Units 1 and 2 of the Taishan EPR nuclear plant, which is currently under construction in China Source: Areva
Units 1 and 2 of the Taishan EPR nuclear plant, which is currently under construction in China Source: Areva

The nuclear power programmes of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) are at different levels of progress, but some are already having an impact on the global sector.

Penny Hitchin

As economies develop, their demand for power grows. The BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – currently account for nearly a quarter of world GDP but this figure is set to soar.

New power stations are needed and the imperative is to establish affordable, low-carbon energy from secure sources of supply. In pursuit of this goal, each of the four BRIC nations now has nuclear reactors, which collectively generate more than 11 per cent of global nuclear-fuelled electricity.

Russia started nuclear generation more than 50 years ago, India more than 40 years ago, Brazil in 1982 and China in 1994. Russia, India and China all have ambitious expansion plans for nuclear power – and Russia and China are increasingly keen to find opportunities to export nuclear goods and services.

China currently accounts for 41 per cent of reactors under construction globally, and India 11 per cent. Russia plans to double nuclear output by 2020. But Brazil is the BRIC’s nuclear minnow with only modest plans for future nuclear generation.

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in March 2011 slowed nuclear development worldwide. Some governments decided to phase out nuclear power and abandoned plans for new nuclear. But the BRICs pressed on.

China suspended approvals for nuclear reactors for a few months while it designed a new nuclear regulatory regime and in June 2011 it resumed its nuclear expansion programme. Russia implemented checks on its nuclear plants and in June 2011 announced a 15 billion rouble ($530 million) national nuclear safety upgrade programme to install additional power and water supply back-up. In India, task forces introduced safety recommendations to improve the safety of reactors in use. Brazil carried out security checks at its two reactors and, finding no risk of a similar accident, let its nuclear programme continue.

Russia: aims for transition to fast reactors

Russia currently produces more than 17.5 per cent of its electricity from nuclear generation. Across ten power stations run by Rosenergoatom (Rosatom), the country has over 30 operational reactors, the world’s fourth largest fleet behind the US, France and Japan. Eleven more reactors are under construction.

Table 1

Although Russia has been generating commercial nuclear power for more than five decades using its own reactor designs, new nuclear development ground to a halt after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, followed by the Soviet Union’s disintegration. The industry picked up towards the end of the century, when Russia secured deals to export reactors to Iran, China and India. Early this century the domestic nuclear construction programme then revived. The last 15 years have also brought a marked rise in the efficiency of Russia’s nuclear reactors.

In June 2010, Russia’s government approved plans for 173 GW of new generating capacity by 2030, of which 43.4 GW will come from nuclear. The government’s 2010 Federal Target Programme (FTP) set out plans for nuclear’s share in electricity supply to hit 25–30 per cent by 2030, 50 per cent by 2050 and 70–80 per cent by 2100.

Russia’s existing nuclear reactors consist of 17 pressurised water reactors (PWRs), 13 light water graphite reactors, and one BN-600 fast–breeder reactor. The capacity totals 24 164 MW. Five older reactors are permanently shut down.

Table 2

The FTP assumes development of VVER (Vodo-Vodyanoi Energetichesky Reactor) PWR technology this decade. But Russia is a world leader in fast neutron reactor technology and Rosatom’s strategy to 2050 involves a transition to fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle using MOX fuel. Fast reactors are projected to generate 14 GW by 2030 and 34 GW by 2050.

Reactors currently being constructed include seven VVERs – each of about 1200 MW – two small reactors to serve as floating power modules supplying power and heat to isolated coastal towns, and Russia’s first Generation III fast reactor, the Beloyarsk-4 BN-800. This is due to be ready for testing and commissioning this year, with first criticality in September 2014. The first unit is intended to demonstrate the use of MOX fuel made from weapons-grade plutonium at industrial scale, validating the closed fuel cycle technology.

Russia is also developing the BN-1200 fast reactor but this is unlikely to be operational this decade.

China: expansion and localisation

China may have been the last BRIC nations to start nuclear generation but it unquestionably plans the fastest expansion. With 14 reactors coming into operation in less than 20 years and more than two dozen new reactor builds underway, mainland China is the world’s leading nuclear construction hotspot. Nuclear capacity currently totals 10.8 GW, but China’s ambitious plans are for at least 60 GW by 2020, 200 GW by 2030, and 400 GW by 2050.

China used foreign technology and expertise to kick-start its commercial nuclear power programme but is rapidly becoming self-sufficient in reactor design, build, operation and fuel-cycle management. Construction of the first commercial reactors, 994 MW French PWR units supplied by Framatome (now Areva), was managed by French utility EDF working with Chinese engineers. Generation started in 1994 and 1995. The next two reactors using the same technology started generating commercially in 2002 and 2003, and featured 30 per cent localisation. The CPR-1000 (Chinese Pressurised Reactor) derived from this work can now be entirely manufactured in China, although the licence prohibits exporting the design.

China’s first ‘home-grown’ nuclear power plant was a 300 MW PWR (CNP-300) which started operating in 1994. The first upgraded 600 MW PWR (CNP-600) entered commercial operation in April 2002 and the second in May 2004.

Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) has built two CANDU reactors in China. The 665 MW pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) came into operation in 2002 and 2003, but no further PHWRs are planned.

Russian PWR technology was used at Tianwan where two 1060 MW VVER reactors with western instrument and control systems were built under a co-operation agreement. The first unit entered commercial operation in June 2007 and the second a year later. More VVER reactors are due to follow.

Eight years ago China sought overseas bids to build four big Generation III reactors and to transfer technology so that it could swiftly develop localised production of new reactors. Westinghouse – in competition with Areva (EPR) and Atomstroyexport (VVER-1000 model V-392) – won the bid with its AP1000. With the build and technology transfer programmes now well underway, the localised CAP 1000 will join the CPR 1000 as the mainstay of China’s nuclear expansion programme. There are plans to design 1400+ MW versions of both reactors.

In a separate contract, without the technology transfer element, Areva is building two1650 MW EPR reactors.

In the longer term, China is eyeing fast neutron reactors. The 65 MW Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) achieved criticality in July 2010 and was grid-connected in 2011. A Chinese Demonstration Fast Reactor (CDFR) project is due to start construction in 2017 for commissioning 2022. Another fast neutron project is for two 880 MW Russian BN-800 fast reactors at Sanming, which were due to start operation in 2019 and 2020, although financial negotiations have delayed the project.

India: embracing foreign technology

India operates 20 nuclear power reactors with a combined capacity of 4 GW. Another five reactors are under construction but the nation plans an ambitious roll-out to get 14 600 MW of nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 27 500 MW by 2024. By 2050, India plans to supply a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power. To meet these objectives, massive investment and development are clearly vital.

In June , the reactor pressure vessel of Taishan Unit 1 was successfully lowered into place Source: Areva
In June , the reactor pressure vessel of Taishan Unit 1 was successfully lowered into place Source: Areva

Official foreign nuclear co-operation was interrupted by India’s nuclear weapons test in 1974, stopping imports of nuclear technology and fuel for many years. In 2009, the ban on nuclear technology export to India was lifted and it now imports technology from the US, France and Russia, although its recent Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act has raised concern among potential foreign suppliers over the extent of third-party liability.

India’s nuclear strategy – intended to deliver energy security beyond 2050 – is a three-stage programme. The first stage involves building and operating PHWRs using India’s available but limited uranium resource, producing electricity and plutonium. The second stage is to develop plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactors producing electricity and more plutonium and uranium-233 from thorium – India leads the world in research into the thorium fuel cycle and has considerable thorium resources. The plan’s third stage is for reactors based on the thorium cycle to produce electricity and uranium-233.

India’s first reactors, two 150 MWe Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) built on a turnkey contract by GE, started operating in 1969. The remaining 18 operational reactors are PHWRs ranging in capacity from 90 MW to 490 MW. The first was built in collaboration with AECL and started generating in 1972.

India’s self-sufficiency has not always led to efficiency. Delays plague construction and operational targets have rarely been met. The 2011 lifetime load factor of 57.3 per cent is the lowest in the world. Four 700 MW PHWR reactors are currently being built and are due on line by 2017.

India’s first large PWR nuclear station, consisting of two VVER-1000 reactors, is being built at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. In 2010, India signed agreements with Areva for the first two in a series of six reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, plus the supply of fuel, but the contract has not yet been finalised. In June 2012 Westinghouse and Nuclear Power Corporation of Inia Ltd signed a memorandum of understanding supporting future construction of AP1000 reactors at Mithivirdi in Gujarat.

Issues around insurance and finance will need to be settled before India can have confidence that its nuclear expansion plans are realisable.

Brazil: stop–start programme

Brazil has the smallest nuclear sector of the four BRIC nations and – unlike the other three – it only uses imported technology. After following an erratic approch to nuclear power over the last four deades, Brazil now has two operational reactors and one under construction.

Brazil’s nuclear involvement started in 1971 when the government awarded a turnkey contract to Westinghouse to build its first reactor at Angra, a coastal site between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The 626 MW Angra 1 PWR started commercial operation in 1985.

In 1975, the government, seeking nuclear self-sufficiency, signed an agreement with West Germany to supply eight 1300 MW reactors over 15 years. The deal included a technology transfer agreement intended to establish a Brazilian supply chain to manufacture the bulk of the components. But Brazil’s economic problems scuppered the scheme at an early stage. Construction of the 1270 MW Angra 2 PWR resumed only in 1995 and the reactor started generating in 2000.

Today, Angra 1 and 2 form Brazil’s entire nuclear fleet, with a combined capacity of 1896 MW, which delivered 3.2 per cent of its electricity in 2011.

Construction of Angra 3, designed to be a twin of unit 2, started in 1984 but was suspended within two years. In November 2006, the government resurrected its nuclear ambitions and announced plans to complete Angra 3 and build another four 1000 MW nuclear plants. In 2008, Brazil’s nuclear utility Eletronuclear agreed a deal with Areva to complete construction of Angra 3. Work resumed in 2010, but the plant is not expected to operate until 2016, at the earliest.

To enlarge the country’s nuclear energy capacity, Electronuclear considered Westinghouse’s AP1000, Areva-Mitsubishi’s Atmea-1 and Atomstroyexport’s VVER-1000 technologies. The utility’s initial siting studies have looked at locations in the country’s northeast, as well as at Angra and elsewhere in the south.

In May 2012, the government said that construction of any new plants would not commence until after 2020. Nuclear’s high-capital cost and the growth of renewable energy contributed to this decision along with strikingly poor public acceptance of nuclear – Brazil was ranked last in an IPSOS 24-country study, which found that 89 per cent of its population is against nuclear power.

Exporting nuclear services

Russia and China both have an eye on opportunities for exporting nuclear technologies and services. Russia has exported VVER reactors to Iran, China and India, while China has built two CNP-300 reactors in Pakistan.

Table 3

Russian and Chinese companies are reported to be seeking a foothold in UK nuclear power generation by buying Horizon Nuclear Power, a joint venture owned by RWE and E.ON. The joint venture is currently up for sale after its parent companies quit UK nuclear, citing concerns over the current economic viability of nuclear power in Britain.

China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation and Westinghouse could be in competition over Horizon with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation aligned with Areva. Both reactor designs, the AP1000 and the EPR, are under construction in China, and both Westinghouse and Areva have established tie-ups with the Chinese firms.

Rosatom is also believed to be interested in the UK nuclear market, but its VVER reactors would have to undergo a lengthy regulatory Generic Design Approval process, making that an unlikely deal.

BRIC’s role in future technology

Although nuclear power is an established technology, it is very much a work in progress. The uranium-based nuclear reactor is inefficient and burns only a small proportion of the highest quality fuel, leaving a lot of radioactive material. The relationship between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, the unresolved issue of long-term nuclear waste management, and ongoing safety and security challenges all mean that the drive to improve nuclear generation technology is vital if nuclear energy is to be safe, secure and affordable.

Russia is a world leader in fast reactor technology development. India leads world research into thorium reactors and China has active research programmes for both thorium and fast reactors. These three countries share a desire to make nuclear a mainstay of their electricity generation and are committed to development of the technology. In the decades ahead they could be world leaders in a new generation of nuclear generation.

UAE: on a fast track to join the nuclear power ‘club’?

About 30 countries operate commercial nuclear power reactors and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to be the next. Construction of the first of four new reactors is reported to have started, with production of the first nuclear power scheduled to start in 2017.

The UAE decided in 2008 that nuclear energy was the way to meet its projected rise in electricity demand from 15.5 GW in 2008 to more than 40 GW by 2020. Developing a nuclear power programme means investing in a capital-intensive, hazardous and highly technical industry requiring a lot of infrastructure. Historically, it has been a slow and expensive business, requiring government commitment, ongoing R&D, a complex regulatory regime, skilled staff, a supply chain and arrangements for spent fuel and radioactive waste management.

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) was set up to devise and implement plans. The UAE is using joint venture arrangements to create a nuclear industry within a decade by buying in established technology, skills and systems. The UAE sought bids to supply 5 GW of nuclear power by 2020 with another 15 GW to follow using standardised reactor technology. By mid-2009, ENEC had a short list of three bidders promoting their own reactor design. Areva’s Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) was backed by a consortium of Areva, Suez and Total. GE-Hitachi proposed its Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), while a Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) consortium offered its APR1400 PWR.

In December 2009, the KEPCO consortium, which comprises Samsung, Hyundai and Doosan, was awarded a $20 billion contract to build four APR1400 reactors in the UAE. The foreign joint venture partners will supply the fuel and take responsibility for spent fuel. Operating the reactors for 60 years will double the value of the contract.

KEPCO operates 20 generators in Korea, but this was its first reactor export project. The Generation III advanced PWR design was certified by the Korean regulators in 2003 and the first units, being built at Shin-Kori in Korea, are due to enter commercial operation in 2013 and 2014. These units will be the ‘reference plants’ for the UAE. The reactor has a projected 48 month construction period and a 60-year design life.

UAE is fast-tracking the build up of infrastructure and skills. Its Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), set up in 2009, has close links with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the two-step licensing reviews, issuing a Construction License followed by an Operating License is based on the US model.

ENEC expects to employ over 2000 people by 2020, and has a target of 60 per cent of them being from the Emirates. An ambitious training programme is being set up, which includes placements in Korea, Japan and the USA.

As to the vexed issue of nuclear waste, UAE says it is developing a national storage and disposal programme in parallel with exploring regional cooperation options.