A Double First in China for Advanced Nuclear Reactors

The world’s first AP1000 unit has connected to the grid at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province. Photo: SNPTC

Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane-crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.

Both of the design debuts happened in China late last month. On Thursday, 29 June, a 1,400-MW EPR designed in France and Germany synced up to the grid at the Taishan nuclear power plant. The next day the U.S.-designed 1,117-MW AP1000 delivered first power at China’s Sanmen plant.

Both projects are coming online years behind schedule, and they are still at least several months away from full commercial operation. But the real problem for the AP1000 and the EPR are the designs’ unfinished Western debuts.

Delays are commonplace in the nuclear industry. For instance, the Korean-built nuclear reactors originally due to begin starting up last year in the United Arab Emirates were recently pushed back to late 2019 or early 2020. But the AP1000 and EPR troubles are in a different league.

The AP1000 is designed to passively cool itself during an accidental shutdown, theoretically avoiding accidents like the one at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. But AP1000 developer Westinghouse declared bankruptcy last year due to construction troubles, particularly at dual-reactor plants for utilities in Georgia and South Carolina. The latter abandoned their pair of partially built AP1000s after investing US $9 billion. The Georgia plant, initiated in 2012, is projected to be completed five years late in 2022 and at a cost of $25 billion—$11 billion more than budgeted.

Delays for the EPR, whose dual-layered concrete shield protects against airplane strikes, contributed to the breakup of Paris-based nuclear giant Areva in 2015. And the first EPR projects in France and Finland remain troubled under French utility Electricité de France (EDF), which absorbed Areva’s reactor business, Fromatome. The Finnish plant, started in 2005 and expected to take four years, is currently slated for startup next year, and deadlines continue to come and go. In June, Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj announced that startup had slid another four months to September 2019.

The troubled EPR and AP1000 projects show that U.S. and European firms have lost competence in nuclear construction and management. ”It’s no coincidence that two of the four AP1000s in the U.S. were abandoned, and that the EPRs that started much earlier than Taishan’s in Finland and France are still under construction,” says nuclear energy consultant Mycle Schneider, principal author of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “The Chinese have a very large workforce that they move from one project to another, so their skills are actually getting better, whereas European and North American companies haven’t completed reactors in decades,” says Schneider.

This loss of nuclear competence is being cited by nuclear and national security experts in both the U.S. and in Europe’s nuclear weapons states as a threat to their military nuclear programs. The White House cited this nuclear nexus in a May memo instructing Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy, to force utilities to buy power from unprofitable nuclear and coal plants. The memo states that the “entire US nuclear enterprise” including nuclear weapons and naval propulsion, “depends on a robust civilian nuclear industry.”

A letter sent to Perry last month by 75 former U.S. military, industrial, and academic leaders adds to the nexus argument, citing a statement from the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review about the United States’ inability to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. “Re-establishing this capability will be far easier and more economical with a strong, thriving civil nuclear sector,” write the signatories.

Heavy dependence on China, meanwhile, puts the global nuclear industry in a vulnerable position. Total nuclear generation declined last year if one takes out China, notes Schneider. And he says a Chinese nuclear growth gap is coming, since it hasn’t started building a new reactor in 18 months.

For more than a decade, the AP1000 has been the presumed successor to China’s mainstay reactors, which employ a 1970s-era French design. Areva’s EPR was a fallback option. The Chinese government may now wait to see how the first reactors actually operate before it approves a new wave of reactor construction.

All the while, nuclear is falling further behind renewable solar and wind power. As Schneider notes, the 3.3 GW of new nuclear capacity connected to the grid worldwide in 2017 (including three in China and a fourth in Pakistan built by Chinese firms) pales in comparison to the 53 GW of solar power installed in China alone.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

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Bomb Cyclone Exposes Perry’s Subsidy Fallacy

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Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant: Looks good on a sunny blue sky day, but didn’t weather the storm. Photo: NRC

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline in just the past six months, undercutting the Trump Administration’s argument that subsidizing these aging energy generators is crucial for bolstering grid stability.  The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading

Rumble Royale: Can the U.S. Grid Work With 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply in the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled Continental U.S. simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson. Credit: ASU/PNAS

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The critics enumerate what they view as invalid modeling tools, modeling errors, and “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions” in a projection of the mid-century U.S. energy supply that Jacobson and his coauthors published in PNAS in 2015. “The scenarios of [that paper] can, at best, be described as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis,” write the experts, led by Christopher Clack, CEO of power grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy.

Clack says their primary goal is accurate science, the better to equip policymakers for critical decisions: “We’re trying to be scientific about the process and honest about how difficult it could be to move forward.”

The text and statements by Clack’s coauthors question Jacobson’s evaluation of competing energy technologies, and specifically his rejection of two non-renewable energy options: fossil fuel power plants equipped to capture their own carbon dioxide pollution and nuclear reactors.

Jacobson calls Clack’s attack, “the most egregious case of scientific fraud I have encountered in the literature to date.”

In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

Consider Clack’s coauthor Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Caldeira’s press release broadcasting their critique argues that removing carbon dioxide from the U.S. power supply is a massive job demanding the biggest tool box possible: “When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox and not leave most of her tools at home,” says Caldeira.

The same document then abandons this technology-agnostic tone to call out nuclear energy and carbon capture as technologies that “solving the climate problem will depend on.” And Caldeira has appealed for deploying a new generation of nuclear reactors which he and other nuclear boosters such as former NASA scientist Jim Hansen say are needed because renewables “cannot scale up fast enough.” Continue reading

Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall. Here’s Why it Should Work.

Readying refrigeration lines at Fukushima to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Readying refrigeration lines to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Japan’s TEPCO is about to flip the switch on the infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors at Fukushima and thus help stem the contamination of fresh groundwater at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, say radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests.

“The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. The report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Looney’s lab and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was completed in February but only released late last month; it found the system’s design to be sound and within the bounds of prior practice. Continue reading

NRC Opposes European Moves to Tighten Nuclear Safety Post-Fukushima

TEPCO.120914Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels (RPVs)—the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings in the event of a loss-of-cooling accident like the one that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. As the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi showed, the next layer of defense against a nuclear release—the so-called containment vessels—can not be counted on to actually contain molten nuclear fuel that breaches the RPV.

Nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several RPVs, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture—especially in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs. Continue reading

Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

Doel nuclear power plant by Lennart Tange

Doel nuclear power plant. Credit: Lennart Tange

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter’s forecast because three of the country’s largest reactors — reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity — are shut down. Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading