Monday, October 10, 2005

Power to the People's Republic

During the long drought in nuclear power plant orders (the last U.S. civilian nuclear power plant was ordered in 1978) the manufacturers have not been idle. Much thought has gone into new designs that address many of the concerns that brought nuclear power to a halt in the U.S. and slowed its progress elsewhere: safety, cost and waste management.

It would appear that the immediate beneficiaries of all this new thinking will be in Asia. This month Beijing is expected to announce its decision on who will get contracts to provide reactors for four new nuclear power plants being built along China’s coast, two at Sanmen in Zhejiang province and two at Yangjiang in Guangdong province.

Everyone in the nuclear power industry is watching this deal closely. The four new plants are likely to be the first installments in a wave of new nuclear power plant construction, which will see as many as 30 new plants constructed in China by 2020. Currently, China has nine operating plants and gets about 2.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear power -- compared with 30% in Japan.

The frontrunners for the initial contract are the U.S. Westinghouse, now owned by British Nuclear Fuels, Areva of France and the Russian firm AtomStroyExport. The Russian company is considered something of a long shot. Both Westinghouse and Areva are pushing their latest models and dangling the promise of massive transfers of the latest nuclear power technology.

Westinghouse, based in Monroeville, Penn, a suburb of Pittsburgh, is pushing its new AP1000 reactor, a design developed only in the last few years. The design has already been certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency. If its bid is accepted, China would be its first sale. Although British-owned, the 5,000 or so jobs associated with the project would go to Americans

The AP1000 reactor boasts what is called a passive approach to nuclear safety. It is not dependent on electric-powered pumps to circulate water to keep the reactor core cool and the fuel from melting in the event of an accident. The water, stored in a tank outside of the containment, would circulate by natural convection. The design uses significantly fewer pumps, pipes and valves.

The reduction in components helps reduce cost and, importantly, construction time. The plant can also be built in modules in the U.S. then shipped to China. The company claims the whole plant can be constructed, from the laying of the first concrete to loading of fuel, in three years. In the 1980s nuclear plant construction times had stretched to nearly ten years or longer

Westinghouse is competing with Areva of France (through its Framatome subsidiary) which has developed the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR). The design is also less reliant on emergency generators to run pumps to keep the core cooled in an emergency. It has other unique features designed to prevent the consequences of a “China Syndrome” meltdown. A prototype is currently being built in Finland.

General Electric has its own advanced reactor design called the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (BWR). But China has not shown a preference for boiling water reactors (so-called because the steam is created in the reactor core itself), although they are popular in Japan and Taiwan. Two earlier versions were built in Japan in the 1990s; two more are being built in Taiwan.

But Congress is doing what it can to scotch the Westinghouse deal just as it helped defeat the Unocal takeover by CNOOC. In June the House of Representatives voted 313-144 on an amendment to bar the U.S. Export-Import Bank from loaning the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) the $5 billion needed to buy the plants.

The debate was accompanied by a lot of misguided rhetoric about nuclear proliferation and technology transfer, not to mention a copious amount of nationalistic chest-thumping about loaning taxpayer money to the British. The Senate defeated a similar amendment so the issue awaits resolution in conference committee.

Earlier this year BNF announced it wanted to get out of the reactor business and sell its stake in Westinghouse, which might complicate the bid. However, a sale might not change attitudes on Capitol Hill, since the likely buyer would be another foreign entity, either Areva or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Nuclear Waste Disposal
China’s nine civilian nuclear power plants so far have accumulated approximately 1,000 metric tons of wastes By the year 2020, if its plans for new power plants pan out, China will be producing roughly 1,000 metric tons a year that year and every year thereafter. By 2040, when China hopes to have a permanent nuclear waste repository in operation, it will have accumulated 32,000 tons.

For the near future, the waste is being stored temporarily in spent fuel pools close by the reactors. There is nothing unusual about this arrangement. For example, the United States has operated more than 100 nuclear power plants for the better part of 30 years and still depends largely on on-site storage. A permanent underground repository at Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, has yet to get a license.

China’s equivalent of Yucca Mountain is in the Beihan Mountain area in northwestern Gansu province. Technicians are zeroing in on three sites near each other and close to the fabled Silk Road city of Dunhuang, said an American government official who recently visited Dunhuang and attended a Chinese presentation on nuclear waste disposal there.

If all goes well, the Chinese expect to pick a suitable site within the next five years leading to construction of a permanent waste repository on the site by this timetable:

2010 Completion of site surveys and site selection
2020 Repository design completed
2050 Site excavated and ready to receive waste

The Chinese expect to design and build a civilian chemical reprocessing complex, probably within 100 kilometers of the waste repository by this time, the official said. Spent fuel from nuclear power plants will taken there and chemically treated to recover unused uranium and plutonium. The latter substances will be recycled into fresh nuclear fuel; the residue will be vitrified and buried.

The Chinese have the benefit of time, since their waste disposal repository plans are being developed concurrently with the early stages of nuclear power plant construction. On site water-storage spent fuel ponds can keep fuel safely for 15 years or longer, before being sent to other storage pools located away from the reactors, presumably closer to the plants where it will be ultimately reprocessed.

A different version of this story appears on Asia Times Online

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