More Nuclear for Mexico?

by Will Davis

Laguna Verde c Morrison Knudsen UEC

Mexico’s Laguna Verde nuclear plant sits at a beautiful location in Veracruz. This plant has operated successfully for three decades. Photo courtesy Morrison-Knudsen / United Engineers & Constructors.

Nuclear power never really did take off in Mexico; although the populous nation seriously considered nuclear energy for a variety of purposes it ended up with just a single commercial plant.  It is beginning to look like that might change, sooner or later.

NEW PROPOSALS

This week, the coordinator for thermoelectric generation at Mexico’s nationalized utility CFE (Comision Federal de Electricidad or, the Federal Electricity Commission) Hector Lopez went on record as saying that Mexico should construct another two further nuclear units at its Laguna Verde nuclear station and that it should also (find a site for and) build two more units somewhere on the Pacific Coast, it was reported by Mexico News Daily.

Lopez told reporters that the operating cost of the plants would be low enough to make their initial investment, perhaps some $7 billion each (for a 1400 MWe unit) worthwhile.  He remarked that while combined cycle plants cost less to build by a considerable margin they can be up to four times as expensive to run in terms of dollars per megawatt-hour generated.  Further, Lopez said that adding new nuclear capacity would cut the nation’s heavy dependence on natural gas as a generating fuel and diversify its supply of electricity.

LAGUNA VERDE

Although Mexico flirted with other plants and locations, it only ever completed one commercial nuclear plant – Laguna Verde, at Veracruz on the east coast.  This two unit BWR plant was ordered in 1969; construction began in 1973 and, as with many plants of that era, delays began to occur.  Eventually the original architect-engineer, Burns & Roe, was replaced by EBASCO (a firm known for taking over stumbling projects and succeeding) – but in an interesting twist, only on Unit 1.  From the beginning, CFE had chosen to act as constructor on the plant; when the change of A-E was made EBASCO was brought in as engineer on Unit 1, but through contracting arrangement CFE took over as engineer on Unit 2.  The units eventually entered commercial service after prolonged construction and testing in 1990 and 1995.  The plants were originally designed to produce 674 MWe gross / 654 MWe net but have received extended uprates to 800 MWe.

Lopez pointed out in this week’s press conference that Laguna Verde had been operating 29 years, according to Mexico News Daily, without any serious incidents.

WATER PROBLEMS

One of the most interesting parts of the 1966 book “Water Production Using Nuclear Energy” (Edited, Roy Post / Robert Steele and published by University of Arizona Press) is the description of, and proposed solution to, the physical collapse of one of the most populated cities on earth.

Mexico City is built on top of an ancient aquifer, which essentially is clay consisting of seven parts water to one part solids.  Since much of the water the city uses comes from thousands of wells drilled below it, the city is continuously settling; fracturing, failure and collapse of buildings in the city has been a known problem, for these reasons, for many years.  Much more extensive pumping from this under-city supply began around 1936, and has not let up since.  The city is literally drinking its way into the ground.

From the mid-1960’s it was considered that this entire process could be mitigated or even halted if nuclear power were used to, first, desalinate large amounts of water for the explosively growing population in and around Mexico City and then, second, pump it there from the coast.  Another proposal from the 60’s was to stop using the clay below Mexico City and instead use the better supply of water from the nearby Texcoco Basin; nuclear power could be used here as well, to provide the necessary energy.  The original idea was that once the Texcoco Basin was lowered in elevation sufficiently it could then be filled with water to recreate the Lake Texcoco of ancient times, which then would be a reservoir for the city. (1)

Regardless of the solution the Mexico City subsidence problem still exists today; for 50 years it’s been recognized that nuclear energy could play a major role in providing the large amounts of power required to solve it at a stroke.

WHAT NEXT?

According to Mexico News Daily there will be a new nuclear power feasibility study issued by CFE by July 2020.  Of course, this study will represent the easy part; the much more difficult part will be the testing and swaying of public opinion.  Given that nuclear energy might be called for to help solve serious societal problems such as cost and availability of power, resilience of grid and maybe even someday the whole Mexico City water problem, the sell to the public might not be as hard as one might first imagine.  Real world problems have a way of eliminating imagined fears.

References:  (1) “The Texcoco Project,” Carlos Graef Fernandez, Director of Nuclear Center of Mexico – as published in “Water Production Using Nuclear Energy,” Post and Steele, editors; University of Arizona Press, Tuscon 1966.

Will DavisWill Davis has been a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and wrote his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves as Vice Chair of ANS’ Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.  He enjoys collecting typewriters, calculators and model trains and especially spending time with his nephew, Dawson.  

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