Tag Archives: nuclear reactors

Nuclear Reactors: Small + Modular

Small Modular Reactor. Image from http://www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/small-modular-nuclear-reactors

DOE

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear power plants that are smaller in size (300 MWe or less) than current generation base load plants (1,000 MWe or higher). These smaller, compact designs are factory-fabricated reactors that can be transported by truck or rail to a nuclear power site. SMRs will play an important role in addressing the energy security, economic and climate goals of the U.S. if they can be commercially deployed within the next decade….

Because of their smaller size, they also can use passive safety systems and be built underground to limit the dangers of radioactive leaks. The modular design could allow parts of the plant to be made in a factory to ensure consistent design and cheaper costs.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) (see also TVA) is in a joint pilot project with the U.S. Department of Energy to help test the new technology. Dan Stout, senior manager of SMR technology at TVA, said working with DOE to test the new power plant “is part of TVA’s mission,” although he said any final decision will require that the power source is also cost effective. “We’re focused on providing an option that provides reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy, and so we want to pursue this early site permit to give us the option for possibly locating SMRs on the site for 10 to 20 years,” Stout said.

Excerpts from US Department of Energy

and Oak Ridge could take lead in new TVA nuclear design, but critics question secrecy, need

New Nuclear Plant in the US since 1996

Watts Bar nuclear reactors 1 and 2. image from wikipedia

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has the green light to operate a new East Tennessee nuclear reactor, the first operator license issued since 1996.  The TVA has finally completed the Watts Bar 2 reactor, which has been in the works for more than 40 years. Construction on the site near Spring City was suspended in 1985 but then restarted in 2007. The U.S. revised its nuclear reactor safety standards after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and the Watts Bar 2 reactor is the first reactor to meet the new safety standards

Excerpt from Ed Arnold, Tennessee goes nuclear,Memphis Business Journal, Oct. 26, 2015

Nuclear Industry: France, Russia and China

Olkiluoto-3 under construction in 2009. It is scheduled to start electricity production in 2018, a delay of nine years. image from wikipedia

[Regarding the French nuclear company Areva] its newest product, the expensive European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), has encountered more than the teething problems common to all big industrial projects. A plant in Finland is almost ten years behind schedule and almost three times over budget: Areva has had to write off billions as a result….Two reactors in China and the only new-build in France, at Flamanville, are also running late. EDF played an important role in managing the Chinese and French projects.

Besides criticism for slack project management, Areva and EDF (Electricite de France) have been questioned over technical standards. The steel in the main reactor vessel at Flamanville is faulty, the Nuclear Safety Authority said in April 2015. EDF disputes the finding and, with Areva, has started new tests. The news added to growing disenchantment in Britain with an agreement, not yet firm, that expensively entrusts the construction of a power station incorporating two Areva EPRs to a consortium led by EDF.  It seems unlikely that Areva will find many more foreign takers for its existing reactor…

[S]ome of Areva’s rivals are racing ahead. Rosatom, a Russian nuclear firm, has built up a fat order-book. Keen pricing, generous financing and relaxed technology transfer help, though Western sanctions do not. China’s two reactor-builders, CNNC and CGN, are peddling their own new design, Hualong One; in February CNNC signed a preliminary agreement to supply a reactor to Argentina.

Areva has little reason to hope for a surge of new orders at home. France’s 58 reactors are elderly but EDF, which operates them, plans to revamp rather than replace them…A new law set to come into force this summer, pledging somehow to cut France’s dependence on nuclear power from 75% to 50% of its electricity needs by 2025, will make Areva’s prospects even bleaker.

Excerpts from France’s nuclear industry: Arevaderci, Economist, May 23, 2015, at 53.

Frenemies with Nuclear Benefits: 2015 US-China Nuclear Deal

Coolant pump  Nuclear Reactor AP 1000

President Obama intends to renew a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. The deal would allow Beijing to buy more U.S.-designed reactors and pursue a facility or the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel. China would also be able to buy reactor coolant technology that experts say could be adapted to make its submarines quieter and harder to detect.,,

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, argues that the new agreement will clear the way for U.S. companies to sell dozens of nuclear reactors to China, the biggest nuclear power market in the world.  Yet the new version of the nuclear accord — known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — would give China leeway to buy U.S. nuclear energy technology at a sensitive moment: The Obama administration has been trying to rally support among lawmakers and the public for a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program — a deal negotiated with China’s support.,,,

If Congress rejects the deal, “that would allow another country with lower levels of proliferation controls to step in and fill that void,” said a senior administration official…

{T}he current nuclear agreement with China does not expire until the end of the year (2015),…
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has been urging lawmakers to insist on requiring advance consent for the reprocessing of spent fuel from U.S.-designed reactors into plutonium suitable for weapons. He also is concerned about the sale of certain nuclear energy technologies, especially coolant pumps with possible naval use.
Charlotte-based Curtiss-Wright developed advanced coolant pumps for the U.S. Navy’s submarines. The same plant produces a scaled-up version for the Westinghouse AP1000 series reactors, each of which uses four big pumps. These pumps reduce noises that would make a submarine easier to detect…..An Obama administration official said the reactor coolant pumps are much too big to fit into a submarine. However, a 2008 paper by two former nuclear submarine officers working on threat reduction said that “the reverse engineering would likely be difficult” but added that “certainly, the Chinese have already reversed engineered very complex imported technology in the aerospace and nuclear fields.”..

The United States has bilateral 123 agreements with 22 countries, plus Taiwan, for the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some countries that do not have such agreements, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Malaysia, have expressed interest in clearing obstacles to building nuclear reactors.

China and the United States reached a nuclear cooperation pact in 1985, before China agreed to safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA safeguards went into force in 1989, but Congress imposed new restrictions after the Chinese government’s June 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. The 123 agreement finally went into effect in March 1998; President Bill Clinton waived the 1989 sanctions after China pledged to end assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear cooperation with Iran.

In December 2006, Westinghouse Electric — majority-owned by Toshiba — signed an agreement to sell its AP1000 reactors to China. Four are under construction, six more are planned, and the company hopes to sell 30 others, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS)….“Missile proliferation from Chinese entities is a continuing concern.” The United States wants China to refrain from selling missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, a payload of 1,100 pounds, as far as 190 miles

China has a pilot plant engaged in reprocessing in Jiu Quan, a remote desert town in Gansu province. Satellite photos show that it is next to a former military reprocessing plant, according to Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physics professor who specializes in nuclear arms control.

Excerpts from Steven Mufson, Obama’s quiet nuclear deal with China raises proliferation concerns,   Washington Post  May 10, 2015

The Aggressive Indigenization of Nuclear Energy: China

YJNPS at Dongpin Town, China

China General Nuclear Power (CGN), a state-owned enterprise (SOE) that is the country’s largest nuclear firm, is planning to float shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange on December 10th. Market rumours suggest it will raise well over $3 billion. Dealogic, a research firm, reckons this is likely to be the biggest listing in Hong Kong as well as the largest utility IPO globally so far this year.

Some see in the flotation a harbinger of a nuclear renaissance. If true, this would bring cheer to a gloomy industry. The shale-gas revolution has undercut the economics of building new nuclear reactors in North America. And since the deadly tsunami and nuclear fiasco at the Fukushima site in Japan nearly four years ago, confidence in this technology has waned in many places. Germany, for example, is getting out of nuclear power (see article).

China put a moratorium on new plants after that accident too, but the boosters have now prevailed over the doubters. The State Council, the country’s ruling body, wants a big expansion of nuclear power along the country’s coast to triple capacity by 2020 (see map). This plan is not as ambitious as before Fukushima, but Moody’s, a credit-ratings agency, nevertheless calls it an “aggressive nuclear expansion”. Some analysts look beyond 2020 and predict an even bigger wave of nuclear power plants will be built in inland provinces, giving a boost to this type of energy worldwide….One factor that could slow growth is cost. In the past Chinese governments were happy to throw endless pots of money at favoured state firms in industries deemed “strategic”. Times are changing, however. Economic growth is slowing, and the government must now deal with massive debts left over from previous investment binges. Since the export-oriented and investment-led model of growth is sputtering, officials may soon be keen to boost domestic consumption rather than merely shovel subsidised capital at big investment projects.

And it is not just that China may—and should—be starting to pay attention to the true cost of infrastructure projects. Rapid technological advances are also making low-carbon alternatives to nuclear power appear more attractive. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an industry publisher, forecasts that onshore wind will be the cheapest way to make electricity in the country by 2030. Though coal will remain China’s leading fuel for some time, Bloomberg’s analysts think that renewables could produce three times as much power as nuclear in the country by that year.

What is more, as a latecomer, China had the chance to standardise designs of new nuclear plants to gain economies of scale and minimise risk. But rather than build copies of safe and proven designs from Westinghouse of America or Areva of France, it is insisting on “indigenisation”. This approach is in line with China’s desire to create national champions in key industries, as it has in high-speed rail.

Excerpts from Nuclear power in China Promethean perils, Economist, Dec. 6, 2014, at 75

From Germany to South Carolina: Nuclear Waste

castor cask

The U.S. Department of Energy said on June 4, 2014 it will study the environmental risk of importing spent nuclear fuel from Germany that contains highly enriched uranium, a move believed to be the first for the United States.  The department said it is considering a plan to ship the nuclear waste from Germany to the Savannah River Site, a federal facility in South Carolina.  The 310-acre site already holds millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste in tanks. The waste came from reactors in South Carolina that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1953 to 1989.

The Energy Department said it wants to remove 900 kilograms (1,984 pounds) of uranium the United States sold to Germany years ago and render it safe under U.S. nuclear non-proliferation treaties.  A technique for the three-year process of extracting the uranium, which is contained in graphite balls, is being developed at the site in South Carolina, according to the Energy Department.

[The radioactive waste to be imported to the United States from Germany consists of 152 30-tonne CASTOR casks containing 290,000 graphite balls from the  AVR gas-cooled prototype reactor, stored at the Juelich research center [Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ)], and 305 CASTOR casks containing 605,000 graphite balls from the THTR-300 reactor, stored at the Ahaus waste site. While the waste contains some US-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU), the amount is unclear as the material was irradiated and has been in storage for over 20 years since the reactors closed.]

Some critics question whether the department has fully developed a clear plan to dispose of the radioactive waste.”They’re proposing to extract the uranium and reuse it as fuel by a process that has never been done before,” said Tom Clements, president of SRS Watch, a nuclear watchdog group in South Carolina….

Sources told Reuters in May that German utilities were in talks with the government about setting up a “bad bank” for nuclear plants, in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to close them all by 2022 after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Excerpt from  Harriet McLeod, German nuclear waste may be headed to South Carolina site, Reuters, June 4, 2014

A Leaking Atom Bomb: Hanford, United States

Hanford in 1960 Image from wikipedia

There are “significant construction flaws” in some newer, double-walled storage tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste complex, which could lead to additional leaks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.  Those tanks hold some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

One of the 28 giant underground tanks was found to be leaking in 2013. But subsequent surveys of other double-walled tanks performed for the U.S. Department of Energy by one of its Hanford contractors found at least six shared defects with the leaking tank that could lead to future leaks, the documents said. Thirteen additional tanks also might be compromised, according to the documents.  Questions about the storage tanks jeopardize efforts to clean up radioactive waste at the southeastern Washington site. Those efforts already cost taxpayers about $2 billion a year.  “It is time for the Department (of Energy) to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote this week in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz…

Hanford contains some 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. They are stored in 177 underground storage tanks, many of which date back to World War II and are single-walled models that have leaked. The 28 double-walled tanks were built from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Current plans call for transferring wastes from leaking single-walled tanks to the newer and bigger double-walled tanks, where the waste will be stored while a $13 billion plant for treating the waste is constructed. But the treatment plant is plagued with design problems and construction has stalled.  The situation did not appear dire until the news in October 2012 that the oldest of the double-walled tanks, called AY-102, had leaked, becoming the first of those 28 tanks to do so.

At the time, the Energy Department blamed construction problems with this particular tank for the leak and said it “seems unlikely” that the other double-walled tanks would leak.  However, Wyden said engineering reviews of six other double-walled tanks “found significant construction flaws in those six tanks essentially similar to those at the leaking tank.” Those six tanks contain about 5 million gallons of radioactive wastes, wrote Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee….

Hanford, located near the city of Richland, stores about two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.  Officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater.  The federal government built Hanford at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Excerpts from Drew Vattiat, Hanford’s worst radioactive waste vulnerable to leaks from flaws in newer storage tanks, Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2014

Nuclear Renaissance on Track Despite Fukushima

According to a 2012 OECD/NEA and IAEA report: Although the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident has affected nuclear power projects and policies in some countries, nuclear power remains a key part of the global energy mix. Several governments have plans for new nuclear power plant construction, with the strongest expansion expected in China, India, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. The speed and magnitude of growth in generating capacity elsewhere is still to be determined.

By the year 2035, according to the joint NEA-IAEA Secretariat, world nuclear electricity generating capacity is projected to grow from 375 GWe net (at the end of 2010) to between 540 GWe net in the low demand case and 746 GWe net in the high demand case, increases of 44% and 99% respectively. Accordingly, world annual reactor-related uranium requirements are projected to rise from 63 875 tonnes of uranium metal (tU) at the end of 2010 to between 98 000 tU and 136 000 tU by 2035. The currently defined uranium resource base is more than adequate to meet high-case requirements through 2035 and well into the foreseeable future.

Although ample resources are available, meeting projected demand will require timely investments in uranium production facilities. This is because of the long lead times (typically in the order of ten years or more in most producing countries) required to develop production facilities that can turn resources into refined uranium ready for nuclear fuel production.

With uranium production ready to expand to new countries, efforts are being made to develop transparent and well-regulated operations similar to those used elsewhere to minimise potential environmental and local health impacts….

Excerpt, Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand A Joint Report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, OECD, 2012

Nuclear Waste in the United States; the harm that leaks portend

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday. (June 8, 2012, pdf)  In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that in deciding that the fuel would be safe for many decades, the commission did not carry out an analysis of individual storage pools at reactors across the country, treating them generically instead. The commission also did not adequately analyze the risk that cooling water will leak from the pools or that the fuel will ignite, the court wrote.   The commission has relied on its conclusion that spent fuel rods can be safely stored at plants to extend the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors in recent years and to license four new ones.

The plaintiffs — four states, including New York, environmental groups and an American Indian organization — declared victory, although the precise implications were not clear. Still, it appeared that the commission would have to prepare and publicly defend an assessment that storage for many decades or even indefinitely did not entail large risks.

In the 1980s, Congress directed the Department of Energy to prepare a plan for creating a national repository at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic structure in the Nevada desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas. But that plan, decades behind schedule, was shelved in 2010 by President Obama, who had promised in his 2008 campaign to kill it if elected.  Some Republican lawmakers are now hoping to revive the idea of storage at Yucca but would face determined opposition, above all from the leader of the Senate’s Democratic majority, Harry Reid of Nevada.

“The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,” the appeals court wrote.  If the federal government “continues to fail in its quest” to find a place for spent nuclear fuel, then the material “will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis,” the court said, and the commission will have to size up the environmental risks of this.  Failing to establish a repository is “a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the judges said……

Opponents of nuclear power have long cited the lack of a firm plan for a waste burial place in opposing license extensions for reactors. In the meantime, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year have sharpened a debate about how the fuel is stored now.  Most of it is kept in deep pools made of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with stainless steel, in water that is monitored and filtered. At most plants those pools have been packed full, and some older fuel has been moved into dry casks.Such casks have survived floods and earthquakes without apparent damage, and some experts have called for thinning out the pools and filling up more casks. The commission has said that either method is acceptable.  The fear is that if a pool leaked or if cooling failed and the pool boiled dry, the fuel could catch fire, although many experts doubt this is possible.

In its ruling on Friday, the court said the commission had reached its conclusions by examining past leaks. But that history “tells us very little about the potential for future leaks or the harm such leaks might portend,” it wrote.

Excerpts, MATTHEW L. WALD, Court Forces a Rethinking of Nuclear Fuel Storage,New York Times, June 8, 2012

Litigating the Future of Nuclear Energy: United States

Until this past February 2012, the last time new nuclear power construction was approved in the United States was in 1978. But when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved two proposed nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia, on February 9 in a four to one vote, it took less than a week for the legal action to begin.  Nine environmental groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on February 16. The concerns at the heart of their challenge – safety issues and the Fukushima disaster – were similar to those of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the sole dissenter in the commission’s vote.  Jaczko argued that Southern Company, whose company Southern Nuclear operates the Vogtle plant, had not proved it would take steps necessary to ensure the reactors could withstand an earthquake like the one that occurred in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011.  “I simply cannot authorise issuance of these licenses without any binding obligation that these plants will have implemented the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident before they operate,” he wrote.

The groups are “working to challenge the NRC’s approval of the reactors because they fail to take into account public comments received by the agency concerning the proposed reactors’ security risks, following the Fukushima disaster”, Sara Barczak, a program director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit, told IPS.  The other groups include the Blue Ridge Environmental Defence League, Centre for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Friends of the Earth, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South and North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.  The Turner Environmental Clinic at Emory University Law School has been assisting with much of the legal work on the case.

A related legal challenge regarding the AP1000 reactor design by Westinghouse Electric Company, which would be used in the new Vogtle reactors, argued that the approval of the reactor design also failed to take into account the Fukushima disaster.  Those two challenges have been consolidated into one, and the groups recently filed a motion to stay further construction of the new reactors at Vogtle, which they hope will be heard within a month or so.  “We still have concerns about the ability of that reactor design to deal with seismic issues such as earthquakes….The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any agency has to recalibrate and reissue an Environmental Impact Statement considering the information,” Barczak said.  “They would have had to do reassessments of doses to the public, reevaluating doses to site workers and the community, the evacuation plan, how the operator would handle a multi-unit meltdown,” she explained. “It would be a fairly substantial review.”…

Excerpt, Matthew Cardinale, Legal Challenges Counter Plans for New Nuclear Reactors, IPS, April 14