The second World Nuclear Exhibition was held at a moment in time when the prospects for nuclear power are both tantalizing and frustrating. One thing is clear: The dynamics of the nuclear power industry have changed recently—and so have the solutions proposed for achieving greater certainty.
One of the strongest arguments nuclear power has going for it these days—around the world—is that generating power with fissile material does not emit carbon dioxide. Whether that attribute is enough to ensure the industry’s current footprint, never mind its growth, is very much an open question.
Promoting nuclear’s role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was an opening theme of this year’s World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE), held in Le Bourget, France, June 28 to 30. The second installment of this biennial event—developed by the French Nuclear Industry (AIFEN)—drew more exhibitors and a larger audience than the first, held in October 2014. In his opening remarks, Gérard Kottmann, president of both AIFEN and WNE, noted that the exhibition facility at Le Bourget had also been the site of the historic COP21 climate meeting last December, where 195 nations committed to a lower-carbon future.
COP21, Kottmann said, concluded that nuclear is “indispensible” to addressing climate change. “We just have to face our challenges.” They are to make nuclear “safer, cheaper, quicker, [and] more sustainable.” A fifth challenge, he added, is the political one, observing that Europe doesn’t recognize nuclear power as “clean.”
That list of challenges is familiar to anyone following the nuclear industry, regardless of their position on the technology. Solutions to those challenges remain hard to come by.
This article reports on some of the major themes from the WNE as well as other recent global nuclear developments that suggest potential ways forward for this increasingly international industry sector.
Enemy No. 1: Depressed Wholesale Power Prices
American readers are familiar with arguments that low natural gas prices and, consequently, low wholesale power prices are to blame for the economic difficulties many nuclear (and coal) plants are experiencing. If misery loves company, there’s plenty to go around. As POWER reported in several Global Monitor stories last month, low wholesale power prices in Sweden, Poland, and South Korea are contributing to business difficulties for baseload plants in those countries too. And at the end of March, a Handelsblatt article described German electricity prices as “in free fall.”
Areva CEO Philippe Knoche opened a WNE session on economic pressures and market conditions by observing that the toughest challenge for nuclear power is “competitiveness.” Solutions to current market conditions that were mentioned throughout WNE included government support, carbon pricing, digitization and the use of big data, and efficiency.
Speaking on the economic pressures panel, David A. Heacock, president and chief nuclear officer for Dominion Nuclear, said that safety and reliability have been delivered but cost has to come down. He shared information about Delivering the Nuclear Promise, an initiative led by the Nuclear Energy Institute in the U.S. that has all U.S. nuclear utilities focusing on efficiency. Heacock gave the examples of streamlining Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) standards for the U.S.; taking a “graded approach” to walkdowns; putting out a standardized design modification document for use by all nuclear utilities; and standardizing vendor approval through INPO so that once they are approved for one plant, vendors can go into all U.S. nuclear plants.
Efficiency is also needed in new builds to achieve cost reductions. China’s Cao Shudong of China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) said that one way to reduce costs is to construct plants “in batches”—an approach also taken by Korea, as William D. Magwood IV, former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioner and current director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, observed. Building multiple plants in the same area, he noted, has the additional advantage of dealing with the same regulators, who also need experienced people to make the right decisions without introducing undue delays.
While several speakers pointed to “broken markets” as being responsible for the difficulty of building and operating nuclear power plants, Paul Murphy, managing director of Gowling WLG’s Energy Group, put it plainly. “How did the U.S. build more than 100 plants?” he asked. “They were in regulated markets, and markets have changed with deregulation.” Personally, Murphy said, he likes free markets, “but energy is so important that markets may not give us the results we want.” There are financing models for new nuclear, he said, including export credit financing, government-to-government lending, loan guarantees, and contracts for difference, but financing remains an obstacle.
In the U.S., owners of existing capacity have argued for various forms of new subsidies or market changes to help their units remain competitive. To date, the only state that has blinked is New York, which in July proposed subsidizing the zero-emission attributes of nuclear plants (see “Subsidies Proposed for New York’s Upstate Nuclear Power Plants” at powermag.com).
If the British exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) actually manifests as a complete break (something that was not at all clear during WNE, held just days after the UK voted to leave the union), what will it mean for the nuclear power sector? The truth is, nobody knows for sure, but there are a couple of signs that—with one exception, discussed below—it may not have a devastating effect. For starters, today’s nuclear supply chain is an international one, making it nearly impossible to conceive of a 100% domestic project.
Most of the Brexit attention at WNE was on Britain’s planned two-unit 3,200-MW Hinkley Point C (HPC), which will use two Areva EPRs (Figure 1). Electricité de France (EDF) is the main developer. The project was originally planned to be online by 2017, but financing and other challenges have pushed that projected date to 2025. Though financing for the project was to be largely provided by EDF, with a third of the funding coming from China, EDF had not yet made a final, formal commitment in June, when the industry gathered in France. The company’s board of directors finally made that commitment on July 28, which was expected to get the project ball moving again. However, later that day, as this article was headed to production, BBC News reported that the government suddenly announced that it will postpone a decision on the project until early autumn.
According to European news reports, among the challenges to EDF’s backing the project is that French labor unions involved in the industry (which hold six of 18 seats on EDF’s board) oppose the project. The unions are concerned that the high projected cost of HPC (which rose from a recent£18 billion to£37 billion in July) could sink EDF, which is already heavily in debt. (The French government owns 85% of the company and has a long history of rescuing state-controlled firms, including Areva.) Unions also have concerns about “organisation, supply chain, installation and procurement.”
As reported in May by The Guardian: “The Hinkley project has been criticised for ‘colossal’ costs by the French energy minister, who suggested it should be delayed by several years, and EDF’s finance director resigned over the issue, but president François Hollande has fully backed the project.” However, at WNE, French Minister of the Economy, Industry, and the Digital Sector Emmanuel Macron said that a rapid decision on the project would be good for the French nuclear industry.
EDF, which has already invested hundreds of millions of euros in HPC, said that the new£37 billion figure should be disregarded because it was based on last year’s “depressed wholesale price” and customers “won’t pay a penny until the plant begins operating,” according to a July 7 story in The Guardian.
Though many groups oppose the project, given the current depressed state of the French nuclear industry, it seems unlikely that the French would back out of any new foreign project, even if EU trade arrangements evolve post-Brexit. Though France currently gets about 75% of its electricity from nuclear (down from around 80%), it is slated by law to decrease that percentage to 50% by 2025. That’s still a sizeable portion, as one French speaker made sure to point out, and higher than nuclear’s share in any other country, yet it means that growth for French nuclear firms large and small must come from beyond French borders. As EDF CEO Jean-Bernard Lévy made clear in the opening session, “Expanding to new geographic areas is a priority.”
Most recently, France has focused on China, but even there, French firms could see limits, as the Chinese are rapidly learning from French and other nuclear partners and building their own technical and human capacity (Figure 2).
Meanwhile, nuclear projects on French soil have had their own challenges.
The delays and cost overruns for Flamanville 3 are by now familiar. Though there was little discussion of why that project has been beleaguered, EDF’s new Flamanville project director, Laurent Thieffry, did address the issue. He noted that the project’s “too long” history is partly a consequence of being a reference model (the Areva EPR is the first Generation III+ reactor in France’s fleet), so there was a learning phase. It was also the first to include post-Fukushima design requirements. But the project was recently reorganized, created new supplier relationships and incentives, and developed new operational processes. As for problems discovered with the Areva reactor pressure vessel (in April 2015, the French nuclear regulator announced that there were anomalies in certain steel of parts of the vessel and a possible manufacturing flaw), Thieffry said they are “very confident” in the final qualification for this vessel because they have a new metal qualified for service.
ITER Fusion Program’s Special Challenges
Brexit may have more of an impact on the ITER fusion project being developed at Cadarache, France. Though the consequences of the Brexit vote are not yet clear, should the UK actually break from the EU, its companies and people would no longer be eligible to work on the massive multinational project, said Guenter Janeschitz, office deputy head, Central Integration Office, ITER, on a WNE panel.
The project’s seven members are China, EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S. A 2010 ITER press release noted that the UK was then third in number of project contracts awarded, worth “well over£100M (115.5 M€).” Most recently, during WNE on June 28, ITER Director General Bernard Bigot signed a €174 million contract with the Momentum joint venture (led by UK-based Amec Foster Wheeler and including France’s Assystem and South Korea’s Kepco Engineering and Construction Co.) for the management and coordination of the assembly and installation of the fusion project’s tokamak and associated plant systems. Clearly, a lot of money is at stake in addition to long-term benefits of project involvement.
In some respects, ITER is emblematic of the nuclear industry’s global interconnections and challenges. Project members share costs and contribute “components, systems or buildings” and will share in the research and intellectual property results—which sounds like a good idea, at least in theory. As Janeschitz noted, the procurement scheme “makes life difficult” and drives up costs because components come from multiple countries with multiple processes. Magnets, for example, are produced by multiple firms in six countries with six qualification processes, and they are a component with a “high need for tight tolerances” (Figure 3).
Because of the project structure, “We don’t even know what the real cost is,” Janeschitz said.
Small Reactors Slowly Getting Attention
On the other end of the scale spectrum lie small modular reactors (SMRs). Multiple countries have expressed interest in the mini plants, and several are doing research and development (R&D) work and even constructing initial projects (see “Small Modular Reactors Speaking in Foreign Tongues” in the January 2015 issue). In the U.S., NuScale is the furthest along, as the company’s chief commercial officer, Mike McGough, explained—both because it has a customer (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) and is testing various components in a one-third-scale prototype. Meanwhile, more than 600 people are working on the design certification application.
Theories about where SMRs are most likely to be deployed vary. EDF’s R&D director, Bernard Salha, acknowledged that SMRs may be “more bankable” than traditional large units. EDF sees two types of potential markets:
■ International newcomers, remote sites, and for other uses, such as providing heat.
■ Domestic European markets, where SMRs could help cope with high levels of renewables as a “mid-merit operator.”
Salha seemed to give grudging respect to SMR prospects, noting that they’re “a rare new idea,” but necessary, for the industry to be innovative.
Ron Oberth, president and CEO of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries, pitched Canada as a perfect site for testing SMRs due to its long history with nuclear power, domestic fuel, and supplier infrastructure. He sees potential for SMRs in remote Canadian communities and at mines, where fuel has to be flown in, creating an even larger GHG footprint. He also suggested SMRs might replace coal capacity in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The focus of the WNE is on doing business—making connections with potential customers and partners and even signing contracts. In that regard, the exhibitors I spoke with (there were roughly 700 listed in the program) all agreed that the event attracted the right people and that they were making useful connections. That suggests that there is still money to be made in the nuclear industry.
Though the show daily erroneously reported that Watts Bar Unit 2 began “commercial operation” just prior to the event (it actually was synchronized to the grid on June 3 and will undergo testing until going commercial, which is expected this summer), one can hardly blame the industry for celebrating any positive milestones.
The exhibition is organized by AIFEN, so one would expect the French contingent of exhibitors to be large, but you might be surprised to know that the U.S. “pavilion” was smaller than that of China (Figure 4). Then again, China is responsible for much of the “good news” in nuclear, as it has been the main driver of recent capacity additions (see sidebar “Global Partnerships and Competition”).
In his comments to the opening WNE session, Fatih Birol (Figure 7), executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), cited data from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook that the 400 GW of nuclear capacity additions in 2015 were the largest amount in 25 years. However, a lot of aging capacity is getting ready to retire, which adds to the volume of retirements announced for national policy or economic reasons.
7. More nuclear, please. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told World Nuclear Exhibition attendees that the world needs to nearly double nuclear’s current share of 11% of total generation by 2040 in order to meet climate change goals. Source: POWER/Gail Reitenbach
Nuclear accounts for 11% of current global power generation and needs to reach 18% to 20% by 2040, he said, in order to meet GHG emission reduction goals. Commenting on the hype about electric vehicles, Birol observed that they are important in meeting climate change goals, but if you produce electricity from high-carbon sources, there may be little positive effect on overall emissions.
The markets, Birol said, don’t send a strong enough signal for nuclear. Governments need to provide long-term capital surety for the industry, in his view.
Depending on where you stick a pin on a map of the world, the nuclear workforce challenges may vary, but virtually every nation is facing some sort of constraint. France faces union pressures (see the discussion above concerning HPC development), and Laurent Thieffry, EDF’s project director for the long-delayed Flamanville 3, noted in a discussion about nuclear project management complexities that, after a major project reorganization at Flamanville 3, they secured agreement to allow some work at the site on Sundays—a big change.
Apparently thinking of North America and Europe in particular, Magwood observed that there are few people left with direct experience in large nuclear plant projects. Some countries—like South Korea, China, and Russia—he said, have had a continuous build program, but elsewhere, there’s a skills gap not only in leadership but also with contractors and subs.
China, which has been partnering with foreign technology providers for operator training as well, developed the Sino-French Institute of Nuclear Engineering and Technology (IFCEN) at the Sun Yat-sen University in 2010. Jean-Marie Bourgeois-Demersay is the French dean of IFCEN. He noted that such a specialized institute for nuclear education doesn’t even exist in France. China, he said, is interested in what foreign countries can offer, even though it has many excellent educational institutions. Education, too, he noted, is becoming globalized. France participated in development of the six-year program that enrolls 100 students each year. Courses are taught in Chinese, French, or English. The students, who know no French at the start of the program, get five months to learn how to follow math, chemistry, and physics courses in that language.
The UK is among the nations emphasizing education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to develop the pipeline for future nuclear workers, explained Dawn Vinall, manager of business development for the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. The government, she said, is supportive of a national nuclear college. She also noted that the UK’s focus on long-term skills management has included the “free movement of people,” a statement that met with a few chuckles, as a true break with the EU could constrain the free movement of workers across UK borders.
Charles Potter of the UK’s Nuclear National Lab said that the industry also needs a more diverse workforce. In the UK, 25% of nuclear workers are female today, but the country has a goal of 40% by 2030.
How to dispose of high-level waste (HLW)—from medical, military, and other industrial uses as well as power production—over the long term is an issue no country has yet resolved. Deep geologic repositories are the standard planned approach, and a couple of pilot projects have been developed, but progress toward a full-scale operating site anywhere has been slow.
For spent nuclear fuel (SNF), reprocessing is an option that is being used by some nations, but that leaves other sources of HLW, including select components from decommissioning projects. According to the World Nuclear Association, as of the beginning of 2016, “about 110 commercial power reactors, 46 experimental or prototype reactors, over 250 research reactors and a number of fuel cycle facilities have been retired from operation.” Though not all plant components are radioactive, let alone HLW, the waste disposal problem is large and widespread.
As Angelo Paratore of Italy’s National Radioactive Waste Management Agency explained, “Italy is definitely out of nuclear power production,” but not out of nuclear material management. It currently has about 1,000 people involved in decommissioning and closing the nuclear fuel cycle. It has a contract with France for reprocessing fuel and is working with France’s ANDRA (the national radioactive waste management agency) to develop a National Repository that is a “near-surface facility with engineering barriers and natural barriers arranged in series”—similar to French, Spanish, Belgian, and Korean designs. Paratore noted that Italy will be looking for voluntary site hosts.
The UK, too, has a contract with ANDRA and is looking for a site for near-surface (<200 meters deep) disposal, as “not all higher-activity waste needs geological disposal,” said Bruce McKirdy, managing director of Radioactive Waste Management Ltd.
Even operating plants are bumping up against waste disposal challenges. Though South Korea has developed a site for low- and intermediate-level waste that is currently operating (Figure 8), it faces a “challenging situation,” said a representative of its National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (KORAD). By 2019, Wolsong Unit 1—the country’s second-oldest reactor, which received a seven-year operating license extension last year—will reach onsite SNF storage saturation.
8. Part of the solution. The Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD) began storing waste at the country’s only underground low- and intermediate-level facility last year, but a solution for long-term storage of high-level waste has not yet been developed. Courtesy: KORAD
In addition to the necessity of efficiency improvements at all stages of the lifecycle, as well as policy and market changes, three other main solutions to current industry challenges emerged over the three-day event.
Standardization of Codes and Standards. As critical as the rules of the road are to nuclear projects, globalization requires a level of consistency among those rules. More than a couple of speakers called for greater standardization of nuclear codes and standards globally as being necessary to ensure safety, communication, and efficiency. As Magwood said, if we’re going to see more nuclear plants built, “we’re going to have to become much better at building nuclear power plants,” and one way to improve is to “harmonize codes and standards.”
Technology to the Rescue? Using new technology—especially big data, analytics, and a variety of digital tools, including virtual reality—was a new theme at WNE this year. Dominique Louis, founding chairman of Assystem, said the industry is looking for digital technology to help manage costs, assist with design and engineering, and improve efficiency.
Interestingly, different countries are starting their digital journeys in different places. Dassault’s Charlès said that Japan started with digitization in manufacturing engineering; in the U.S. it began with design; in France and Russia it started with construction. You can start at different places, he said—it depends on the culture of the company. At Flamanville 3 (Figure 9), for example, which is in its final construction phases, they are digitizing 40,000 pages of commissioning test documents.
9. Laggard. The long-delayed Flamanville 3 EPR plant, using Areva’s Generation III+ design, is finally nearing completion. This photo of the construction site was taken June 28, 2016. Courtesy: EDF/ Morin Alexis
Ivan Borisov, vice-president business development for ASE Group in Russia, commented on his group’s work with Dassault and on how, by creating a digital model of a future nuclear station, they can anticipate problems, in the digital world, before they build.
Charlès also commented that digitization isn’t an end in itself. It’s about being more competitive and reliable. For the first time, he said, you can replicate an airplane or power plant with digital data, and the digital replication or “twin” is a better model than what a human can produce.
Magwood made a pitch for exploring technology that can “treat, recycle, and reduce toxicity of nuclear waste,” such as advanced fast reactors and fuel reprocessing.
Better Management and Communication. A subtle theme, at times an actual admission of previous failures, was the need for better communication among project partners to ensure positive cost and timeline results for new builds. A related suggestion, made by Betri CEO Jérôme Teissier, was that clients should delegate control for components to vendors, because, he said, “delegation brings real responsibility.”
On the other hand, as Magwood noted in a different session (while Westinghouse’s Mark Marano, president, EMEA & Americas Regions, nodded), owners have to be involved along the way to ensure that they are getting value for their projects. When Marano spoke, he acknowledged that “our supply chain was not ready” in the U.S., presumably referring to delays with the V.C. Summer and Plant Vogtle projects.
Dassault’s Charlès commented on the problem of communication between teams because of a lack of understanding. There’s a huge opportunity, he said, to transform the French nuclear industry’s “capacity to trust each other” and “exactly understand what is happening.” He gave an example from the aerospace industry, where greater collaboration has resulted in more successful projects.
Even when deploying new digital tools, the communication component must be present. You can’t just believe that IT will solve the problem, Charlès said. “It has to be driven from the executive team.”
If there was one thing every speaker would have agreed upon, it is the nuclear industry’s need to innovate, quickly, on multiple fronts—from education, management, and policy to technology, finance, and safety. Speed is imperative both for climate change reasons and because innovations and cost reductions in other clean energy options are moving faster than the nuclear industry is used to moving. Some of the initiatives mentioned at WNE may be moves in the right direction, but whether they prove sufficient remains to be seen.
Magwood (Figure 10) commented in the panel on innovation that we benefit today from investments made by previous generations in things like aerospace and power, but we’re “fixated on today’s comforts and not focused on the future in 50 years.” That’s a “failure of vision,” he said. “If we don’t invest in the future, we won’t have a very good future.”
10. Future focused. William D. Magwood IV, director general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, urged World Nuclear Exhibition attendees to invest in the future. Otherwise, he said, “we won’t have a very good future.” Source: POWER/Gail Reitenbach
As if to prove Magwood’s point about near-sightedness, John E. Kelly, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy, spoke next about how deployment of a closed fuel cycle worldwide won’t happen unless there’s an economic reason to take that path. Kelly noted that there’s more drive to recycle spent fuel when there isn’t domestic uranium available. If prices increase, he said, then recycling will be more attractive.
A major motivation for pursuing innovation is to make money. A question from the audience regarding Australia’s proposed plan to develop a repository for global nuclear waste prompted attorney Paul Murphy to comment that if project planners sell the government on the idea, “they’re going to make a lot of money.” Furthermore, it makes sense, he said, that not every country would have “a big hole in the ground.” He continued, “We need to get out of our own way and make these things happen” so there’s a solution to long-term waste management from decommissioned plants. ■
—Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.