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

Advertisements

South Carolina’s $9 Billion Nuclear Boondoggle Fits a Global Pattern of Troubles

8.1.17.VCSummerNuclear

One of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to remain unfinished at South Carolina’s VC Summer nuclear power plant

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity yesterday of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina.

South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” In March the cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia. Continue reading

The Natural Gas Accounting Gap

Last month the U.S. EPA admitted it was way off in its estimate of how much methane producers leak into the atmosphere in the process of wresting natural gas from the ground and piping it across the continent. It’s a big deal since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and likely responsible for a substantial fraction of the climate change we’re already experiencing. And it’s been a long time coming. For many years now methane measurements by airplanes and satellites have strongly suggested that methane emissions from the oil and gas patch could be double what EPA figures captured.

Today the online earth observation pub Earthzine has my take on an unusual research project that helped convince EPA — and the industry — to change their tune on methane emissions. Take me to the article…

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

Renewables to Dethrone Nuclear Under French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation’s cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.

Under the plan, nuclear’s share of the nation’s power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy’s role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world’s second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva. Continue reading

EC Sees Heavy Pricetag to UK Nukes Plan

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

UK prime minister David Cameron at Hinkley Point

Government incentives for a pair of proposed nuclear reactors could cost U.K. taxpayers as much as £17.62 billion, thus exceeding the reactors’ projected cost. The EC figure is a preliminary estimate included in an initial report to London published on Friday by European Commission competition czars. The letter notifies the British government that—as we predicted in December—Brussels is launching a formal investigation to assess whether the subsidies violate European state aid rules.

The preliminary findings suggest that the U.K. and E.C. are on a collision source. As the Financial Times summed it up this weekend: “The severity of [the EC’s] initial concerns will cast a shadow over government hopes to win approval for the deal.”

Continue reading

Tidal Power’s Surprising Comeback

Below Sea Level: LaRance’s turbine hall

Can a U.K. firm’s novel plant design defuse environmental concerns?
By Peter Fairley

Fifty years ago this July, Électricité de France began sealing off Normandy’s La Rance estuary from the sea. After three years of work, the world’s first large-scale tidal power plant was born. The station operates still, generating up to 240 megawatts of renewable power as the twice-daily tides force water in and out of the estuary through the hydroturbines seated within its 750-meter-long seawall. But the three years of construction were tideless, which devastated La Rance’s ecosystem, killing off nearly all of its marine flora and fauna; it would take another decade for the estuary to bounce back. Due in part to that ecological hangover, La Rance would remain the only tidal station of its scale for nearly five decades …

Excerpted from the July 2013 edition of Spectrum Magazine. Get the full scoop via Spectrum.