A Mixed Bag of Nuclear Developments in UAE, S. Korea, Switzerland and S. Africa

The world’s nuclear sector saw a flurry of activity during April and May, though most of it wasn’t good news.

First Unit at Barakah Built, but Regulatory Delays Prevail. Initial construction activities for the first of four units under construction at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant (Figure 1) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were completed on May 5 on time and on budget—which makes this project unique within an industry characterized by cost overruns and delays. But now fuel loading, startup, and commercial operation of the unit is still awaiting the approval of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), and that could take several more months.

Figure 1_Barakah
1. A nuclear mirage. Initial construction activities at Unit 1 of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in the United Arab Emirates, where three other APR1400s are simultaneously under construction, were concluded in early May. Construction of Unit 1 began in 2012. As of early June, the project as a whole was 80% complete. Courtesy: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp.

The four APR1400 units are being built by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. (ENEC) and Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO). KEPCO subsidiary Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) will test and commission the units, and then Nawah Energy Co., a joint venture between ENEC and KEPCO, will take over and operate the units.

But exactly when Unit 1—the UAE’s first nuclear power reactor—will begin operations is unclear. ENEC estimates startup will occur in 2018, a timeline that reflects “the conservatism of ENEC’s management and Board of Directors, as well as our local, federal and international stakeholders, all of whom stand firmly united in the belief that long-term sustainable operations begin with strict adherence to nuclear safety,” it said. FANR is also carrying out a “rigorous and stringent review” of the operating license application submitted by ENEC in March 2015, the company added. Until FANR approves the operating licenses for Units 1 and 2, at least, fuel assemblies manufactured by KEPCO NF received in late May will be stored. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Association of Nuclear Operators also want to conduct a series of voluntary, but independent, assessments of the robustness of the operating infrastructure, as well as to check the proficiency of operational personnel.

S. Korea Halts Shin Hanul Units, Launches Energy Policy Aimed at Reducing Nuclear, Coal Share. The Barakah units use relatively new South Korean APR1400 technology. According to state-owned KHNP, the APR1400 evolved from the “well-proven” OPR1000 Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant design, which took just 10 years and 234.6 billion won ($193 million) to develop. The advanced design incorporates a number of modifications and improvements to meet needs for “enhanced safety and economic goals and to address the new licensing issues such as mitigation of severe accidents.” KHNP also noted that the APR1400 has been developed to meet 43 basic design requirements, such as 4,000-MW-rated thermal power, a 60-year lifetime, and lower probabilities of core damage and accidental radiation release than the country’s OPR1000 plants.

KHNP, which has ambitious plans to export the technology beyond the UAE, especially to power-strapped Middle East nations, only put online South Korea’s first power plant using APR1400 technology in December 2016 at Shin Kori 3 (Figure 2). That project, whose construction began in October 2008, and a sister reactor, Shin Kori 4, were delayed nearly four years owing to extended testing—and subsequent replacement—of safety-related control cabling in the aftermath of a documentation scandal that rocked the country’s nuclear industry and prompted the government to shut down reactors for safety checks, despite power outages (see, “Documentation Scandal Strains South Korea’s Power Supplies” in POWER’s August 2013 issue). Shin Kori 4 is now expected to come online within the next few months.

FIgure 2-ShinKori
2. First rate. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) on December 2016 began commercial operations at the Shin Kori 3 nuclear reactor; Shin Kori 4 is expected to start up next year. South Korea’s new energy policy may put the construction of new reactors in the country on hold. Courtesy: KHNP

A second set of two APR1400 reactors that KHNP was developing with KEPCO Engineering and Construction at Shin Hanul were suspended on May 25, however, just weeks after the election of President Moon Jae-in on May 9. KHNP has already applied for a construction license for Shin Hanul 3 and 4, and it was engaged in site preparation. Unit 3 was expected to come online in December 2022, and Unit 4, in December 2023.

During his electoral campaign as a member of the center-left Democratic Party of Korea, Moon signed an agreement with six other presidential candidates to essentially phase out nuclear power in the country that currently depends on its 25 reactors for about 30% of its power supply. The government’s last 7th basic long-term power development plan for power supply and demand, released in July 2015, foresaw 12 new reactors in operation by 2029 in a bid to meet environmental and economic goals. But during the electoral campaign, Moon indicated that his administration would cancel plans for eight new reactors—including the partly completed Shin Kori 5—and also shutter Wolsong 1, a 34-year-old CANDU 6 reactor that in 2015 received, after a two-year hiatus, a license extension to operate until 2022.

Then, on June 4, South Korea’s new government unveiled an energy policy that signals it will abruptly turn away from coal and nuclear and toward natural gas and renewables instead. While experts note that an energy roadmap will still need to be hashed out, the policy factors in a 2.2% average annual growth in electricity consumption and calls for a giant surge in gas-fired generation—from the current 18% share it has now in the total power mix to 27% by 2030. Renewables, including hydropower, would rise from 5% to 20%, while coal will plunge from 40% now to 21.8%. Nuclear’s share will also drop to 21.6%.

It will mean that South Korea, which already imports the most liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies in the world after Japan, will need to increase LNG imports by more than 50% by 2030. It may also require mitigating taxes on gas generation, levying them on coal and nuclear instead. Finally, it may mean closing a swath of existing generation. Moon has so far ordered a temporary halt to 10 old coal-fired power plants, and further outlined plans to close them permanently. He has also called for a review of nine new coal power plants, some of them partly built.

Switzerland Votes to Phase Out Nuclear Power. In Europe, where most generators agree with transitional measures to phase out coal power to curb carbon emissions (see “A Double Whammy for Coal Power in Europe” in POWER’s June 2017 issue), nuclear power is also under siege. During his tough, high-profile electoral campaign, France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, had endorsed former President Francois Hollande’s plan to slash nuclear output from 72% of France’s total power generation last year to about 50% by around 2025. Subsequent reports suggest that Macron will be “pragmatic” about the date by which France will implement that target, however. Some industry experts noted that Macron faces pushback from nuclear power plant workers, while others raise energy security issues. Macron on May 5 admitted to French journal Mediapart that “nobody knows, concretely, how to do this.”

In Switzerland, on May 22, voters made a more concrete decision to ban new nuclear plants (Switzerland has a direct democracy, which lets voters decide major policy initiatives). The country joins Germany, which aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022 in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and Austria, which banned it decades ago.

Switzerland currently has five nuclear power plants, and the oldest one is slated to close in 2019. Nuclear produces 35% of its power, while 60% comes from hydropower, and roughly 5% from solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal. While the “Energy Strategy 2050” law does not set a firm deadline for when the remaining plants will be closed, it boosts taxpayer funding for a fourfold increase in solar and wind by 2035 to secure the tiny country’s power supplies. Swiss voters also approved stringent goals to increase energy efficiency. And, notably, the law will also aid hydropower generators, who are reeling from Europe’s low wholesale prices.

South Africa’s Nuclear Program Ruled Unconstitutional. At the end of April, meanwhile, a high court in Cape Town declared that South Africa’s plan to proceed with a nuclear build was unconstitutional because the government did not open the process to public scrutiny.

The case, filed by civil-society groups Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, challenges the legality of state-owned utility Eskom’s request for information from vendors last December for 9,600 MW of new nuclear power capacity. South Africa’s Cabinet designated Eskom as the procuring organization for the nuclear plants in the new build program, which was outlined in the 2008 Nuclear Energy policy. But the Western Cape High Court effectively halted the procurement process and ordered the South African government to hold public hearings and debate the $76 billion program in parliament. The court also rejected nuclear cooperation deals South Africa agreed to with the U.S. in 2009, South Korea in 2011, and Russia in 2015.

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor