at $5,000/Kw is $88 billion over a period of about 22 years

saudi table 1

The assumption here is that Saudi Arabia will lean out the construction schedule to start two units every two years. First, this move will lessen demands on the supply chain and available manpower. Second, it will reduce the amount of revenue from oil sales that will have to be diverted to reactor construction.

Why Saudi Arabia Wants Nuclear Energy

The main driver for the Saudi plans to build reactors, which were initially announced in 2011, is that at the rate that it is burning its own oil, it may have substantially less to export in just a decade or so. At a minimum, it may lose the excess capacity the rest of the world relies on when there are disruptions in supplies from other countries. One scenario suggested by energy analysts that follow oil markets is that within two decades most of the Saudi output would be used for domestic consumption.

Electricity demand is predicted to increase from 75 GWe by 2018 to more than 120 Gwe by 2030. This growth can’t be sustained by fossil fuel alone and also maintain the income stream the nation depends on from oil exports.

Nuclear reactors are an obvious choice to intervene in an unsustainable growth scenario. The 16 reactors KSA plans to build will be part of a strategy of being a regional exporter of electricity. When complete they would provide as much as one-third of all the electricity used in the country.

For more information see the World Nuclear Association’s profile of nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia last updated in October 2017.

Why Financing the Saudi Nuclear Deal is Tied to Oil Revenues [Added 01/17/18]

Yes, the Saudi have a sovereign wealth fund, and they are planning an IPO for Aramco said to be worth $100B, but it is unlikely they want to tap either source of capital for a nuclear reactor program.  Here’s why.

In September 2014 the price of oil held at around $100 bbl which is when they announced the revamped nuclear reactor program for 16 units.  In January 2015 all bets were off and the nuclear program was postponed to the distant 2040s.  The reason was that the price of oil dropped like a rock at the end of 2014 to under $60/bbl where is stayed until very recently.

This sequence of events shows that the intention has always been to fund the reactor program out of current and future oil revenues and not from financial reserves.  When the price of oil dropped by $40/bbl they hit the brakes.

Currently, the Saudi have an RFI on the street for just two reactors and there is considerable speculation that they may be just fishing for an idea of what the reactors will really cost, but have no clear plan for issuing an RFP nor actually signing a contract to build them.

Note also that the Saudi have MOUs with South Korea and China for LWR and HTGR type SMRs, respectively, in the range of less than 300 MW per unit.  If they just want to get their toes in the water and keep their knees dry, at an overnight price of $5K/Kw, a 300 MW LWR would cost just $1.5B which is a lot easier to fund than a 1000 MW unit at $5B or 2 of them for $10B.

Overall, it is a given that the Saudi are very price sensitive when it comes to reactor technology, based on their responses to sharp drops in oil prices, and will proceed very slowly. The decision in January 2015 shows the Finance Ministry is in charge and not the technologists.

Lack of a 1-2-3 Agreement is a Problem but not a Barrier

American firms like Westinghouse and Curtis-Wright will not be able to participate in the project unless Saudi Arabia signs a 1-2-3 Agreement with the U.S. That prospect looks problematic at best due to statements from Saudi officials that they do not want to give up the right to uranium enrichment as a strategic hedge against Iran.

The Obama administration sought but did not complete a 1-2-3 agreement with Saudi Arabia along the lines of the one it signed with the UAE, which committed to reliable fuel services rather than developing its own enrichment capabilities. The UAE has been touted as a model for other nations as a so-called “gold standard” as it has a a $20-billion contract with South Korea to build four nuclear reactors. The first of the four units will come online in 2018.

According to Mark Hibbs, a nuclear energy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the lack of a 1-2-3 agreement with the United States could impact Saudi Arabia’s ability to import nuclear technologies from other nations.

France and Japan would not transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies to Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries, along with the United States and the other members of the G8, pledged indefinitely not to export these items to newcomer countries. Saudi Arabia could get these technologies from Pakistan .

Brazil Suffers Setback in Financing for Angra-3

The Reuters wire service reports that Brazil’s government is struggling to attract investors to restart construction on its Angra 3 nuclear plant, where work has been halted since 2015.  The State controlled electric utility Centrias Electras Brqasileiras SA told the wire service it had held exploratory discussions with Russia and China but that no agreement had been reached with them nor EDF nor any other potential investor.

So far spending on the project has totaled about $5 billion with an anticipated additional spending needed of about $4 billion.  The project is said to be two-thirds complete. The utility hopes to raise the needed funds by 2019 and complete the reactor by 2025.

Brazil has plans for additional nuclear reactors, but given its inability to fund the current project to completion, investors who would want guarantees of future work, like China National Nuclear Corp., are reported to be wary of making commitments.

Once complete the price of electricity from the plant will be set at close to $0.13/KwH to cover the costs.

Budget woes were not the only reason work stopped on the project.  A major bribery and money laundering scandal involving construction firms working on the site claimed the careers of several high level government officials.

In August 2015 Federal police in Brazil have arrested Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, CEO of Elecrtrobas Termonuclear, which is building the country’s third nuclear reactor, Angra 3, on charges he took bribes from construction firms involved in the project. The investigation into the bribes got its start in an unrelated investigation into a money laundering scheme.

Standard & Poors said at the time the arrest of the nuclear chief was another “political uncertainty” that caused the rating agency to change Brazil’s credit outlook to negative.  U.S. investors have sued Electrobas for failing to disclose the arrest of the company’s CEO. Bond yields for the firm, reflecting the higher risks associated with the company’s CEO being caught up in a bribery case, rose to 8%. Elecrobas has denied any wrong doing and put the CEO on a leave of absence.

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NRC Says NuScale SMR Won’t Need Backup Electrical Power

  • The regulatory agency’s decision is a first for light water reactors and may set a precedent for future LWR type SMRs with similar designs
  • NuScale responds to questions from this blog about the NRC finding
  • NEI’s CEO applauds the NRC decision

nrc sealThe U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has told NuScale that it is satisfied that firm’s small modular reactor (SMR) design can operate safely without the need for safety-related backup electrical systems. The reactor uses passive safety features relying on convection, not pumps, to circulate water in the primary circuit.

The agency determined that NuScale Power’s safety design eliminates the need for class 1E power for its small modular reactor (SMR). Class 1E is the regulatory standard set for the design of safety-related nuclear power plant electrical systems.

In regulatory terms, the NRC approved NuScale Power’s “Safety Classification of Passive Nuclear Power Plant Electrical Systems” Licensing Topical Report. This document is where the company established the bases of how a design can be safe without reliance on any safety-related electrical power.

NuScale’s SMR is fully passive relying on natural forces like convection and gravity instead of electrically-operated pumps to circulate coolant. This means that if necessary the reactor can shut down and cool itself for indefinite periods without the need for human intervention, water being added, or external electrical power.

Currently, all nuclear plants in the U.S. are required to have class 1E power supplies to ensure safety. The NRC has limited its approval to only NuScale Power’s design. NRC’s conclusion is a key step in the review process of NuScale’s Power Module Design Certification Application (DCA).

“We appreciate the NRC staff’s focused and thorough analysis of the safety and reliability our SMR design offers and for issuing their findings so early in our DCA review,” says NuScale Power Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nuclear Officer Dale Atkinson.

“Our approach to safety is a first in the nuclear industry and exemplifies the inherent safety of NuScale’s SMR. This validation brings us another step closer to achieving our mission of delivering scalable advanced nuclear technology to produce the electricity, process heat, and clean water needed to improve the quality of life for people around the world”.

The NRC’s review of NuScale’s DCA began March 2017 and the NRC’s final report approving the design is expected to be complete by September 2020. Once approved, certified NuScale SMRs will be available to domestic customers to be licensed for construction and operation. NuScale Power is the only company to have submitted an SMR DCA.  Regulatory approval will support its first U.S. deployment by the mid 2020’s.


Conceptual drawing of the NuScale SMR  Image: NUScale

  NuScale expects the NRC to approve the reactor design by September 2020. The first commercial NuScale power plant, eventually consisting of 12 modules 50 MW linked together for a single plant installation of 600 MW, is planned to be built by NuScale and its consortium partners at the Idaho National Laboratory. It will be owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and operated by utility Energy Northwest.

Interview with NuScale

In an interview with this blog the company responds via email to a series of questions about the NRC decision.

Q: If no emergency electrical power is required, does this reduce  the cost of delivering each 50 MW unit, and the time to deliver each 50 MW unit?

A: Yes, because non-1E systems are considerably less expensive to purchase, operate and maintain than equivalent 1E systems. There is no expected reduction on the time to deliver each 50 MW module.

Q: Does it make the technology more cost competitive for utilities? What is the order of magnitude of each – approximately?

A: Yes. NuScale has not yet quantified the cost savings.

Q: Does the decision speed up the overall time to complete the SER?

A: The decision will not speed up the overall schedule.

Q: Does the NRC decision signal, from NuScale’s perspective, an possibility of flexibility in other key areas including;

  • Staffing and number of control rooms requires for a multi-module facility
  • Physical security, emergency planning zone

A: The NRC has shown flexibility with respect to NuScale’s innovative design. They are taking the time to understand the safety of the design and a willingness to accept our new approaches since we can demonstrate they are safe. Although NRC approval has not yet been obtained, other examples of NRC flexibility include control room staffing and emergency planning zone size (EPZ).

Q: Overall, what is your impression of the NRC’s approach to its first review of an LWR type SMR?

A: Overall, NuScale believes the NRC’s review is going well. Our extensive engagement with the NRC prior to submitting our application (over 250 meetings) laid the groundwork for an effective review by identifying and initiating work on many of the potential technical, regulatory, and policy issues associated with an innovative design. To date, we have found the NRC responsive and willing to discuss and understand our position so that issues can be successfully resolved.

Q: What is the expected time frame for completing the SER and applying for a COL?

A: The NRC’s current schedule is to issue the Final SER in September 2020. It appears the review is on schedule and may be slightly ahead of schedule. Our customers can submit their COL applications before our Final SER is issued. UAMPS currently plans to submit its COL application in the second quarter of 2020.

Q: Does NuScale have a target date to break ground in Idaho for its customer UAMPS?

A: Site mobilization is targeted for the second half of 2021.

NEI Applaud NRC Decision

The Nuclear Energy Institute applauded the landmark approval. In a press statement NEI President and Chief Executive Officer Maria Korsnick said;

“Scientists and engineers have long believed that small reactors have inherent safety characteristics. Now the NRC has formally endorsed that principle with its evaluation of this portion of NuScale’s design. This moves small reactors closer to commercial deployment,”

NEI added that SMRs have applications beyond utility-scale electricity generation. One 50-megawatt module can power a community of 35,000 people without needing to be connected to the national grid—a potential lifeline for isolated regions or military bases that are dependent on fossil fuel deliveries.

“Small reactors are one of the most promising new nuclear technologies to emerge in decades. There is great potential for small reactors in energy markets—domestic and overseas,” Korsnick said.

It can be used to desalinate water, provide process heat for industrial applications, or be integrated with intermittent renewables for a combined power plant that can provide 24/7, zero-carbon, affordable electricity.

Canada and the United Kingdom have expressed interest in U.S.-designed small reactor technologies, while other countries including Argentina, China, Russia and South Korea are developing their own SMR designs, both for domestic use and export markets.

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Recent Developments in Advanced Reactors in China, Russia

  • China Reported to Commit $3 billion to Development of Molten Salt Reactor Designs
  • China Begins Construction of a 600 MW Fast Reacto
  • Update on China’s HTGR, and an MOU with Saudi Arabia
  • Taishan 1 EPR Startup Delayed to 2018
  • Russia to Build Fast Reactor Fuel Plant for Brest-OD-300 Reactor. 

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

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

tmsr roadmap

TMSR R&D Roadmap  ~ Image Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) is the lead organization operating under the sponsorship of the Academy. It has also signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for developmental work on the use of lithium-beryllium-fluoride salts as a coolant and heat transfer medium. (Technical briefing 2016 PDF file) The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is a collaborator on the project.

The Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS) Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) and the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to accelerate the development of fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactors (FHRs). The CRADA evolved from US–China interactions under a Memorandum of Understanding between the DOE and the CAS on Cooperation in Nuclear Energy Sciences and Technologies.

The CRADA is organized into a series of phases. The approved first phase tasks are 1) to commission and ORNL’s liquid salt test loop and use it to perform pebble bed heat transfer testing, 2) to perform component evaluation and testing, 3) to provide analysis software support, 4) to develop and participate in international FHR training activities, and 5) technical information exchange on FHR supportive technologies.

The lead principal investigator at SINAP is listed as Dr. Kun Chen, Professor and Director, Reactor Systems Engineering, SINAP.  He is expected to give a presentation on the technical scope and status of work in May at the Asia Nuclear Business Platform conference to be held in Shanghai, China, May 9-10..

According to a 2015 U.S. conference bio and presentation given at the University of California, Berkeley, Kun Chen received his bachelor degree in applied physics from University of Science and Technology of China in 2001, and Ph.D. in nuclear physics and scientific computing (minor) from Indiana University in 2006. After graduation, he worked for Argonne National Laboratory as a postdoc and then as a staff member for four years. He joined Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) in 2011 and served as the group leader and then the director of the Nuclear Safety and Engineering Division.

According to the World Nuclear Association the SINAP has two streams of TMSR development – solid fuel (TRISO in pebbles or prisms/blocks) with once-through fuel cycle, and liquid fuel (dissolved in fluoride coolant) with reprocessing and recycle. A third stream of fast reactors to consume actinides from LWRs is planned. The aim is to develop both the thorium fuel cycle and non-electrical applications in a 20-30 year timeframe.

The TMSR-SF stream has only partial utilization of thorium, relying on some breeding as with U-238, and needing fissile uranium input as well. It is optimized for high-temperature based hybrid nuclear energy applications. The TMSR-LF stream claims full closed Th-U fuel cycle with breeding of U-233 and much better sustainability with thorium but greater technical difficulty. It is optimized for utilization of thorium with electrometallurgical pyroprocessing. The Fluorine design is expected to follow the sodium cooled design by about a decade.  (January 2017 Gen IV Briefing – PDF file)

China Begins Construction of a 600 MW Fast Reactor, Announces HTGR Progress

  • Fast Reactor Update

(WNN) China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announces it has broken ground an poured first concrete for a 600 MWe fast reactor in Xiapu, Fujian province. It is scheduled to be complete by 2023.

The CFR-600 is based on a 65 MWe experimental unit which achieved criticality in July 2010 and was connected to the grid in 2011.

The 600 MWe design (IAEA profile PDF file) is considered to be a GEN-IV designs and was developed by the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy and will use a sodium cooled system. It will be powered by MOX fuel and will have two coolant loops producing steam at 480C / 896F.

There are plans to build a 1000-1200 MWe design that will use a uranium alloy metal fuel. Construction of that unit could start in 2028.

Both designs have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal.

  • Update on China’s HTGR includes MOU with Saudi Arabia

In October 2017 China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) reported that it completed the installation of its high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) project. SNPTC’s project, which consists of two 250-MW high-temperature reactor pebble-bed modules located in Shandong province. Tests at the project are expected to end in April 2018. The reactor is scheduled to enter revenue service later in 2018. ,

Construction began on the reactor in late 2012. The project is a joint venture of China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Group (CNEC) and Tsinghua University.

World Nuclear News (WNN) reported in September 2017 that the technology was praised during a roundtable discussion held at the IAEA General Conference.

“Unlike typical reactors, high-temperature reactors are particularly suitable to generate high-temperature process heat in addition to electricity. High-temperature heat from advanced nuclear reactors may be able to have a direct role in climate change mitigation as an alternative energy source for industrial processes.”

CNEC highlighted some potential uses of HTGR technology including power generation, and for process heat for the petrochemical industry.

CNEC also told the IAEA the steam outlet temperature can reach up to 1,000C which can be applied in steel making, coal gasification and hydrogen production.

WNN also reported that CNEC is currently working with Saudi Arabia on the early stages of an HTGR desalination joint venture. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in August 2017, by Zu Bin, deputy general manager of CNEC, and Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammed Al-Saud, chairman of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and chairman of the board of directors of Saudi Technology Development and Investment Co.

“According to the MOU, the two parties will work together to carry out [a] feasibility study on developing seawater desalination projects using HTGR.

The reactor uses helium as a coolant instead of water. The primary loop of helium comes out of the reactors at a temperature of 750C. The secondary loop is water to steam which goes to a conventional steam turbine and generator plant., The reactor uses TRISO fuel which makes it a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and a once-through uranium fuel cycle.

Taisahn 1 EPR Startup Delayed to 2018

(WNN) Areva’s First 1600 MWe EPR in China, the Taishan 1, has completed its hot functional tests according to China General Nuclear, but startup has been delayed until mid-2018. CGN did not provide specifics on the reason for the delay other than to say that additional verification of equipment and systems was needed which will result in the delay.

CGN said that Taisahn 2 is expected to start in 2019, but that date may change based on progress towards completion of installing all equipment and the results of system testing of the reactor in cold and hot modes.

Taishan 1 is the third Areva EPR to approach revenue service the others being units at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland which began hot function tests in December and Flamanville 3 in France which is conducting cold functional tests.

Russia to Build Fast Reactor Fuel Plant for Brest-OD-300 Reactor

(WNN) Russia plans to start a nuclear fuel fabrication plant for its lead-cooled Brest-OD-300 reactor. The Siberian Chemical Combine (SCC), a subsidiary of TVEL, the nuclear fuel manufacturing unit of Rosatom, said the plant will be located in Tomsk, Siberia, one of Russia’s so-called “nuclear cities.”

The decision to proceed is part of a larger effort that also includes construction of a 300 MW fast reactor and a spent fuel reprocessing facility, in addition to the fuel fabrication unit.

The BREST-OD(ODEK)-300 is part of Rosatom’s effort to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle using Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) fuel derived from the uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors.

According to WNN, Alexander Rodovikov, Director of Fuel Fabrication at SCC, said the equipment to fabricate the fuel had been delivered to the plant.  Nuclear Engineering International Magazine reported on Jan 2, 2018 that in late November, equipment was delivered for sintering fuel pellets.

The equipment included a unique sintering furnace lined with zirconium oxide and equipped with heating elements from tungsten. The complex is fully automated and equipped with a high-temperature furnace. Furnace equipment is manufactured by Sosny LLC (Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region) together with the French specialists of ECM Technologies.

Last year at this time there were reports that the reactor that will use the fuel was scheduled to begin construction in 2016, but that startip of the reactor project was postponed to 2018 the Russian business daily Kommersant reported in January 2017.

It is not clear how far along the procurement of components for the reactor is in terms of lining up suppliers. The cost of the reactor is also an issue and questions were raised at the time whether Rosatom can afford to build it given overall budget pressures and the state of the Russian economy. There have not been any English language updates on the progress of the reactor itself since 2017.

The World Nuclear Association reported in its most recent update of reactor technology in Russia that the reactor commissioning is expected in 2022. A budget of $809 million has been allocated for the reactor and $550 million for the fuel cycle facilities.

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Recent Developments in Nuclear Power for Space Exploration

KiloPower: A Gateway to Abundant Power for Exploration

( NASA Glenn – Cleveland, OH )– NASA is pushing forward to test a key nuclear energy source that could literally empower human crews on the Mars surface, energizing habitats and running on-the-spot processing equipment to transform Red Planet resources into oxygen, water and fuel. ( video )

The agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has awarded multi-year funding to the Kilopower project ( NASA slides – PDF file ). Testing started this Fall and will go through early next year, with NASA partnering with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site to evaluate fission power technologies.

kilopower slide from NASA 2016

Lee Mason, STMD’s principal technologist for Power and Energy Storage at NASA Headquarters, explains;

“The Kilopower test program will give us confidence that this technology is ready for space flight development. We’ll be checking analytical models along the way for verification of how well the hardware is working.” 

NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, is managing all phases of the Kilopower Project, from designing and building the hardware, with contributions from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, through developing the test plan and operating the tests. The Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is providing the uranium for the reactor core.

The DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration infrastructure and expertise are instrumental for success, Mason points out, are the talents of Los Alamos National Laboratory engineers in New Mexico.

Patrick McClure, project lead on the Kilopower work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says;

“A space nuclear reactor could provide a high energy density power source with the ability to operate independent of solar energy or orientation, and the ability to operate in extremely harsh environments, such as the Martian surface.”

David Poston, Los Alamos’ chief reactor designer, adds;

“The reactor technology we are testing could be applicable to multiple NASA missions, and we ultimately hope that this is the first step for fission reactors to create a new paradigm of truly ambitious and inspiring space exploration. Simplicity is essential to any first-of-a-kind engineering project – not necessarily the simplest design, but finding the simplest path through design, development, fabrication, safety and testing.”

Moving Beyond Solar power  – Mason points out the pioneering Kilopower reactor represents a small and simple approach for long-duration, sun-independent electric power for space or extraterrestrial surfaces. Offering prolonged life and reliability, such technology could produce from one to ten kilowatts of electrical power, continuously for 10 years or more.

“What we are striving to do is give space missions an option beyond RTGs, which generally provide a couple hundred watts or so,” Mason says.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Reactor heat is transferred via passive sodium heat pipes, with that heat then converted to electricity by high-efficiency Stirling engines. A Stirling engine uses heat to create pressure forces that move a piston, which is coupled to an alternator to produce electricity.

Having a space-rated fission power unit for Mars explorers would be a game changer, Mason adds. There would be no worries about meeting power demands during the night or long, sunlight-reducing dust storms.

Mason emphasizes that it solves those issues and provides a constant supply of power regardless of where you are located on Mars. Fission power could expand the possible landing sites on Mars to include the high northern latitudes, where ice may be present.

“The big difference between all the great things we’ve done on Mars, and what we would need to do for a human mission to that planet, is power. This new technology could provide kilowatts and can eventually be evolved to provide hundreds of kilowatts, or even megawatts of power. We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less.”

The novel energy-providing technology also makes possible a modular option for human exploration of Mars. Small enough in size, multiple units could be delivered on a single Mars lander and operated independently for human surface missions.

BWXT to Develop Advanced Nuclear
Thermal Propulsion Technology for NASA

As NASA pursues innovative, cost-effective alternatives to conventional propulsion technologies to forge new paths into the solar system, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, say nuclear thermal propulsion technologies are more promising than ever, and have contracted with BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia, to further advance and refine those concepts.

bwxt LEU

  • Fact Sheetincludes a conceptual design of a totally contained engine ground test.

Part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project could significantly change space travel, largely due to its ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine.

A nuclear thermal rocket has double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle main engine, one of the hardest-working standard chemical engines of the past 40 years. That capability makes nuclear thermal propulsion ideal for delivering large, automated payloads to distant worlds.

“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond,” said Sonny Mitchell, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at Marshall. “We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”

An NTP system can cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to radiation. That also could reduce the vehicle mass, enabling deep space missions to haul more payload.

Given its experience in developing and delivering nuclear fuels for the U.S. Navy, BWXT will aid in the design and testing of a promising, low-enriched uranium-based nuclear thermal engine concept and “Cermet” — ceramic metallic — fuel element technology.

During this three-year, $18.8-million contract, the company will manufacture and test prototype fuel elements and also help NASA properly address and resolve nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements.

BWXT will aid NASA in refining the feasibility and affordability of developing a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, delivering the technical and programmatic data needed to determine how to implement this promising technology in years to come.

Background on RTGs

Plutonium_pelletNASA has used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for decades to convert heat from the natural decay of radioactive elements (PU-238) directly into electricity.

Nuclear fission provides a compact, reliable source of electricity, especially in situations where solar panels would be ineffective.

The radioactive decay of the PU-238 isotope causes a temperature difference across plates of two different kinds of metal — one connected to the reactor and the other to a radiator, which produces a voltage. RTGs have the benefit of containing no moving parts, which could wear down on long missions, with no chance for maintenance or replacement.  Advanced nuclear power systems, like Kilopower, use a Stirling Engine, which does have moving parts, and which also has an estimated 14 year operational life.

Infograpohic on Nuclear Energy for Deep Space Missions

Source (used with permission):
SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

For more than 50 years, NASA's robotic deep space probes have carried nuclear batteries provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. Even the crewed Apollo moon landings carried nuclear powered equipment.


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Vogtle 3 & 4 Nuclear Reactors are a "Go" for Completion

The twin reactors are the only new construction of Gen III+ designs currently underway in the U.S.

PSCSealIn a tough vote the Georgia Commission voted unanimously to give a conditional” approval for completion of the Vogtle 3 & 3 AP1000 nuclear reactors now under construction in Georgia. The project was in danger of being cancelled like its counterpart in South Carolina where the V C Summer project has ended in disarray.

In voting 5-0 the commissioners overruled the recommendation of their staff who said that there was not an economic justification for a decision to go forward with the reactors.

The failure of Westinghouse to execute basic project management methods as the EPC lead was a major contributing factor to the problems at both Vogtle and V C Summer. Westinghouse is now in bankruptcy proceedings, and Toshiba, is parent firm, is also in financial distress having lied about its earnings by saying it booked $1.2 billion in revenue that never happened. A buyer is being sought for Westinghouse so that Toshiba can exit the nuclear energy industry.

Paul Bowers, CEO of Georgia Power, said the recommendation was based on the results of a comprehensive schedule, cost and cancellation assessment that was prompted by the bankruptcy of former primary Vogtle contractor Westinghouse in March 2017. He added that Vogtle 3 is expected online in November 2021 and Vogtle 4 in November 2022.

Costs Were a Driver of a PSC Staff Recommendation to Cancel the Project

cancelThe original cost of both of the reactors was estimated at $6.1 billion in 2009.  That works out to about $2,350/Kw.  These cost estimates may have been optimistic since the overnight cost of the twin ABWRs at the South Texas Project, announced two years earlier in 2007, were in the range of $2,700/Kw.

Completion cost of the twin AP1000s is now slated to be $23 billion for both units that works out to about $10,000/Kw which is well above the current global average “overnight cost” of $6,100/Kw.

Even with a 30% swing factor, which would put the overnight cost at a high of $7,900/Kw, the reactors are still perceived as being over priced which has led to howls of protest from rate payers and may lead to lawsuits aimed at the PSC decision from anti-nuclear groups bent on shutting down the entire project.

These numbers led to a staff recommendation that was based on the cost issue. The Washington Post reported 12/04/17 that they told the Georgia Public Service Commission that the Vogtle power station “is no longer economic” because of its huge cost overruns, construction delays and “the burden that would be placed on ratepayers while the company profits.”

They added that the economic costs of the nuclear reactors would outweigh the benefits by $1.6 billion.  According to the Post, the staff advised the commission to block rate increases for costs due to mismanagement, the Westinghouse bankruptcy, and construction delays.

“It is unreasonable for ratepayers to have to bear increased costs as a result of the Units not being constructed efficiently,” the staff report said.

PSC Defends its Decision

Georgia PSC chairman Stan Wise said the decision came down to the importance of fuel diversity. It appears that not everyone thinks that low natural gas prices are going to last forever. Here are some highlights from the PSC’s decision (full text).

  • The Commission determined that Plant Vogtle Units Three and Four should be completed.
  • The Commission approved and verified $542 million in expenditures on the Vogtle Construction project from January 1, 2017 through June 30, 2017.
  • The Company will take a portion of the amounts received from the Toshiba Parent Guaranty and credit customers with three $25 monthly credits to be received no later than the third quarter of 2018.
  • The Commission approves and finds reasonable the Company’s revised schedule and cost forecast. The approved cost forecast will be reduced by the actual amounts of the Toshiba Parent Guaranty applied to the project’s construction in progress.

World Nuclear News (WNN) reported that a new conditional commitment of about $1.67 billion in additional loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, announced in September, and the recent payment by Toshiba of 100% of parent guarantees which had been scheduled to take place over several years, will also help to minimize the impact of the new units on electricity bills, the company said. The parent guarantee payments, in addition to penalties, are expected to contribute $2.75 billion.

The utilities building the V C Summer projects factored their payment from Toshiba to get all of the money upfront.  Reuters reported that Georgia Power held onto its settlement. It said that Toshiba would pay the remainder of its $3.68 billion guarantee settlement by Dec. 15. Those payments were originally agreed to run through 2021.

Tax Legislation Faces Uncertain Fate

A key item is that Georgia PSC Chairman Wise emphasized that the PSC’s approval is conditional on Congress approving $800 million worth of tax credits for the project. The tax credits were not included in the legislation passed by Congress on 12/20/17. New legislation will be needed in 2018 to achieve this result.

The Vogtle project will face competition for these tax credits from a developer in Tennessee who wants them to pay for completion of the partial completed Bellefonte reactors located in Scottsboro, Alabama.  That project will have two state congressional delegations in its corner compared to just one for Voglte in Georgia.

Additionally, developers of small modular reactors are asking for similar financial support in terms of tax credits to jump start their industry. Entrepreneurs developing both LWR and advanced fast reactors, such as molten salt designs,  are spread out all over the U.S. Whether they could mobilize vendors in their planned supply chains to support the tax legislation remains to be seen.

All of these pleadings for tax credits will face an uphill battle due to the fact that the republican controlled congress passed a tax reform bill in December that creates a $1.5 trillion deficit.

House and Senate leaders are talking about massive cuts to health insurance and other entitlement programs to pay for the tax bill’s budget busting effects.

The tax bill is not popular with voters as it is seen, correctly, as primarily benefitting people in upper income brackets. With 55 million people depending on Medicare, and in others like Medicaid which has 73 million people enrolled in it, that’s a lot of “no” votes to reductions in these program,

However, media reports said senators began laying the groundwork for approving the tax credits when the finance committee introduced legislation that would effectively guarantee the $23 billion costs of the project.

WNN notes that Georgia Power supports the legislation which would enable the Vogtle plant to continue to qualify for advanced nuclear production tax credits if the units enter service after 2021. Under existing tax rules the units – expected to start commercial operation in November 2021 (unit 3) and November 2022 (unit 4) – would need to be brought on line before 1 January 2021 to qualify for credits.

Construction has continued uninterrupted at Vogtle following Westinghouse’s bankruptcy, with Southern Nuclear taking over as project manager at the site and Bechtel managing construction. More than 5,000 people work at the site.

Two Georgia PSC Commissioners Explain their Votes

In a widely distributed OP ED, Chuck Eaton and Tim Echols, Georgia Public Service Commissioners, explained their votes and why it is important for the project to move forward.

The two commissioner acknowledged the frustration of ratepayers, and pointed out that the utilities building the plants will be held accountable.

“We most certainly understand the frustration from our ratepayers.  For this very reason, we voted this week to put in place risk-sharing mechanisms to save consumers money—especially if the project runs later than expected.  Even as we approved a new higher cost and schedule for the beleaguered project, we have imposed penalties on Georgia Power reducing their overall revenue collection from current ratepayers by over $1.7 billion.  And at the end of the project, we are prepared to disallow every single penny of imprudent expenditures—including schedule delays because of such. “

The OP ED also points a well-deserved finger of blame at Westinghouse. Once the nation’s premier nuclear energy developer, it was driven into the ditch by mismanagement from its senior leadership team.

“Let’s be honest. It was the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the prime Vogtle project contractor and reactor designer, that has put us in the pickle we are in. All the protections we had built into their contract were made null and void by their self-serving action to walk away from their contract with Georgia Power.”

Eaton and Echols also noted that the pain of the Westinghouse debacle was mitigated by a cash payment from Toshibva.

“It is important to note that Toshiba, Westinghouse’s parent company has paid a significant penalty for Westinghouse’s failure – $3.68 billion or 40 percent of the original contract price. This payment will reduce the cost of the project and that benefits customers. That payment made a difficult vote a little better.”

Finally, they point out the economic benefits of completing the reactors.

“Based on a consulting study by the Brattle Group, a single nuclear plant produces about $450 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community.  Moreover, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show the median nuclear plant operator earns an average annual wage of $91,170, so the 800 permanent jobs created by these new reactors will go a long way to boost the Georgia economy too.  So too are the 6000 construction jobs now on site at the plant.

Ceasing construction on the new units would have been like pulling $115 million in annual payroll from the regional economy.  In lieu of building this project, we could consider shorter-term options such as “leasing” a gas plant or out-of-state wind turbines.  But having Georgia-grown nuclear power that can last 80 years provides reliable baseload electricity over the longer term despite the higher upfront costs. “

In closing they address the case made by anti-nuclear groups that the reactors should be cancelled and investments made in renewable energy projects.

“Georgia Power also looked at renewable energy. In this case, the total cost to replace Vogtle capacity with solar PV coupled with battery storage is roughly $25 billion, accounting for a 60-year asset life.  That’s $7 billion for 4,000 megawatts of solar panels, and another $18 billion for 3000 megawatts of lithium ion batteries.  And these estimates don’t include the cost of the 30,000 acres of land needed.”

Echols said in a separate online essay that,

“The Commission passed my motion to approve a new cost and schedule forecast for Georgia Power to finish this massive project. At the same time, we are requiring them to share in the “pain” by reducing their overall revenue collection from current ratepayers by over $1.7 billion. And at the end of the project, we are prepared to disallow every single penny of imprudent expenditures — including schedule delays because of any mismanagement or failure to perform.”

NEI Weighs In

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) was consistently a strong supporter of completion of the Vogtle reactors.  NEI CEO Maria Korsnick testified before the PSC on December 12, 2017.

“NEI believes that building new nuclear power plants in the United States is vital for this safe, reliable, clean air electricity source to maintain its important role in our nation’s energy mix,” Korsnick stated. “I urge the commission to consider the overall benefits of nuclear generation as part of its deliberation on the specific issues before it in this proceeding.”

At the hearing, Korsnick also sounded a note of warning on the strategic importance of maintaining U.S. expertise in nuclear technology and manufacturing.

“Completion of the Vogtle reactors will signal that the United States continues to be a significant force in the global nuclear industry. If the U.S. forgoes its role as a leader in the global nuclear industry, the world will look to active nuclear nations like China and Russia for leadership, which will put them in a position to develop future international standards for nuclear energy technology use.”

Nuclear energy is the largest and most efficient source of carbon-free electricity in the United States, with 99 reactors in 30 states generating nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity—and nearly 60 percent of its carbon-free electricity.

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