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A Look Ahead for Nuclear Energy in 2020

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.

In an effort to lay out a roadmap of what to look for in the coming year, this blog engages in its annual exercise to identify pointers to the future.

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.

Western Europe

The U.K. is facing a major challenge to replace it 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.

The U.K. is working on developing a new method of financing full size nuclear reactors calls the “regulated asset model.”  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 it would work check out this article posted at World Nuclear News written by Ed Kee and colleagues.  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.

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.

Eastern Europe

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.

Romania appears 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.

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.

Russia – Readers interested in the status of nuclear energy in Russia are referred to the World Nuclear Association profile of activity there.

Middle East

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.

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.

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.

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. 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 desaliniztion 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.

Asia

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.

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.

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.

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.

North America

Canada has become a 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 National 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 and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will provide for joint, concurrent reviews of SMRs and two firms, Terrestrial Energy and NuScale, have announced plans to use the process.

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 two more at a location to be named on the Pacific coast.  No details have been released on when a tender for building he 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.

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 in 2020 of the NRC’s safety design review of its 50 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.

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.

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 site use 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.

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.

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.

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Dan Yurman's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 23, 2019 10:39 pm GMT

Seems like lots of reasons to remain optimistic and looking forward. Are there any new challenges on the horizon that the industry hasn't had to contend with in 2019?

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Dec 24, 2019 3:26 am GMT

Japan's efforts to restart its reactors is the biggest challenge on a global scale. Progress is lost as fast as its made due to the anti-nuclear policies of the government and its regulatory agencies. The result is rapid escalation of imports of coal and LNG with costs that ripple through the nation's economy. It is an object lesson on how not to decrbonize the electricity generation sector.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 24, 2019 12:59 pm GMT

True-- Japan is in a tough and unique spot given the public's somewhat understandable feelings on nuclear but also the high costs that come from importing fossil fuels. Will be one to continue watching!

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