Going fission

11 August 2008

T hese days the modern power utility's portfolio of potential generation investment options is bewilderingly diverse, from 2 kWe fuel cell based domestic micro CHP (which Nuon, for example, is taking very seriously, see pp 40-41) to 1000 MWe ultrasupercritical coal fired plants (as favoured in China, where no less than 56 such units are currently in the ordering phase, see pp 25-28) and of course renewables, for example integrated solar combined cycle, if you have the weather for it, a suitable piece of desert and a convenient source of natural gas (see pp 35-36).

Nuclear power is also back on the agenda in no uncertain terms. Of course there are several countries where the notion of constructing new nuclear units has never really gone away, eg Korea, which has been working steadily away on developing its indigenous nuclear capabilities and has just embarked on the building of the first of a new generation of nuclear plant, the APR1400, featuring the largest 60 Hz steam turbines ever built, see pp 17-20). Fairly substantial new plant construction programmes are also in progress in China and India (about six units each), while work is also currently underway on a smattering of twenty or so further units around the world, in countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Japan, Argentina, Iran, Pakistan, France and Finland.

But recently some serious plans for substantial acceleration of new nuclear build have been proposed around the world, which is an extraordinary turnaround for an industry that not so long ago seemed to be in a state of terminal decline, with nuclear power apparently a lost cause in many places, notably in parts of western Europe and in the USA. Worries about supply security, fossil fuel prices and carbon dioxide have changed all that.

In addition to the 30 or so reactors currently under construction, there are about 35 planned units scheduled to enter operation over the next ten years, but when we look beyond that time horizon the pipeline of planned new nuclear units grows rather impressively, to well over 200 new reactors spread over a very wide range of countries – although it remains to be seen of course how many of these progress to the construction phase.

Amazingly, some nuclear construction activity is once again getting underway in the USA, after a very long hiatus, with the Tennessee Valley Authority's decision to complete the Watts Bar 2 PWR. This unit was suspended in 1985 at 80% completion. But work is now being resumed, with Westinghouse (Toshiba) awarded a contract on the nuclear side and Siemens contracted to refurbish and upgrade the turbine island. Watts Bar 2 is projected to enter commercial service in 2012, about 42 years after the initial order was placed – surely a record, even for an industry that historically has been no stranger to drawn out construction schedules.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act and other initiatives have successfully incentivised the planning of a number of new nuclear units in the USA – with about 30 now under consideration – although there is still some way to go before any of these get to the point of actually being constructed and some difficult decisions lie ahead, not least on the financing in these hyperinflationary times (with some estimates suggesting overnight costs for nuclear new build are now in the region of $6000/kW and rising).

Meanwhile, the blackout prone South Africans are looking at adding 20 GWe, or even 40 GWe, of new nuclear capacity to their system, Ontario is seeking nuclear plant bids, the Turks are talking about nuclear power again – although their project has been under discussion for two or three decades at least – and there is increasing interest in the Middle East, notably in the UAE, where Areva, Suez and, remarkably, oil giant Total, are partnering to submit a proposal for two 1600 MWe EPRs. And the delays at the Olkiluoto 3 EPR project – in a large part attributable to going to site with too little of the detailed design complete – do not seem to have deterred the Finns, who are looking at the possibility of another new nuclear unit.

It has even been suggested (by Anne Lauvergeon of Areva) that the World Bank may be softening its attitude to lending on nuclear projects in developing countries, although there is not much public evidence for this as yet (but it is worth noting that the Bank's recent report "Clean energy and development: towards an investment framework" at least includes the word "fission" and recognises it as one of the available low carbon technologies). The Bank has not lent on a nuclear new build project since 1959 when it provided a loan to Italy for its pioneering Garigliano BWR.

Speaking of Italy, Enel also harbours hopes of a nuclear revival. Enel may be the national utility of a country that renounced nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl (and closed down all its units, meaning that Italy is now the only G8 country with no nuclear power stations in operation). But that has not stopped it cultivating nuclear interests outside Italy in recent years following enactment of a law in 2004 allowing joint ventures. Enel, for example, has a 12.5% share in the Flamanville 3 EPR under construction in France, it owns Slovak VVER pressurised water reactors through its 66% stake in Slovenske Elektrarne and has recently joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which aims to promote a proliferation resistant international system for spent fuel reprocessing.

But currently in Europe it is the government of the UK that seems to be making the running in its upfront support for a revival of nuclear power. Particularly important here are the efforts being made to streamline and rationalise the permitting and safety licensing process, including much better co-operation with nuclear regulators in other countries and a willingness to take on board their findings rather than an insistence on "reinventing the wheel" at great cost. The delays and excessive expenditures that beset the planning consent process for the UK's last nuclear new build project, Sizewell B, which, among other things, featured 340 days of public hearings of very questionable value, cost about £30 million, and took around six years, must be avoided.

Twenty years ago – MPS April 1985

"CSIRO has developed an ultra-clean coal which is a viable alternative to the heavy fuel oils being used in Japan and many other industrial countries."

"China's power generation capacity has exceeded 100 000 MW, but there is still a power shortage." (China’s current installed capacity is about 720 GWe but the shortages persist)

"The first contract has been signed for a revised type of 1000 MW reactor produced by the Skoda Plzen enterprise... [to be] installed at the Belene station, Bulgaria."

"During 1987, the number of on-line nuclear power plants exceeded 400 for the first time, ending the year with 404 operating in 26 countries." (The number of reactors is now 440)

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