The nuclear renaissance takes off

Some 40 nuclear reactors are now under construction around the world, and almost a hundred more are in various stages of planning. The much talked about renaissance is under way, says Chris Webb.

Chris Webb

The civil nuclear power industry has seen a remarkable turn-around in its fortunes in the last five years. It is fast becoming a booming global business, with spending on new reactors expected to top $350 billion over the next decade alone.


The 6.6 GW Bruce B nuclear facility in Ontario, Canada
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There are currently some 435 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries (World Nuclear Association, WNA). But that figure is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Nuclear power, in step with growing global demand for energy, will continue expanding into the next two decades, according to the 2008 edition of Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period to 2030, recently published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA report into the prospects for nuclear power, produced every year since 1981, provides high and low projections. The low projection assumes that all nuclear capacity currently under construction or in the development pipeline gets constructed and current policies, such as phaseouts, remain unchanged. In such a scenario there will be growth in nuclear electricity production capacity to 473 GW from its current 372 GW.

The IAEAà‚´s high projection, based on government and corporate announcements about longer term plans for nuclear investments, as well as potential new national policies such as responses to new international environmental agreements to combat climate change, estimates nuclear power electricity capacity will double to 748 GW by 2030.

Rising costs of natural gas and coal, coupled with energy supply security and environmental constraints are among factors contributing to nuclearà‚´s growth, said Hans-Holger Rogner, head of the IAEAà‚´s Nuclear Energy Planning and Economic Studies section.

“The IAEAà‚´s higher projection is in step with an anticipated level of 3.2 per cent annual growth in global power generation,” he said. “In the low projection, overall global electricity annual growth is 1.9 per cent and nuclear powerà‚´s share is projected to drop to about 12.5 per cent by 2030.”

A look at projected world population growth offers an insight into the urgency to boost electricity generation capacity in the 21st century. Today, a global population of 6.6 billion is closing on 9 billion by 2050, and energy demand is expected to grow explosively to meet human needs and aspirations worldwide.

A MORE SUSTAINABLE PATH

What is certain is that the current path is unsustainable. A United Nations panel composed of the world’s leading earth scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must, by 2050, be cut by 70 per cent to avert catastrophic change in our planet’s climate system. The crucial task in cutting GHGs is to decarbonize an ever-expanding worldwide energy system.

Nowhere is this more evident than in China, whose economy is expanding rapidly and where fossil fuelled power stations are being commissioned at the rate of one a week. Most of mainland China’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels (about 80 per cent, mainly coal) and hydropower (about 18 per cent). The Daya Bay power station in south China’s Guangdong Province, was the first large-scale commercial nuclear power station on the Chinese mainland, and has notched 15 consecutive years of safe and stable operation.

Now China is progressing with an ambitious programme of nuclear power plant construction. It is expanding nuclear power construction plans much faster than earlier planned, with a new target for installed power capacity by 2020 of around 50 per cent above an earlier goal. China’s nuclear energy development plan had called for operating power capacity to hit 40 GW by 2020, enough to power Spain but contributing just 4 per cent of total generating capacity.

Mainland China has 11 nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, seven under construction, and ten more about to start construction (WNA). Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give a six-fold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 50 GW or possibly 60 GW by 2020 and then a further three to fourfold increase to 120-160 GW by 2030.

TURNING JAPANESE

Japan has also avidly embraced nuclear power. More than four decades have passed since Japan’s first commercial nuclear power plant began operation in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1966. As of 2008, Japan had 55 reactors operating around the country with a total output of 49 GW, representing one-third of the country’s total electric power output.

As an island country, it is not possible for Japan to exchange energy with neighbouring countries through power transmission lines or pipelines. Japan is also energy-scarce, depending on foreign countries for about 80 per cent of its energy resources. These conditions are completely different from those of Europe or the US.

Consequently, the Japanese government considers it is rational to continue making the fullest possible use of nuclear power generation as one of the mainstays of the nation’s energy supply. Japan has a full fuel cycle set up, including enrichment and reprocessing used fuel for recycle and wants to generate 40 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2017.

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EUROPEAN DREAMS

In Europe, interest in developing new nuclear power capacity is heating up. Yet historically in Europe the record of new nuclear power plant construction, in terms of completing them to programme and on budget has not been good. And the industry has much to prove if it is to polish up its image. This has been highlighted recently in Finland, where a Franco-German Areva-Siemens consortium is currently constructing the Olkiluoto-3 European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) unit, which has run into severe delays and related cost problems.

The client, Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO), said last year that it had received a request from Areva-Siemens for arbitration over the matter. Last October, TVO was told by Areva-Siemens that the 1600 MW unit would be delayed to 2012 from its initial start-up target date of this year.

Delays and cost over-runs notwithstanding, even in Germany, which has elected to be nuclear-free, there are signs of a possible return to the technology. The German Atomic Forum recently underlined the need for new baseload nuclear power in Europe following the row over gas supplies by Russia to Ukraine.

The body’s president, Walter Hohlefelder, commenting on the gas pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine, noted that some EU member states experienced sharp reductions in gas supply while others received no gas at all. Hohlefelder said nuclear power could not be ignored when it comes to planning secure energy supplies. He said while there were “good arguments” for having modern gas fired power plants, their use in providing a baseload energy supply was inappropriate. “The current gas dispute shows how necessary it is to have a broad energy mix in the future,” he said.

ENERGY IN THE UK

Significantly, the UK is proceeding with plans to make it easier for generators to develop new capacity. Britain was the first country to embrace civil nuclear power with the opening in 1956 of the Calder Hall plant in Cumbria. But a succession of design changes to its home-bred gas-cooled reactor technologies meant it failed to reap the commercial benefits of standardisation as did, for example, the boiling water and pressurized water reactors developed in Russia, France and the US. As a consequence, Britain was forced to adopt a largely American design for its latest plant, Sizewell B.

While a UK government Energy White Paper largely ruled out nuclear power as recently as 2003, energy security issues and the wish to develop a low carbon electricity industry subsequently prompted a profound U-turn over policy. By May 2007, energy giants in Europe and elsewhere were queuing up to prepare for new nuclear power plants in the UK.

Westinghouse, EDF and British Energy all claimed to be in the running for possible new nuclear build projects, with Westinghouse declaring it had submitted its AP1000 pressurised water reactor for UK design acceptance to the Nuclear Directorate of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive. Westinghouse believed it had a major lead, saying the AP1000 was the only third generation design to receive design certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and had been chosen for ten new reactor licence applications to the NRC. It had also been chosen for four new units in China.

EDF, which completed its $18 billion acquisition of British Energy at the beginning of this year, said it was determined to help with the construction of new nuclear power plants in the UK. The company pointed out that most of the UK’s nuclear and coal capacity is closing over the next 15 years, leaving an energy gap of 15-33 GW by the end of 2015 and 33-52 GW by 2025.

The company said it could deliver the UK’s first new nuclear power plant in more than a decade by 2017 and have a total of four built by 2025. Moreover, in its submission to the British government’s consultation on possible new build, EDF said the government’s presumption that new nuclear is unlikely to make a significant contribution until 2020 was “unduly conservative”. It said it would be applying to the British authorities for certification of the EPR technology employed at Flamanville-3 in Normandy, France.

Meanwhile, the big utilities with existing interests in the UK are continuing to keep their options open, spurred by the British government’s view that new nuclear power could be a key building block for a low carbon future. Last year, RWE npower was among those lining up to invest, securing grid connections for a potential new nuclear power plant in the UK and acquiring options to buy land close to an existing Magnox nuclear power plant at Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales. RWE, along with other generators, has called on the government to provide clarity over energy policy to allow for investment in a diverse mix of power generation.


A Magnox storage pond at Sellafield, UK
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France’s Areva group wants to build at least two EPRs in the UK. Areva said last year that it had reached agreement with Balfour Beatty and Rolls-Royce aimed at assessing the actions needed to deliver a fleet of EPRs and develop what it calls an ‘up-skilling programme’.

The move followed a similar initiative by E.ON, which is creating a joint UK-based team with staff from Areva and Siemens with the intention of developing EPRs in the country.

After the government’s announcement in January 2008 that it was in the public interest for new nuclear power stations to play a role in the UK’s future energy mix, along with other low carbon energy sources, E.ON signed a letter of intent with the Areva group to cooperate on building new nuclear power plants and the further development of nuclear power.

At the same time the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) reviewed its original 2005/06 study on the ‘UK capability to deliver a new nuclear build programme’. The result was four designs successfully passing a key stage of the government’s generic design assessment (GDA). They were AECL’s ACR 1000 (a 1165 MW, CANDU design), Areva’s EPR (1650 MW, PWR), the ESBWR (1550 MW, BWR) from GE-Hitachi and the Westinghouse AP1000 (1100 MW, PWR). However, later AECL was to pull out of the race, having decided to concentrate on its home market.

CANDU CAN-DO

That home market is in Canada, where the hugely respected CANDU technology has brought considerable success to Bruce Power, the country’s giant private generator. Bruce recently announced it would conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) as it considers building a new nuclear generating station in the Haldimand-Norfolk region of southern Ontario.

The assessment, which could take nearly three years to complete, will examine the environmental and social impacts of building two reactors to generate between 2000 MW and 3000 MW of low-emission capacity. It will also consider how other clean energy sources such as hydrogen, solar and wind could complement nuclear in the area.

Last November, Bruce said nuclear power could also contribute 1000 MW of electricity to Saskatchewan’s generation mix by 2020, according to a feasibility study. The study concluded that a region spanning from Lloydminster, including the Battlefords and Prince Albert, was the most viable host for a nuclear facility. It is estimated that a new plant would create 2000 jobs during construction and 1000 permanent jobs over 60 years of operation.

With the feasibility study now complete, the company will work with SaskPower to investigate future power demand, possible improvements to Saskatchewan’s electrical grid and the potential role nuclear power could play in both the province’s energy mix and potential power export markets.

South Korea has long had a major presence on the global nuclear power radar. Recently it announced it is planning to build four new nuclear reactor units by 2022 as part of a national plan to reduce carbon emissions and meet an expected increase in electricity demand of 2.1 per cent.

The Korea Atomic Industrial Forum (KAIF) and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE) announced the proposal last December. KAIF said the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear will increase from the current 35.5 per cent to 47.9 per cent in 2022. South Korea has 20 nuclear units in commercial operation and five listed by the IAEA as under construction.

One of the biggest markets for nuclear power is in India, and since the controversial lifting of restrictions on transferring nuclear technology to that country, several global nuclear power operators have shown a keen interest in helping it build new plants.

The US became the latest contender in the race to supply nuclear power equipment worth an estimated $150 billion to the country. It joins manufacturers in France, Russia and elsewhere in the scramble to supply one of the world’s biggest potential markets. The United States sent its largest ever trade mission to Delhi and Mumbai, including representatives of no fewer than 30 companies involved in civilian nuclear technology, to pitch for contracts in India’s atomic energy industry.

Reports say the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCI) has begun preliminary discussions with General Electric and Westinghouse. Others interested in a share of the market include Bechtel, Shaw Group and Babcock & Wilcox.

REBORN IN THE USA

In the US itself, no new nuclear power plants have been built in almost 30 years, largely because they have been seen to be poor investments, producing far more expensive electricity than originally promised. In 2005, about 19 per cent of the country’s electricity generation was produced by 104 nuclear reactors.

Yet there is renewed interest in nuclear power in the USA. Companies have filed applications to build 26 reactors. Congress has approved $18.5 billion in loan guarantees and other subsidies, and President-elect Barack Obama has indicated that he strongly supports nuclear power as part of a broader clean energy programme.

A combined operating licence (COL) that could lead to two US-Advanced Pressurised Water Reactors (US-APWR) being built has been formally accepted for review by regulators. The NRC said it had docketed the COL for the proposed 1700 MW units at the existing Comanche Peak nuclear power plant site in the state of Texas.

Comanche Peak’s operator, US utility Luminant Generation, says the application is for a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) US-APWR design, which is currently being reviewed by the NRC, a process that is expected to continue until at least 2011. Luminant selected the US-APWR as its technology of choice in 2007 and last September MHI announced plans for a joint venture company with Luminant for the potential development of the new Comanche Peak units.

Elsewhere in the US, a bid by EDF to acquire a 50 per cent stake in US utility Constellation Energy’s nuclear generation and operation business was accepted. EDF’s $4.5 billion deal follows an existing partnership with Constellation through their UniStar joint venture to build, own and operate new nuclear generation. Constellation Energy Nuclear Group owns 3869 MW of nuclear generating capacity, which consists of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland, and the Nine Mile Point and R E Ginna plants in the state of New York.

Earlier this year, a Shaw Group/Westinghouse joint venture was awarded an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract by another major utility, Progress Energy for two Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear units the utility plans to build in, Florida.

Without disclosing the value of the contract, the company said the decision by Progress Energy to proceed with an EPC contract was “further proof” that electric utilities support a nuclear renaissance.

Last August, Progress Energy also submitted a COL application for a further two units. A decision by the NRC is expected by early 2012. If the company decides to build the units, site preparations could begin as early as next year, with construction commencing in 2012. Commercial operation of the first unit is scheduled for 2016 with the second unit following in 2017.

Nuclear groups are hailing the renewed interest in carbon-free generation as a victory for the industry. The sustainability of nuclear power’s renaissance will depend, however, largely on efforts to mitigate nuclear waste, and how it is subsequently dealt with; that, and the issue of ultimate decommissioning costs. And to that extent, much of the arithmetic remains to be done.

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