A Look Ahead for Nuclear Energy in 2020
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- Jan 24, 2020 12:15 pm GMTJan 24, 2020 5:36 am GMT
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This item is part of the Predictions & Trends - Special Issue - 01/2020, click here for more
With a growing realization that nuclear energy is necessary to achieve decarbonization in the electric generation utility industry, and for major process heat applications, 2020 looks like a year where action based on this concept will see more significant developments for nuclear energy worldwide.
Developers of advanced nuclear reactor designs are offering new revenue models that go beyond the level cost of electricity (LCOE) to offer heat as the primary output of their plants. Heat can be used to generate electricity but it can also be used for process heat for industry, especially chemicals, production of hydrogen, and desalinization. The combination of revenues from these heat streams will reposition the business case for advanced reactors as a result.
A caution for readers is that this post is not an effort to predict the future, but rather a look at places and processes where events might occur that will add to the global level of useful investment in nuclear energy technologies.
To help readers follow the bouncing ball, so to speak, the pointers are organized by geography. While it isn’t possible to provide a comprehensive view of everything, the main objective of the blog post is that it offers signposts for the road ahead.
Note to Readers: This look ahead for nuclear energy in 2020 has been updated at Energy Central to take into account a number of fast moving developments which occurred after the piece was posted on in mid-December.
Canada is becoming key center of work on small modular reactors. With a population one-tenth the size of the U.S., it sees the future of decarbonization in a range of less costly SMR designs including PWRs, molten salt, and high temperature gas reactors. The Canadian Nuclear Laboratory (CNL) has been the primary driver of support for innovation.
Several Canadian SMR developers have made significant progress achieving measurable progress through a multi-phase qualification process to be selected to get further support from CNL.
An agreement between the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will provide for joint, concurrent reviews of SMRs and two firms, Terrestrial Energy and NuScale, have announced plans to use the process. NuScale will complete its safety design review with the NRC in 2020
Mexico has flirted off and on with plans for expanding its Laguna Verde nuclear power station which is composed of two 682 MWe BWRs. The latest plan is for two new 1400 MW units, based on a design to be determined, to be constructed there and possibly two more at a location to be named on the Pacific coast. No details have been released on when a tender for building the reactors at either site have been released by the government. Historically, the low price of natural gas in Mexico has been a deal breaker for new nuclear power plants. Expect Mexico to continue to be undecided about its nuclear future.
In United States the completion of the two Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000 reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia may be the last full size new build to be undertaken for quite some time. The financial and management failure of the V C Summer project in South Carolina, combined with flat demand for electricity, has caused a number of utilities with approved COLs from the NRC to put their plans on hold or cancel them.
Meanwhile, work on small modular reactors, led by Oregon-based NuScale, is moving towards completion of the NRC’s safety design review of its 60 MW unit. NuScale’s customer UAMPS wants to build the first of six or even 12 units at a site at the Idaho National Laboratory. The Portland, OR, based developer is on schedule to complete its Safety Design Review with the NRC this year.
Separately, TVA recently was granted an early site permit for an SMR by the NRC, but has no immediate plans to build one at the Clinch River site in Tennessee. Watch for indications the utility may start thinking about the project sooner rather than later even though the permit has a 20 year shelf life.
While TVA was mulling things over in Tennessee, back in Idaho Oklo Inc., a startup, said that the firm has received a Site Use Permit from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to build its Aurora plant at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The permit makes a site available to Oklo to build its Aurora plant, which utilizes a compact fast reactor to generate about 1.5 MW of electric power. This site is anticipated to be the location of the first-of-a-kind deployment of the Aurora plant. Watch for Oklo to establish a presence in Idaho Falls, home of the INL, this year. Of all the advanced reactor entrepreneurial efforts ongoing in the U.S., Oklo's is furthest along in terms of pre-liensing engagement with the NRC.
U.S. reactor vendors including Westinghouse, GE Hitachi, Holtec, and others, are developing a variety of designs including Molten Salt, high temperature gas, and conventional LWRs. None are as far along as NuScale. All of the firms have plans for exports to global markets. All of them are engaged in pre-licensing dialogs with the CNSC and the NRC and investor interest in these efforts may be pegged to how much progress they make with the regulatory process.
TerraPower and Ge-Hitachi have teamed up to to collaborate on pursuing a public private partnership to design and construct the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) for the US Department of Energy (DOE). Utility Energy Northwest will support the joint GEH-TerraPower effort, with other parties said to be interested in joining.
The VTR will be used to provide a source of fast neutrons to support the development of advanced reactor technologies. Such facilities are currently available in only a few locations worldwide and the USA has not operated one in more than 20 years.
The reactor is to be a smaller (about 300 MWt) version of the GE Hitachi PRISM power reactor, which builds on the EBR-II, an integral sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype that operated at Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho from 1963 to 1994. VTR, like PRISM, would use metallic alloy fuels.
GEH has been actively engaged in development of the VTR conceptual design, and TerraPower has supported the VTR program by making enhancements to the reactor's design. Both firms have cadres of engineers who understand sodium cooled reactors which will go a long way to support the partnership.
This year Congress passed a number of important pieces of legislation related to nuclear energy none more important to financing these exports than the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
For 2020 Congress approved a 12.5% increase in funding for DOE’s nuclear energy programs with major elements including $230M for the advanced reactor demonstration program which includes the Versatile Test Reactor. Rapid progress is needed on this project which has an aggressive plan for an operational facility by the end of this decade.
The U.K. is facing a major challenge to replace its aging fleet of first generation nuclear power plants many of which are scheduled for shutdown in 2023. In response, the Hinkley Point C project is on track to complete two massive EDF/Areva ERPs for connection to the grid by 2025, and once in revenue service will provide up to 7% of the total electricity demand for the U.K. Two similar units are planned for the Sizewell site. Securing funding for Sizewell, which must come in with a price tag significantly below that of Hinkley Point, is a major challenge for EDF and must be resolve in 2020 or the project risks being shelved perhaps indefinitely.
The U.K. is working on developing a new method of financing full size nuclear reactors calls the “regulated asset model (RAB).” The purpose of the model, which has been applied successfully on non-nuclear U.K. large infrastructure projects, offers the promise of reducing financial risk in building new nuclear power plants.
To read how the RAB would work check out this article posted at World Nuclear News written by Ed Kee and colleagues at the Washington, DC, based firm Nuclear Economics. If the RAB model is implemented in the U.K., it could be adapted for use by other market economies. The RAB model might be instrumental in reviving the prospects for the Moorside, Wylfa, Newydd, and Oldbury NPPs all of which are stalled for lack of financing.
The U.K.is also a hotbed of development of small modular reactors with multiple vendors seeking to establish a foothold there. Rolls Royce has proposed a mid-range mini-reactor of 440 MWe which could turn out to be viable alternative, financially, for some of the UK’s full size projects which are stalled such as Moorside.
France like the U.K. has an aging fleet of nuclear power plants but it has more time, at least a decade or more, to work on replacements. Despite the fact that the country currently gets over 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, the government has plans to reduce its role to 50% banking on a promise of solar and wind technologies making up the difference.
The state owned utility EDF is deeply invested in completing first of a kind 1600 MW EPRs, in France, and in Finland, to prove the basic value of the design. While EDF acknowledges that it has inherited these projects, and their schedule delays and cost overruns, after absorbing the former nuclear power division of Areva, it also has plans to build six new EPRs in France. EDF has recently released plans that focus on completing these six new units on time and within budget. EDF is the only game in town which is why the EPR design is the shape of the future for nuclear energy in France.
The Czech Republic, Romania, and Poland have all announced plans to build new nuclear power plants. Their plans got a recent boost as the European Parliament adopted a resolution that all technologies, including nuclear, are needed to combat climate change, which it has called an emergency.
After sticking its head in the sand for nearly a decade, the Czech Republic has finally come to grips with the reality that the government must provide rate guarantees to bring investors to the table. Proposals are still bouncing around as to which of the two nuclear sites in the country will get the first new units via a tender from CEZ the state-owned nuclear utility. The government says it will release a tender in 2022.
Romania Until very recently the country appeared to be moving ahead with plans to finally complete Cernavoda Units 3 & 4 having in Spring 2019 signed off on an agreement with China General Nuclear to complete the two PHWR type reactors. That all changed in early January when Romania's Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said the nuclear deal with China would be canceled.
"“It is clear to me that the partnership with the Chinese company is not going to work,” Mr Orban said, adding that the government has already started to look for a new partner and financing for this project.
He also said that all new projects in Romania’s energy sector will depend on whether they meet the requirements of the European Union’s Green Deal, an initiative aimed at reducing CO2 emissions across the bloc.
In a separate development Candu Energy Inc., a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group (TSX:SNC), was awarded a $10.8 million (7.3M EUR) contract by Societatea Nationala Nuclearelectrica S.A. (SNN) for engineering analyses and assessments on the Cernavoda Unit 1 CANDU® nuclear reactor. The contracthas the objective of extending the operating life of the plant by approximately 4 years which will enable the plant to continue operating safely until it is ready for refurbishment in 2026.
In November 2019 Poland announced progress in its latest effort to establish a basis for financing new nuclear power plants to replace its heavy reliance on coal.
According to World Nuclear News, the government plans to set up a special-purpose company in which it will own a 51% stake, with the remaining 49% to be held by one or more foreign partners. State-owned power company PGE could be a shareholder in that special-purpose company.
WNN notes that Poland’s first nuclear power plant will be in operation by 2033, according to a draft energy policy document released for public consultation last November by the Ministry of Energy. The document lists plans for six reactors providing 6-9 GWe of nuclear capacity in operation by 2043, accounting for about 10% of Poland’s electricity generation. U.S. firms are said to be intensely interested in bidding on these projects.
The size of the effort is a question as Poland has repeatedly announced plans for full size reactors and then cancelled then due to the lack of outside investors. Will SMRs make a difference?
Michał Sołowow, billionaire owner of chemical company Synthos SA, is planning to build a 300 MW small modular reactor (SMR) in Poland in the next decade in cooperation with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH).
GEH said in a press statement: “Synthos is interested in obtaining affordable, on-demand, carbon-free electricity from a dependable, dedicated source.” The statement was made as the two firms signed a letter of intent to build the BWRX-300 small modular reactor
GEH said in its press statement, “Through our design-to-cost approach, we are designing the BWRX-300 to be cost competitive with gas, renewables and other forms of power generation.”
Russia – Readers interested in the status and future of nuclear energy in Russia are referred to the World Nuclear Association profile of activity there.
Saudi Arabia’s plans for two full size nuclear power plants remain on the table though doubts about a 123 Agreement with the U.S. are growing due to claims by Saudi Arabia for the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Four other countries have expressed interest in the project which was downsized from an ambitious plan for 16 reactors. A tender for the two reactors is expected in 2020. Bidders are expected to be Russia, China, South Korea, France, and the U.S. if a 123 Agreement is reached.
Saudi Arabia has updated its agreement with South Korea to complete a 100 MWe SMR, to license it for use in that country and to offer it for export. The joint project between the two countries, which began in 2011, had been stalled for several years, but is now moving forward. The renewed development agreement places South Korea in a pole position relative to Saudi Arabia’s planned tender expected later this year for two full size nuclear reactors.
Jordan has multiple memorandums of agreement with developers of small modular reactors. Which ever one of them comes forward first with financial backing and a buildable design is likely to win the business. Key challenges are that the desert kingdom has no coastal sites selected for the nuclear plants and little water to spare for cooling at an inland location tentatively selected by the country’s atomic energy agency.
In Turkey Russia is building the first of four planned 1200 MW VVER reactors at Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast. However, Rosatam has not been able to book investors for the 50% cost of the plant it isn’t paying for. The primary reason Turkish investors have not signed up is that the Russians have pegged the cost of power from the plants at about $0.12/Kw and electricity from gas plants in Turkey is sold for much less. That hasn’t stopped Rosatom from doubling down on its efforts announcing it will break ground on the second of four units this Spring.
Meanwhile, Japan manufacturing giant Mitsubishi walked away from the project to invest in and build four 1100 MW PWR type units at Sinop on Turkey’s Black Sea coast primarily due to the projected costs for the first of a kind units. That project appears to be dead.
Back in 2014 State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) of China and Westinghouse signed an agreement with Turkey to build four 1400 MW units at Igneada, a site on the Black Sea north of Istanbul. Since then, other than confirming the location, there hasn’t been anything reported from Turkey’s energy ministry about the project.
Egypt booked a massive project in 2015 with Roastom to build four 1200 MW units at El Dabaa with almost all of the financing coming from Russia. The project is still in the regulatory paperwork phase with a Spring 2020 date provisionally announced for breaking ground.
Plans for a second nuclear power station with four reactors near Port Said have also been announced, but a tender for them has not been released.
All of Egypt’s nuclear power facilities are expected to provide electricity for industrial and domestic use and to power water desalinization plants.
The United Arab Emirates is on schedule for startup of the first of four 1400 MW PWR type reactors at its Persian Gulf site. All of the reactors are being built by South Korea.
China is far and away the most active nation on the planet for building new nuclear power plants. That trend that is likely to continue though booking export deals still runs far behind the pace set by Russia. Readers interested in the details of China’s nuclear energy program are directed to the WNA profile of China. The impetus for nuclear power in China is increasingly due to air pollution from coal-fired plants.
According to the WNA profile, mainland China has about 45 nuclear power reactors in operation, 12 under construction, and more about to start construction. Almost all of the new start are at coastal sites due to limitations on getting large components transported inland.
After building and commissioning four Westinghouse AP1000s and two Areva EPRs, China is now investing heavily in a domestic design of a 1000 MW PWR the Hualong One which is also being offered for export. China continues to buy nuclear reactors from Russia and this month inked a deal for two advanced heavy water design reactors from Canada’s SNC Lavalin.
China is making significant investments in nuclear energy R&D especially for molten salt, high temperature gas, and even thorium fueled reactors. By comparison, while China is investing billions in new nuclear technologies, so far the U.S. has spent only millions and has a long way to go to catch up.
India has kept western nuclear reactor vendors are arms length while accepting new construction of 1000 MW VVERs units at Kudankulam from Rosatom. In 2019 India committed to a 700 MW PHWR type design and announced plans to build 10 of them with seven more on the drawing boards. The CANDU type designs are feasible for India to build with its domestic supply chain since the units don’t require the large forgings needed for reactor pressure vessels in PWRs.
In 2020 look for India to open the door to foreign direct investment in the construction of the PHWRs as the cost of all 10 units, even with India’s drastically lower labor rates, is still a tall order financially for NPCIL. India's hey indusries that provide steam generators ad turbines may also benefit from global investor interest in the new nucler build.
South Korea faces an uncertain future for its home grown nuclear fleet due to a government policy announced in 2017 of shutting all of its reactors by 2045. The policy has undercut the credibility of South Korea’s export plans as well.
Strong support for the manufacturing side of the nuclear supply chain, and employment at the country’s 24 reactors may eventually force a change to that policy. In 2019 South Korea completed the U.S. NRC safety design review of its 1400 MW PWR gaining international credibility for exports of it as a result.
Look for a future change in government leadership to reverse the policy of phasing out nuclear energy at home and related exports. The country has few domestic natural resources, and Russia would be the likely supplier of natural gas if it came to that.
Japan’s slow roll of restarting its nuclear reactors continues to force the country to import coal and natural gas to keep the lights on. The cost of these imports is a strain on the nation’s economy.
According to the World Nuclear Association until 2011, Japan was generating some 30% of electricity from its reactors and this was expected to increase to at least 40% by 2017. The plan is now for at least 20% by 2030, from a depleted fleet. Currently 37 reactors are operable. The first two restarted in August and October 2015, with a further seven having restarted since then.
Another 17 reactors are currently in the process of restart approval. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency has leaned hard on Japan’s nuclear utilities over anti-terrorism requirements and measures to mitigated the effects of volcanic eruptions. Two reactors that had restarted had to shut down due to these requirements. The central government isn’t sufficiently focused on energy policy as it is apparently sitting on it hands when it comes to reactor restarts.
Challenges to restarts also come from provincial politicians who have found success in getting elected by bashing the nuclear energy industry as a convenient distraction from other issues including the nation’s stagnant economy. As expected the closure of the reactors, and the long, uncertain process to reopen them, has played havoc with local economies that depended on the payroll from plant employment and the economic multiplier effect of plant purchases of parts and supplies.
Japan’s exports of nuclear reactors have dried up with both Hitachi and Mitsubishi withdrawing from planned deals due to higher than expected costs and uncertainties over customer financing. Japan does not have any significant technology developed, beyond R&D lab scale projects, for either small modular reactors nor high temperature gas reactors.
Nuclear energy projects in Argentina and Brazil are stalled out due to problems with the economies of both countries. Despite a major loan from China, Argentina isn’t going ahead for now with a third reactor. Also, it stopped work on development of a promising 25 MWe SMR for the same reasons. No progress is expected in either country this year.