Tag Archives: NuScale Power

Resurgent Not: nuclear power

Relic of the past.

Westinghouse founded in 1886 is the company that brought electricity to the masses.  Its AP1000 pressurised water reactor was supposed to make nuclear plants simpler and cheaper to build, helping to jump-start projects in America and around the world.  But those nuclear ambitions have gone awry. On March 29th the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Its troubles have been a running sore at Toshiba, its Japanese parent, a headache for its creditors, and the latest bad tidings for a nuclear industry beset with problems.

Toshiba was triumphant in 2006 when it paid $5.4bn for Westinghouse after a bidding war, beating out General Electric. Around the same time, Southern and SCANA, two big utilities based in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, chose the AP1000 design for new nuclear plants.But these American projects soon faced the problems that have long plagued nuclear construction. In Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing, the company explains a dismal chain reaction. Unexpected new safety and other requirements from American regulators caused delays and additional costs. That sparked a fight between the utilities, Westinghouse and its construction contractor, a subsidiary of Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I), about who should bear them. The brawl exacerbated delays…

There have been rumours that Korea Electric Power, a state-controlled utility, might take over, but Westinghouse’s steep losses may keep it away. “This has bankrupted Westinghouse,” says Mr Byrd. “Why would another firm step into that situation?”

The future for other AP1000 reactors looks bleak. A plant in China is years behind schedule. In America, the troubles in Georgia and South Carolina may bolster support for more modest nuclear projects, says Tyson Smith, a nuclear-energy expert at Winston & Strawn, a law firm. On March 15th, 2017 the country’s nuclear regulator said it would review an application for America’s first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR), from a company called NuScale, in Oregon. The SMR technology has been touted as a cheaper, easier way to build nuclear capacity. But it will have to compete with inexpensive natural gas, wind farms and solar plants. Those hoping for an American nuclear resurgence may have to wait a long time yet.

Excerpts FalloutWestinghouse files for bankruptcy, Economist, Apr. 1, 2017

The Unsellables and the Super-Acheivers

 Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi 2017

THE Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi will never attract the attention that the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in neighbouring Dubai does, but it is an engineering feat nonetheless. It is using three times as much concrete as the world’s tallest building, and six times the amount of steel. Remarkably, its first reactor may start producing energy in the first half of this year—on schedule and (its South Korean developers insist) on budget. That would be a towering achievement.

In much of the world, building a nuclear-power plant looks like a terrible business prospect. Two recent additions to the world’s nuclear fleet, in Argentina and America, took 33 and 44 years to erect. Of 55 plants under construction, the Global Nuclear Power database reckons almost two-thirds are behind schedule .  The delays lift costs, and make nuclear less competitive with other sources of electricity, such as gas, coal and renewables.
Not one of the two technologies that were supposed to revolutionise the supply of nuclear energy—the European Pressurised Reactor, or EPR, and the AP1000 from America’s Westinghouse—has yet been installed, despite being conceived early this century. In Finland, France and China, all the EPRs under construction are years behind schedule. The main hope for salvaging their reputation—and the nuclear business of EDF, the French utility that owns the technology—is the Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which by now looks a lot like a Hail Mary pass.

Meanwhile, delays with the Westinghouse AP1000 have caused mayhem at Toshiba, its owner. The Japanese firm may announce write-downs in February of up to $6bn on its American nuclear business. As nuclear assets are probably unsellable, it is flogging parts of its core, microchip business instead.

YThis month, Oregon-based NuScale Power became the first American firm to apply for certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) design with America’s nuclear regulators.

“Clearly the momentum seems to be shifting away from traditional suppliers,” says William Magwood, director-general of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Both small and large reactors are required. In places like America and Europe, where electricity demand is growing slowly, there is rising interest in small, flexible ones. In fast-growing markets like China, large nuclear plants make more economic sense.
If the South Koreans succeed with their first foreign nuclear programme in Abu Dhabi, the reason is likely to be consistency. Nuclear accidents such as Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a long hiatus in nuclear construction in America and Europe. But South Korea has invested in nuclear power for four decades, using its own technology since the 1990s, says Lee Jong-ho, an executive at Korea Electric Power (KEPCO), which leads the consortium building Barakah. It does not suffer from the skills shortages that bedevil nuclear construction in the West.

KEPCO always works with the same, familiar suppliers and construction firms hailing from Korea Inc. By contrast, both the EPR and AP1000, first-of-a-kind technologies with inevitable teething problems, have suffered from being contracted out to global engineering firms. Also, South Korea and China both keep nuclear building costs low through repetition and standardisation, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry group. It estimates that South Korean capital costs have remained fairly stable in the past 20 years, while they have almost tripled in France and America.

Excerpts The nuclear options: How to build a nuclear-power plant, Economist, Jan. 28 2017, at 57