Tag Archives: new nuclear construction

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.

UK nuclear new build faces new landscape of vendors

Areva and Chinese partner pull out of bidding for Horizon

By Dan Yurman

When two German utilities, RWE and E.on, dropped their plans to develop the Horizon project—6 Gwe of nuclear power at two new sites in the United Kingdom —disappointment in their departure was tempered by the appearance of three bid teams seeking to acquire the joint venture. Yet, when the bids were opened, a widely anticipated joint proposal from Areva and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG) was not among them.

Areva’s decision to drop out just three months after making a media splash with its announcement to proceed with a bid left nuclear industry analysts scratching their heads over the about-face. Neither Areva nor CGNPG gave any reasons for it.

The joint French-Chinese effort was widely expected to offer Areva’s 1600-MW EPR design similar to the units now under construction in Finland, France, and China. Chinese financial backing from a state sovereign wealth fund would have provided the upfront money needed to acquire the Horizon project.

The withdrawal by Areva leaves two other bid teams in place. One is a consortium led by Japan’s Hitachi and the other is a group headed by Westinghouse, which also had reportedly been in talks with China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Group. Westinghouse, which is owned by Japan’s Toshiba Corp., came forward with a bid without Chinese backing, however.

This month Toshiba bought back a 20-percent stake in Westinghouse from The Shaw Group, which is slated to merge with Chicago Bridge & Iron. Industry observers feel that Toshiba will eventually offer that stake to new investors to free up the capital.

The current situation favors Westinghouse, which has completed most of the steps required to obtain the necessary safety certification from the government to build its AP1000 design in the UK.

Areva has also pursued safety certification of its EPR design in the UK, but reportedly has a list of issues to be resolved with the regulatory agency that has responsibility for nuclear reactor safety. In December 2011, the UK’s Office of Nuclear Regulation issued an “interim approval” of both the EPR and the AP1000. Neither Westinghouse nor Areva wants to move forward to complete the costly regulatory process without a firm order in hand from a UK customer.

That said, Areva is still further along by several years than Hitachi, which hasn’t even started the process. It is expected, as part of its bid for the Horizon project, to offer the new 1500-MW ESBWR design. Hitachi is teamed with Canada’s SNC-Lavalin, which now owns the reactor division of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Another option might be a CANDU design. Like the ESBWR, however, it would be starting from scratch to obtain a safety certification in the UK.

China’s entry into the UK nuclear market wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. Compounding security fears about the UK becoming dependent on Chinese financing were reports that Russia’s Rosatom might try to enter the UK nuclear market as well. While neither country has a place at the table at this time, public and government perceptions of their respective roles would result in stepped up scrutiny on two entities that have a long history of resisting that kind of transparency.

EDF has also reportedly been in talks with Chinese state-owned firms with an eye toward getting them to take a 20-percent stake in two other nuclear power stations. These deals would likely involve Areva EPR reactor designs and financing from Chinese and UK sources.

The question of the extent of Chinese financial interest in the UK nuclear new build may turn on recent news that China will restart its domestic nuclear new build by the end of 2012. China at one time was said to be committed to build upwards of 80 GWe of new nuclear electrical generation capacity, but now it may build far less. Demand for coal-fired electrical power has fallen due to a cooling off of China’s economy. Also, China’s top leaders may be rethinking how many of the older CPR-1000 units to build relative to the safety features of the Westinghouse AP1000.

China has a long-term goal of becoming an exporter of nuclear technology, based on a 1400-MW version of the Westinghouse AP1000. That design won’t be ready for another few years, but cash infusions in Western projects would display China’s growing desire to be a player in the global nuclear market. How much money China would put up remains to be seen, especially if balanced against domestic energy needs.

Czech CEZ rejects Areva for Temelin

While Areva was pulling out of bidding on the Horizon project in the UK,  it suffered an unexpected setback in its effort to win the bid to build two new reactors at Temlin. The deal is expected to be worth about $10 billion.

CEZ, the Czech state-owned electric utility that operates Temelin, said on October 5 that it was disqualifying Areva from the bid process. The utility said that it took the action based on the failure of Areva’s bid to meet “legislative and commercial” requirements.

CEZ did not provide details of what was deficient in the Areva bid, only that there were “fundamental shortcomings” in it.

Areva said that it would appeal the decision, stating that it firmly believes that it has met all the conditions of the tender.

The action by CEZ, if upheld, would leave two other bidders for Temelin. They are Russia’s Rosatom and Toshiba’s Westinghouse.

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Dan Yurman is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

NRC approves two new reactors in South Carolina

By Laura Scheele

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 30 voted to clear the way for its Office of New Reactors to issue two licenses for two new AP1000 reactors at the V.C. Summer site in Parr, S.C. This marks the NRC’s second approval of nuclear units to be built in the United States in two months. In February, the NRC approved a license for Atlanta-based Southern Company’s Vogtle project, in Waynesboro, Ga. The NRC had not issued any new reactor licenses since 1978.

The five-member commission approved the license for the Summer project in a 4–1 vote, with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissenting. Jaczko was also the lone dissenting vote for the Vogtle license. The NRC’s news release on the Summer approval can be found here, and the NRC staff is expected to issue the combined operating license for the project within 10 business days.

The vote clears the way for SCANA subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) and Santee Cooper to build and operate the two new reactors at Summer. A SCANA spokesperson was quoted in The Augusta Chronicle as saying that about 1,000 workers have already been engaged in early site preparation for the project. The project will peak at about 3,000 long-term construction workers over three to four years, and the two units are expected to add as many as 800 permanent jobs when they start generating electricity. The Summer units are expected to begin operating in 2017 and 2018.

Soon there will be four new reactors with operating licenses in place under construction in the United States, and—with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s ongoing completion of Watts Bar-2 in Tennessee—five reactors total under construction.  Stay tuned to the ANS Nuclear Cafe for more coverage of the licensing decision.

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Laura Scheele is the Communications and Public Policy Manager for the American Nuclear Society.