POWER Notebook: A Week of Trials and Triumphs for Nuclear

The past week saw interesting developments worldwide for nuclear new builds, small modular reactors (SMRs), and advanced nuclear fuel. Highlighted here: A third U.S. utility will use Framatome’s ATRIUM 11 fuel design; Barakah 1 in the United Arab Emirates is on the cusp of startup; South Africa’s Eskom said it wants to dispose of PBMR Ltd; and the Czech Republic is exploring building an SMR based on boiling water reactor technology.

TVA Third U.S. Utility to Switch to ATRIUM 11 Fuel

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a U.S. corporate agency that operates three nuclear plants (with seven units) to produce 42% of its total generation, will become the third U.S. utility to switch to the ATRIUM 11 fuel design, a boiling water reactor (BWR) assembly manufactured by French nuclear technology giant Framatome.

Framatome said on Feb. 3 that it will provide the state-of-the-art fuel for three reactors at Browns Ferry with the first use planned in 2023. The company launched the advanced fuel design in the U.S. in April 2015, when two unnamed reactors began producing power using it. In September 2018, Framatome signed a contract with Talen Energy to deliver 300 ATRIUM 11 assemblies to the Susquehanna nuclear plant in Berwick, Pennsylvania, in January 2021.

The company’s latest BWR fuel, ATRIUM 11 features an 11×11 fuel rod array, which it says offers increased safety and fuel cycle savings. The fuel also allows operators to run plants more flexibly, responding to fluctuating demand as more intermittent renewables flood the grid. “The unique geometry of ATRIUM 11 inherently increases the amount of energy extracted from the fuel while reducing the power demand on individual fuel rods,” it explained. “As a result, customers can buy less uranium to meet cycle energy targets and increase power maneuvering agility to adapt to an evolving regional generation mix.”

Fuel for Browns Ferry will be manufactured at Framatome’s Richland, Washington, facility. Separately, Framatome will also upgrade the fuel handling equipment at the Browns Ferry, Sequoyah, and Watts Bar nuclear plants on “an accelerated schedule.” The work includes upgrading the refuel bridges at Browns Ferry, the manipulator cranes at both Sequoyah units and Watts Bar Unit 1, and the fuel transfer systems at Watts Bar. Framatome previously upgraded the fuel transfer systems at Sequoyah. The company will also replace the spent fuel bridges at Sequoyah and Watts Bar. Finally, SGT, a joint venture between Framatome and AECOM, will replace four steam generators at Watts Bar Unit 2.

UAE’s Barakah 1 Gets WANO’s Green Light to Start Up

Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. (ENEC), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) company that is building four APR1400 reactors at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Abu Dhabi, on Jan. 28 said that an extensive operational readiness assessment shows Barakah 1 is ready to start up. 

The assessment is part of a pre-start up review (PSUR) performed by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), an international team of nuclear industry experts of which ENEC and its subsidiary Nawah Energy Co. (Nawah) are both members.

Both ENEC and Nawah said culmination of the PSUR, which involved more than 30 support missions and peer reviews by WANO, demonstrates the success of Nawah’s ongoing operational readiness activities. Nawah said it is now preparing to load first nuclear fuel assemblies into Unit 1, likely in the first quarter of this year, once all requirements have been met and Nawah receives an operating license from the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), the UAE’s independent nuclear regulator. Once the fuel assemblies are loaded into the reactor, Nawah will begin the start-up sequence for power ascension testing

Eskom Looks to ‘Dispose’ of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned utility that produces nearly 90% of the African powerhouse’s electricity but is struggling to manage a deepening power crisis, on Jan. 30 announced it planned to dispose of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor SOC Ltd. (PBMR).

While Eskom re-incorporated the company in April 2012 and explored “various options” to commercialize its proprietary small-scale high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR), Eskom said it is now looking for a private buyer for the business. In an Expression of Interest (EoI) it issued on Jan. 31, Eskom said that it was looking for “market research to determine the nature of interest and to define the scope of the Request for Offer (RFO)/Request for Information (RFI) that would be issued as a next step in the process.” It urged interested parties to respond by Feb. 28.

The PBMR that was designed and marketed by PBMR Ltd. in 2011 would have used graphite-encased fuel spheres—or pebbles—of uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel to generate heat as well as power. The original concept, an evolutionary design of the German AVR, THTR, and HTR-Modul designs, was introduced in 1993, and PBMR Ltd. was launched in 1999 to develop a market for the reactor. In 2010, as Eskom reeled from a power crisis, South Africa’s government abandoned the project despite spending more than $1.3 billion on its development. The government then cited “financial constraints.”

Eskom issued the EoI last week amid heightened scrutiny about its finances and it struggled to battle an even more intense power crisis. In December, for the first time, Eskom pushed up load shedding two notches to stage 6—meaning it shed 6 GW of load—after power supplies to incline conveyors feeding coal to silos at a new 4-GW defect-ridden coal plant failed. On Feb. 6, load shedding was at a moderate stage 2. Eskom cited “critical maintenance to restore its agenting plants to good health” for the brownouts.

GEH to Collaborate with CEZ to Develop SMR for Czech Republic

On the heels of its announcement that it would begin the U.S. regulatory licensing process for its BWRX-300 reactor design, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) on Feb. 3 revealed that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ČEZ to examine the economic and technical feasibility of potentially building a 300-MW boiling water reactor in the Czech Republic.

ČEZ operates two nuclear plants in the Czech Republic that generate about a third of the Central European nation’s power. Daniel Beneš, chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO of ČEZ said in a press release on Feb. 3 that the electricity conglomerate is already engaged with the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) in its subsidiary ÚJV Řež. “The SMRs can be a significant alternative in the future that we cannot ignore. The collaboration with GE Hitachi is therefore a logical step for us,” he said. Karel Havlíček, vice-premier and minister of Industry of the Czech Republic, added that the country, which has a long tradition of nuclear energy research, aims “to set trends, not only to follow them.”

GEH has set an aggressive timeline to commercialize the SMR technology it says is derived from the the Gen III+ 1,520-MW ESBWR, and which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified in 2014. The BWRX-300, which is a water-cooled, natural circulation reactor design with passive safety systems, can provide flexible baseload power that is estimated to have “the lifecycle costs of typical natural gas combined-cycle plants targeting $2,000/kW for NOAK (nth of a kind) implementations,” the company says. “By leveraging the existing ESBWR design certification, utilizing licensed and proven nuclear fuel designs, incorporating proven components and supply chains and implementing simplification innovations the BWRX-300 can, GEH believes, become cost-competitive with power generation from combined cycle gas plants and renewable energy platforms.”

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)

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