Major Milestones for the AP1000 Reactor

Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design hit several milestones in recent months, prompting speculation that it could take the coveted lead in the charge to deploy the world’s third-generation nuclear power plants. In December, work on the first units at Sanmen, China, took a major stride, as developers lifted and placed the fourth ring of the reactor’s containment vessel. In the U.S., where the reactor design has been designated for use across the Southeast, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards submitted a positive evaluation of the design, putting it a step closer to final approval, expected next year. And as a second factory was inaugurated in China’s Hubei Province to make major structures for AP1000 plants, Westinghouse in December announced it had completed preparatory work on fuel for the AP1000 units by producing the first four fuel assemblies (specifically for Sanmen) at a fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina.

At Sanmen 1—where the world’s first AP1000 is being built—builder Shandong Nuclear Power Co. said lifting of the fourth ring of the reactor’s containment vessel progressed well. Having started construction in March 2009, the project was 14 days ahead of schedule, the state-owned company said. It added that a major part of the reactor building now stood about 40 meters high (Figure 1). The first of two units is slated for completion by the end of 2013.

1. Leaps and bounds. This December, the AP1000 reactor design from Westinghouse, a Toshiba Corp. company, reached major milestones. Among them, at Sanmen 1, China, where the world’s first AP1000 has been under construction since March 2009, Shandong Nuclear Power Co. lifted and placed the fourth ring of the reactor’s containment vessel. Courtesy: Westinghouse Electric

The project’s progress is being closely monitored not just because it is in essence “serial No. 1” but also because Westinghouse has cut a deal to transfer technology to China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) through construction of the first four AP1000 units (two units at Sanmen and two at Haiyang) so that SNPTC can build future ones on its own. Construction on manufacturing modules for AP1000 structures and future derivatives like the larger CAP-1400 is also reportedly progressing. Latest estimates are that Toshiba has planned to spend up to $609 million to develop the CAP-1400 by 2017. In December, a second factory was inaugurated to build containment vessel parts and other large components for planned units. The factory, owned by Hubei Nuclear Power Equipment Co., is based in Wuhan.

Meanwhile, China’s nuclear plant building spree continues—with 10,234 MW of nuclear capacity in operation and 21,920 MW under construction—even though, as state news agency Xinhua reported this January, a research unit of the State Council warned the country should deliberately slow progress to lower safety risks. The State Council said in a commentary published in Outlook Weekly that China should set a limit of 70 GW of reactors in operation by 2020 to avoid shortages of fuel, equipment, and manpower. One way to manage future safety risks was to develop reactors based on the AP1000 instead of second-generation technologies, the council said.

In the U.S., the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards concluded from a review of an advanced final safety evaluation that Westinghouse-proposed amendments to its AP1000 design certification maintained “robustness of the previously certified design.” Abdel-Khalik, chair of the advisory group, added in a letter: “We conclude that there is reasonable assurance that the revised design can be built and operated without undue risk to the health and safety of the public.”

Officials at the regulatory agency will now consider the panel’s report before making a decision to approve changes to the AP1000 design next year. The advisory group’s approval was hailed as positive move in the design certification process by utilities such as Southern Co., which will use the AP1000 for Units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, which it has begun constructing. Southern Co. has received an $8 billion loan guarantee for building the $14 billion project. AP1000 reactors have also been proposed in pending NRC applications for sites in Levy County, Fla., and Fairfield County, S.C.

Last December, Westinghouse also made major progress by manufacturing the first four fuel assemblies at its Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility (CFFF) in South Carolina to fuel the Sanmen 1 project in China. As Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Senior Vice President Joe Belechak explained, the achievement was significant because it verified an integrated process; it basically took the preliminary AP600/AP1000 fuel design through a comprehensive test and manufacturing development program. More than 100 team members were involved and upgrades worth $16 million at the CFFF were implemented.

—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.

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