Tag Archives: nuclear power

One Player, Many Pawns: the thirst for nuclear technology

The Hanhikivi plant in Finland will use Russian nuclear technology. model of the plant from wikipedia

The nuclear power industry, which had been in the doldrums since the 1980s, suffered a devastating blow in 2011 when a tsunami engulfed the Fukushima power plant in Japan, ultimately causing a meltdown. The amount of electricity generated by nuclear power worldwide plunged 11% in two years, and has not recovered since. Within this declining industry, one country now dominates the market for design and export of nuclear plants: Russia.

Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company,  is focused on what some call the “great grand middle”: countries that are close allies of neither the United States nor Russia. In April Russia started building Turkey’s first nuclear plant, worth $20bn. Its first reactor is due for completion in 2023. Rosatom says it has 33 new plants on its order book, worth some $130bn. A dozen are under construction, including in Bangladesh, India and Hungary…. Once completed the plants offer an obvious diplomatic lever in the form of sway over a large portion of a country’s electricty generation… The relationship betweeen exporter and customer is particularly close in a nuclear plant’s early years, when local employees are still being trained and the exporting country is direclty involved in the plant’s operation….

Russia’s nuclear programme has endured for two main reasons. Its designs are cheap, and Rosatom enjoys the backing of the state, which helps it absorb hard-to-insure risks like nuclear meltdowns. Its competitors trail hopelessly: France’s Areva (now Orano) has started building only two plants in the past ten years, in Finland and China; both are delayed and over budget. KEPCO, South Korea’s energy company, is facing a domestic backlash against nuclear power, while Westinghouse, in America, is only now emerging from bankruptcy.

Russia’s only real competitor is China..Yet although China will surely catch up, for now Russia has no serious rivals in the export of nuclear technology. In a world that needs to generate much more electricity from nuclear power if it is to take decarbonisation seriously, that is a sobering though

Excerpts from  Atoms for Peace: Russia and Nuclear Power, Economist, Aug. 4, 2018, at 43

The Geopolitics of Enriched Uranium: controlling Urenco

Image from URENCO.

The Japanese government has entered into negotiations to acquire U.K.-based Urenco, a major European producer of enriched uranium, in a deal that is expected to be worth several billions of dollars.  The state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation is expected to make an offer together with U.S. nuclear energy company Centrus Energy [formely known as United States Enrichment Corporation].  The not-so-ulterior motive is to block companies from Russia and China — two countries that are increasing their influence in the global nuclear power market — from taking control of the company.

The Japanese government is holding talks with major shareholders of Urenco, sources close to the matter said. Ownership of Urenco is evenly split by three parties — the governments of the U.K. and the Netherlands as well as German electric utilities including RWE.The German side is exploring a sale as the government plans to phase out nuclear power. The U.K. government, working on fiscal consolidation, is also looking for a buyer.  Urenco is engaged in turning natural uranium into enriched uranium, which is critical in generating nuclear power [and nuclear weapons]. The company ranks second in the world after Tenex — a unit of Russian nuclear concern Rosatom — in terms of capacity to produce enriched uranium, holding a global share of around 30%…

According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, China had 35 nuclear reactors in operation as of January 2017, while Russia had 30. Including reactors in the planning stage, however, the numbers grow to 82 in China and 55 in Russia, surpassing Japan’s 53.

Excerpts from Japan in talks over bid for UK uranium powerhouse, NIkkei Asian Review, Jan. 19, 2018

Here to Stay: the Nuclear Supply Chain

The smallest nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. Navy's NR-1. image from wikipedia

The report from the Energy Futures Initiative released on August 15, 2017 by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for greater federal investment in the US huclear-power industry. The report calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but the industry has been struggling.  Five nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of 5 gigawatts, have closed early since 2013, and an additional six plants are scheduled to shutter early over the next nine years. Of the two new nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., one was halted by Scana Corp. in July 2017 and backers of the other, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are seeking additional aid from the federal government.

Westinghouse Electric Co., the nuclear technology pioneer that is part of Toshiba Corp., went bankrupt in March, after it hit delays with its AP1000 reactors at each of those plants. After it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse — whose technology is used in more than half the world’s nuclear power plants — said it shifted its focus from building reactors to helping dismantle them.

The U.S. needs companies and engineers that can both build and run nuclear enterprises…. The U.S. Navy’s reactors require supplies and qualified engineers, and American nuclear scientists fill vital national security roles, it said.  Companies, such as BWX Technologies Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia manufacture nuclear components for both the commercial nuclear industry and naval reactors. If the commercial business collapses, that may mean one less company able to process highly enriched uranium, according to the report.

“A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers,” according to the report.

In addition to extending a tax credit for new nuclear power and the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, the report says the federal government could also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain.”

Excerpts from Moniz: Nuclear Power’s Woes Imperil US National Security, Bloomberg, Aug. 15, 2017


The Japan-India Nuclear Deal, 2015

Smiling Buddha (Pokhran-I) was the assigned code name of India's first successful nuclear bomb test on 18 May 1974. image from wikipedia

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agreement in principle to supply nuclear power technology to India may run counter to Japan’s stated commitment against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  The deal was reached on Dec. 12, 2015 during a meeting between Abe, who is visiting New Delhi, and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.  If an actual nuclear power agreement is signed, it would mark the first for Japan with a nation that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  The latest move by Japan was met swiftly with criticism in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan and India began negotiating a nuclear power agreement in 2010 when the Democratic Party of Japan was still in power. Japan had wanted a provision in any such deal that would allow it to immediately stop any nuclear power cooperation should India resume testing of nuclear weapons, which has been on hold since 1998.  Although a joint declaration and a memorandum regarding a nuclear power agreement were released on Dec. 12, 2015 no provisions were included regarding a suspension of cooperation should India resume nuclear testing.  In the joint declaration, the two leaders confirmed that a nuclear power agreement would be signed after completion of the technological details through further negotiations between the two nations.

Excerpt from Japan’s nuclear power deal in principle with India a first with an NPT non-signer,  ASAHI SHIMBUN, Dec. 13, 2015


The Nuclear Waste Nightmare: Germany

Nuclear plant at Grafenrheinfeld, Germany. Image from wikipedia

Germany aims to phase out its nine remaining reactors by 2022, faster than almost any country. But nobody knows exactly how much it costs to shut and clean up atomic-power plants and all the facilities used over decades to store radioactive waste. Building a depository for the waste deep underground and delivering the waste add additional unknown costs…

“There are still no clear answers to many fundamental questions involving final and intermediate storage, dismantling [reactors] and transporting radioactive waste,” said Frank Mastiaux, chief executive of EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg AG, one of Germany’s largest utility companies. “Concrete concepts have long been promised, but there is nothing yet in sight.”

Nuclear energy accounts for about 16% of German electricity production, down from a peak of 31% in 1997, according to the federal statistics office. France gets roughly 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy and the U.S. around 20%, according to the World Nuclear Association. The issue of Germany’s decommissioning became urgent in 2011, after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, when Ms. Merkel decided to accelerate the shutdown of all German reactors by as much as 14 years, to 2022.

That move forced EnBW and Germany’s other big utilities—E.ON SE, RWE AG and a unit of Sweden’s Vattenfall AB—to book billions of euros in write-downs on nuclear assets and increase their provisions for early decommissioning of the facilities. The provisions now total about €37 billion ($40 billion).

The cost could ultimately top €50 billion, estimates Gerald Kirchner, a nuclear expert previously at Germany’s federal office for radiation protection.And that money might have to be covered by taxpayers if a power company faces insolvency or some other scenarios, the government report warned.

The energy companies are being pummeled by falling electricity demand in Europe and billions of euros in government-subsidized so-called green energy flooding the power grid. Both effects are eroding wholesale power prices, leaving conventional power stations unprofitable….
Germany isn’t alone in tackling decommissioning. The International Energy Agency says roughly half of the world’s 434 nuclear-power plants will be retired by 2040. Most are in Europe, the U.S., Russia and Japan.Despite this global trend, no country yet has a site ready for final disposal of radioactive waste.

Germany is trying to find a deep geological site suitable to store highly radioactive waste for about one million years—the time waste needs to become safe to most living organisms. The country expects about 600,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste by 2080. And that doesn’t include more highly radioactive waste slated to be shipped back soon from France and Britain, where German nuclear fuel had been sent for reprocessing…

Until a final disposal site is found, all waste will be stored temporarily. Keeping interim facilities safe is expensive. E.ON has said delays in finding a disposal site will cost the German nuclear industry €2.6 billion.Utilities have sued the German government to recover some cleanup costs, but verdicts could be years away. And their efforts face political opposition.

Excerpts By NATALIA DROZDIAK and JENNY BUSCHE, Germany’s Nuclear Costs Trigger Fears, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 22, 2015

Sweden–100 percent Renewable Energy?

Swedish waste management. Image from http://www.skb.se/default____24417.aspx

Sweden may be facing the phase out of nuclear power following agreement by the country’s Social Democrats and their junior coalition partner, the Green Party, to set up an energy commission tasked with achieving a 100% renewable electricity system….The parties said in separate, but identical statements that nuclear power should be replaced with renewable energy and energy efficiency. The goal, they said, should be at least 30 TWh of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. A goal for 2030 has yet to be set, they added. Support for offshore wind and solar power are needed “in addition”, they said.

Nuclear power “should bear a greater share of its economic cost”, they said. “Safety requirements should be strengthened and the nuclear waste fee increased.”  Waste management in Sweden is undertaken by SKB while safety regulations are set by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority. Both of these operate independently of government.  State-owned utility Vattenfall’s plan to build a new nuclear power plant has been “interrupted”and the company will lead the country’s energy system towards a higher share for renewable energy, they said.

Excerpt from Sweden faces future without nuclear, World Nuclear Association, October  12014

United States Subsidies for Nuclear Energy

core of crocus, a small nuclear reactor used for research

The Department of Energy has issued a draft solicitation that would provide up to $12.6 billion in loan guarantees for Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects, supporting the Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy and bringing the nation closer to its low-carbon future. Once finalized, these loan guarantees will provide critical financing to help commercialize advanced nuclear energy technologies, supporting projects that are often unable to secure full commercial financing due to their scale and use of innovative technology. This draft solicitation represents another step in the Department’s commitment to help overcome the financial barriers to the deployment of next generation technologies that will diversify America’s clean energy portfolio.

“For the first time in more than 30 years, new nuclear power plants are under construction in the United States,” said Secretary Ernest Moniz. “This solicitation would build on that investment and help support the construction of the next generation of safe and secure nuclear energy projects. Expanding on the Administration’s commitment to an all-of-the-above energy strategy, these projects will provide clean energy to American families and businesses.”

Authorized by Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects Solicitation would provide loan guarantees to support construction of innovative nuclear energy and front-end nuclear projects in the United States that reduce, avoid, or sequester greenhouse gas emissions. While any project that meets the eligibility requirements may apply, the Department has identified four key technology areas of interest in the draft solicitation: advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, upgrades and uprates at existing facilities, and front-end nuclear projects.

Department of Energy Issues Draft Loan Guarantee Solicitation for Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects, US Department of Energy, Sept. 30, 2014

Less Radioactive: the advantages of thorium reactors

MSR Reactor. image from wikipedia

Existing  nuclear reactors use uranium or plutonium—the stuff of bombs.. Thorium, though, is hard to turn into a bomb; not impossible, but sufficiently uninviting a prospect that America axed thorium research in the 1970s. It is also three or four times as abundant as uranium. In a world where nuclear energy was a primary goal of research, rather than a military spin-off, it would certainly look worthy of investigation. And it is, indeed, being investigated.

India has abundant thorium reserves, and the country’s nuclear-power programme, which is intended, eventually, to supply a quarter of the country’s electricity (up from 3% at the moment), plans to use these for fuel. This will take time. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research already runs a small research reactor in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai plans to follow this up with a thorium-powered heavy-water reactor that will, it hopes, be ready early next decade.

China’s thorium programme looks bigger. The Chinese Academy of Sciences claims the country now has “the world’s largest national effort on thorium”, employing a team of 430 scientists and engineers, a number planned to rise to 750 by 2015. This team, moreover, is headed by Jiang Mianheng, an engineering graduate of Drexel University in the United States who is the son of China’s former leader, Jiang Zemin (himself an engineer). Some may question whether Mr Jiang got his job strictly on merit. His appointment, though, does suggest the project has political clout. The team plan to fire up a prototype thorium reactor in 2015. Like India’s, this will use solid fuel. But by 2017 the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics expects to have one that uses a trickier but better fuel, molten thorium fluoride…

One of the cleverest things about (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) LFTRs is that they work at atmospheric pressure. This changes the economics of nuclear power. In a light-water reactor, the type most commonly deployed at the moment, the cooling water is under extremely high pressure. As a consequence, light-water reactors need to be sheathed in steel pressure vessels and housed in fortress-like containment buildings in case their cooling systems fail and radioactive steam is released. An LFTR needs none of these.

Thorium is also easier to prepare than its rivals… By contrast thorium, once extracted from its ore, is reactor-ready…[T]horium reactors can run non-stop for years, unlike light-water reactors. These have to be shut down every 18 months to replace batches of fuel rods.  Thorium has other advantages, too. Even the waste products of LFTRs are less hazardous than those of a light-water reactor. There is less than a hundredth of the quantity and its radioactivity falls to safe levels within centuries, instead of the tens of millennia for light-water waste.

Paradoxically, though, given thorium’s history, it is the difficulty of weaponising thorium which many see (as it were) as its killer app in civil power stations. One or two 233U bombs were tested in the Nevada desert during the 1950s and, perhaps ominously, another was detonated by India in the late 1990s. But if the American experience is anything to go by, such bombs are temperamental and susceptible to premature detonation because the intense gamma radiation 233U produces fries the triggering circuitry and makes handling the weapons hazardous. The American effort was abandoned after the Nevada tests….. Rogue nations interested in an atom bomb are thus likely to leave thorium reactors well alone when there is so much poorly policed plutonium scattered around the world. So a technology abandoned because it could not be turned into weapons may now, in part for that very reason, be about to resurface.

Excerpts from Thorium reactors: Asgard’s fire, Economist,  April 12, at 78

The Benefits of Being a Threshold Nuclear Power: Japan v. China

japan nucler fuel limited logo

China has urged Japan to return over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to the Unites States and to explain how it intends to resolve its surplus plutonium problem. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on 17 February 2014, and in response to a question on Japan’s plutonium stocks, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated:

“China attaches great importance to nuclear proliferation risks and potential threats posed by nuclear materials to regional security. China has grave concerns over Japan’s possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials… Japan’s failure to hand back its stored weapons-grade nuclear materials to the relevant country has ignited concerns of the international community including China.”

As reported in January 2014, agreement has been reached between the United States and Japan for the return of plutonium used in the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment, Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The formal agreement is expected to be concluded at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in its 2012 plutonium management report Japan stated that the FCA facility has the total of 331 kg of plutonium, of which 293 kg is fissile plutonium. The largest share of this plutonium was supplied by the United Kingdom in addition to that supplied by the United States.

Commenting further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:

“China believes that Japan, as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, should strictly observe its international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. The IAEA requires all parties to maintain a best possible balance of supply and demand of nuclear materials as contained in the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. Japan’s large stockpile of nuclear materials including weapons-grade materials on its territory is an issue concerning nuclear material security, proliferation risks and big supply-demand imbalance.”

In addition to the call for the return of the weapon’s grade plutonium, the Chinese statement also raises a question over Japanese fuel cycle policy and its inability to use its existing plutonium stocks. With all 48 nuclear power reactors shutdown there is currently no demand for its separated plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. However, Japanese policy continues to plan the commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant as early as October 2014, following a safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). In its latest declaration to the IAEA, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of 31 December 2012, Japan held 44,241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kg was stored in Japan and 34,946 kg was stored abroad. Japan’s plutonium program, its challenges and alternatives was recently addressed at a Tokyo symposium and in detailed analysis by IPFM.

As yet, there has been no official response from the Japanese government to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, which has been extensively reported through Chinese media outlets

By Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider, China calls on Japan to return weapons grade plutonium to the United States, International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 18, 2014

Brazil and France Collaborate on Angra 3 Nuclear Plant

Angra 3 image (upon completion)

Eletrobras Eletronuclear has awarded a contract to Areva to complete the construction of the Angra 3 nuclear reactor, located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Under the €1.25bn contract, the company will supply engineering services and components, as well as the digital instrumentation and control system for the reactor.  Additional responsibilities include provision of assistance in the supervision of the installation works and the commissioning activities.

Areva president and CEO Luc Oursel said the contract continues the company’s partnership with Eletrobras that started with the construction and the supply of reactor services for the Angra 2 reactor.  ”The completion of Angra 3 confirms Brazil’s engagement in an ambitious nuclear program and illustrates the relevance of this energy source as a solution for sustainable economic development,” Oursel added.

Initiated in 2006, the construction of the 1,405 MWe Angra 3 pressurized water reactor is expected to help the Brazilian government meet the country’s increasing energy demand, and balance the energy mix.  Besides featuring the latest enhancements made to currently operational reactors, especially in terms of safety, the Angra 3 design also responds to the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Brazilian nuclear safety authority’s post-Fukushima standards.  Connected to the grid in 1985 and 2001, the Angra 1 and Angra 2 reactors have an output of 640Mwe and 1,350MWe, respectively.

Areva to support third Angra 3 nuclear reactor construction, EBR Staff Write, Nov. 8, 2013