For Atom-Friendly Asia, a Nuclear Power Boom—in the West, Stagnation

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In Europe and the U.S. cost overruns and delays raise questions about the market for a new generation of safer nuclear reactors.

More than a decade ago a contract was signed to build the world’s first third-generation European pressurized reactor (EPR) in Finland. The cutting-edge, 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant, Olkiluoto 3, which its French maker Areva boasted as the most advanced safety design of the time, is still under construction today. There have been various setbacks as well as endless finger-pointing between Areva and the Finnish utility TVO, which are locked in court battle over expanding costs. Now the reactor might not be completed until at least 2017, if at all, with a price tag of $11 billion, more than double its original estimate.

The Olkiluoto 3 situation is not unique. Another Areva EPR in Flamanville, France, is also behind schedule and over budget. A recent government deal for two new EPRs in the U.K. has also come under fire.

The prospects for a nuclear power revival are no better in the U.S. Although the technology has never been cheap, cost overruns and delays are plaguing the handful of next-generation pressurized water reactors currently being built, the first since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Even before that event, a study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the cost of new nuclear plants, globally, doubled from 2002 to 2009. The third-generation reactors have safety features that should prevent a meltdown similar to Fukushima’s but political controversy, along with the high price tag means that new nuclear complexes in the U.S. and Europe could be in the single digits instead of dozens originally planned less than a decade ago.

Ironically, the experience has been markedly different in Asia. Two of Areva’s EPRs are expected to come online in China next year. China and South Korea are building the third-generation reactors with fewer construction delays and cost overruns than their Western counterparts. “They’ve been single minded about it,” says TonyRoulstone, course director for nuclear energy at the University of Cambridge. “And that single-mindedness has its advantages.” China and other Asian countries have been building nonstop for the last 30 years whereas the multiyear gap in the U.S. has resulted in a loss of construction knowledge. China also seems to have the advantage of endless manpower, and the state owns the country’s largest nuclear firm.

The one possible turn in the otherwise rough road in the West could be a shift in technology toward small, modular reactors (SMRs), which U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Ernest Moniz said could be deployed as soon as 2022 with his agency’s support. But even SMRs face uncertainty and a long march to commercial deployment.

Bigger, but not cheaper
In the face of delays the U.S. government recently put money forward to try to jump-start the domestic nuclear power industry. The DoE issued $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for two new Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors already under construction at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia in February. These units, pressurized water reactors, were the first new facilities to break ground in the U.S. in about 30 years.

The other two new reactors being built in the U.S., in South Carolina, are also AP1000s. The design is Westinghouse’s take on a third-generation pressurized water reactor, and each one produces about 1,000 megawatts of electricity. The two Vogtle units are slated to come online in 2017 and 2018. The South Carolina units will arrive later, being constructed at South Carolina Electric and Gas’s V. C. Summer Nuclear Station. The world’s first AP1000 is scheduled to come online in China in 2015. “It’s fair to say utilities are watching their experience,” notes Pete Lyons, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at DoE.

“A big reactor is now 1.6 gigawatts [1,600 megawatts], and they’ve done that to get the unit cost down,” Roulstone says, but the increased size had led to construction issues. In the case of the Olkiluoto 3 EPR, he notes that safety engineers designed a reactor with more pumps and valves to prevent the loss of any coolant, “but there wasn’t as much effort into designing for construction,” which is driving the overruns. The EPR has an 80,000-cubic-meter, double-containment structure that sits on a three-meter-thick concrete base. The system also has four separate cooling systems, each with its own water pumps, valves and control systems—all which add to the complexity in on-site construction.

Costs and delays are also rising for the AP1000 being built by Georgia Power, in part because the units must meet more stringent safety requirements that regulators have introduced in the wake of September 11, 2001, attacks and the Fukushima meltdown. The safety system itself is actually less complex, which should help reduce costs. Instead of more pumps, Westinghouse’s design has 50 percent fewer safety-related valves and 80 percent less safety-related pumping. “It’s an intrinsically simpler design,” says Roulstone, who compared the natural circulation system to a car radiator. The reactor has a slightly smaller footprint compared with an older reactor that only produced about half the amount of electricity, says Jeff Benjamin, senior vice president, nuclear power plants at Westinghouse.

Written By: Katherine Tweed
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Yup. The stagnation has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the fact that the nuclear industry has been saying that their technology is safe all along, and has repeatedly been proven wrong — and usually in a way which shows that they knew they were wrong in advance. The so-called “safe” designs which pro-nuclear-power folks keep claiming will work tend to fold in just as many false assumptions about operating conditions as the old, proven-unsafe designs did. The only real difference is that nobody in the west has been stupid enough to fall for it recently.

    • In reply to #1 by The Vicar:

      Yup. The stagnation has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the fact that the nuclear industry has been saying that their technology is safe all along, and has repeatedly been proven wrong — and usually in a way which shows that they knew they were wrong in advance. The so-called “safe” designs which pro-…

      Yes, I would say it does. Fukushima was caused by negligence and poor management. But we use nuclear reactors in our navy, our submarines, and so on without incidence. I think you’re a little tiny bit polarized and a large bit uneducated on the matter. z.z;

  2. The third-generation reactors have safety features that should prevent a meltdown similar to Fukushima’s…

    The keyword here is SHOULD. “Should” is simply not good enough. Unless that word is WILL, nuclear fission reactors shouldn’t even be considered as an acceptable alternative to coal and gas. Even if the word was “will”, what about the supremely dangerous radioactive waste that takes thousands of years to decompose?… Where do you store that nuclear garbage? Nobody ever talks about that part of the problem.

    That’s why fusion is the answer. Because it avoids ALL of those problems: no possibility of meltdown and no nuclear waste. In the mean time, solar and wind could fill the gaps if enough money is invested into it.

  3. Just keep in mind that there is no insurance company providing inssurance for any reactor in the world! Why not? Because their risk analysis leads to different results as the ones of the lobby or governments in need for the energy. And neither the questions of nuclear waste nor the one according the deconstruction of the reactors is solved. We have endangered the future of our offspring in a way that lacks all responsability! And at lest we had 3 big accidents in only 35 years although the industry claimed that only one in about 2600 years would be imagineble! Environmental pollution on the highest possible level!

    • In reply to #3 by Joe Wolsing:

      Just keep in mind that there is no insurance company providing inssurance for any reactor in the world! Why not? Because their risk analysis leads to different results as the ones of the lobby or governments in need for the energy. And neither the questions of nuclear waste nor the one according the…

      Excuse me but I’m quite sure the “radiation” from Fukishima hasn’t impacted the environment anywhere near as much as plastic bottles or carbon emissions. Unless we’re talking about Chernobyl’s local impact, the environmental effect of nuclear power is extremely minimal. All we have to do is contain the waste, which while a bit scary isn’t that bad. We might even find a use for it later. I thought this website would have less uneducated preachers and more people who bothered to know what they were talking about and understood basic nuclear chemistry… And why nuclear power is so worthwhile.

      (I’ll still hope for solar, but the energy density for nuclear reactors is insane for a no-carbon fuel source.)

      • In reply to #5 by peter.brydon.7:

        In reply to #3 by Joe Wolsing:

        I thought this website would have less uneducated preachers and more people who bothered to know what they were talking about and understood basic nuclear chemistry… And why nuclear power is so worthwhile.

        Nope, nuclear power, fish farming and supplements are some of the many subjects which some posters cannot think (or read) straight about. Try asking the emotional for proof of their claims if you want some fun… In some respects just asking for a citation should be enough to either shame them into stopping the non-sense or at least make them do some home work but no again.

  4. I vote France triples the number of its nuclear power plants and puts them mostly in the middle. They are the experts and have the rest of the infrastructure sorted. We then put a bunch of extra HVDC and possibly super conductor links trans Manche and buy most of our baseline from them. They buy our surplus wind (we could have loads to spare if we properly invested in the North Irish Sea arc) and do similar deals with Spain and north Africa for Solar PV and Thermal Gen.

    Why Trans Manche? Renaming the English Channel is part of the deal.

  5. Yes, nuclear fission power plants have their problems. But Fukushima actually made me proponent of nuclear energy.

    There, the power company and local authorities made pretty much every possible human mistake, both being guilty of gross negligence, and even then, it took a natural disaster to cause an accident. And what did it cause? A huge tragedy, locally. The death toll is over 15 000 people.

    Meanwhile, the actual and practical alternative, coal, is killing our future on this planet. During the next few centuries, death toll will be in the billions, if not the extinction of our very species. A global catastrophe, comparable only to an impact of a large asteroid. Compared to nuclear energy, the environmental impact of coal is worse by at least eight, perhaps even nine orders of magnitude.

    I would love to see our societies not be based on personal greed, short-sighted quartal economy and instant gratification. But they are. Unless we, as a species, let go the disastrous doctrine of private enterprise, the beautiful options like solar power or fusion energy will not be feasible alternatives for decades, if ever.

    Given the choice between a high standard of living and a sustainable future, no democracy will ever choose the future. In the eyes of the voters and share holders, giving away some of the comfortable living today is surely always more abhorrent than a looming global disaster a generation or two away. Just as to many environmentalists with their hearts in the right place, the emotional impact of a thousand tragic deaths in the news today always trumps the billion cataclysmic deaths a century away. And even the good people, with the best of intentions, as in contemporary Germany, will disastrously forgo nuclear plants, consequently choose coal and the future of global disaster.

    So, please, build as many nuclear power plants as you need, everywhere on the planet, as soon as possible.

  6. These are very powerful arguments on both sides. I’m pulled one way and immediately pulled in the other direction. What we can’t do, is sit on our hands and do next to nothing. Unfortunately this path is the one being taken here in the antipodes.

  7. In reply to #13 by alaskansee:

    In reply to #5 by peter.brydon.7:

    In reply to #3 by Joe Wolsing:

    I thought this website would have less uneducated preachers and more people who bothered to know what they were talking about and understood basic nuclear chemistry… And why nuclear power is so worthwhile.

    Nope, nuclear power, fis…

    Oh here’s another article that should shut you up…Tee Hee…
    Nuclear Collison…I’m not really laughing ….

    • In reply to #15 by Light Wave:

      In reply to #13 by alaskansee:

      Oh here’s another article that should shut you up…Tee Hee… Nuclear Collison…I’m not really laughing

      Holly crap, you’re right the navy can’t be trusted to steer a dingy! Nothing here to put anyone off nuclear though, is there?

      • In reply to #16 by alaskansee:

        In reply to #15 by Light Wave:

        In reply to #13 by alaskansee:

        Oh here’s another article that should shut you up…Tee Hee… Nuclear Collison…I’m not really laughing

        Holly crap, you’re right the navy can’t be trusted to steer a dingy! Nothing here to put anyone off nuclear though, is there?

        The Ministry of Defence in UK crashing their nuclear submarines in our coastal waters really lets me sleep easy NOT….People of Scotland are very much against these Nuclear subs stationed in our country….and the associated nuclear waste which is spent fuel that gets dumped in our major rivers….That’s enough to put you off if you live between the Forth and Clyde….That has nothing to do with power generation……not so friendly then…..

  8. However hard you try, nothing is ever 100% safe. Safe planes crash, safe trains derail and safe boats sink all the time. Even safe space shuttles sometimes explode. Nuclear plants would be the only human invention that never breaks down.

    The consequences when a nuclear plant meltdowns are none of what you might happily welcome in your neighbourhood.

    Notice that people who design (100% safe) nuclear plants never live anywhere nearby.

    • Notice that people who design (100% safe) nuclear plants never live anywhere nearby

      I am not for or against nuclear power. I did not make my mind on this topic. I am against undocumented statements. Google for “France nuclear plants” and look at the maps. Did all the French nuclear plant designers emigrate?

  9. The Fukushima nuclear plant was designed in the 1960′s and was comissioned 1971. You should not compare the safety of a 40-year old plant to a modern one. Coal power kills approx. 3 million people every year. The death toll for nuclear radiation is currently around 300. The rest of the numbers are predictions of an possible outcome in the future. Nuclear power used to be a source of nightmares for me until the reality of this global warming struck in. We need energy and so do the developing countries. Energy gives us the quality of life we are used to and the consumption is not going down very soon. The numbers tell the truth about the scale of the energy problem we are facing. Only nuclear energy can solve our problems. Fusion energy is not usable today or even in the coming decades.

  10. In reply to #20 by Nitya:

    clip

    Above link for a short 5min You Tube clip extolling the virtues of the thorium reactor..

    Wish I could remember a commenter’s reason(s), from a while back, being “against” thorium.

    edited / fixed

  11. How in the world does this get classified as science? It is political economy.

    BUT, nuclear energy is the most expensive energy upfront, and on a risk adjusted basis. The tail risk is astronomical. It is not too good a bet. Serious about climate change? TAX mobile fuels in the United States so that morons aren’t running around in 3+liter pick-up trucks hauling nothing but a red-neck. We might even take care of a few potholes. Expand home energy efficiency programs with mobile fuel taxes. Eliminate the possibility of exporting natural gas from the United States to prevent the use of coal.

    It will never happen as long as the venal Republican filth is running the show. Thank “Israel First” Eric Cantor and Boehner.

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