Nuclear power plant construction to continue globally, bilateral agreements key

Nuclear power plant construction will continue globally, with challenges, a panel of nuclear industry experts said during the American Nuclear Society's (ANS) Annual Meeting June 26. All aspects of construction were addressed, including regulatory framework changes following Fukushima and the importance of bilateral agreements. Currently, over 60 reactors are being constructed across the globe, which will add to the 430-plus operating units that generate over 370 GW.

“It feels good to be building new new nuclear power plants in the United States again,” said Russ Bell, director of New Plant Licensing at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The low price of natural gas will continue to be a hurdle for new nuclear projects, a sentiment that had been mentioned multiple times in the Annual Meeting sessions.

“Choosing nuclear is very difficult in this environment,” said Bell.

Joyce Connery, director for nuclear energy policy at the National Security Council, agreed that the large capital cost of new nuclear poses a challenge.

“Domestically, utilities don't have the balance sheet,” said Connery.

Citing environmental and climate change concerns, though, Connery said nuclear must be part of a portfolio approach to baseload power generation.

“If you think, shale gas is 50 percent better than coal. Nuclear is 100 percent better than coal,” she said.

Speaking from an international point-of-view, Park Ro-byug, Ambassador for the ROK-U.S. Nuclear Cooperation, said international cooperation and bilateral agreements are essential for the progression of nuclear research and development (R&D) and industry. Park said about 70 percent of all nuclear power generation comes from OECD countries, while 20 percent comes from developing countries such China, India and nations in the Middle East.

“Their share is increasing,” Park said. “About half of the current nuclear reactor construction is happening in Asia.”

Park said the amount of construction is also generating more agreements between countries. He said Korea is trying to close as many nuclear agreements as possible.

That may be evident with the agreement signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to build four new reactors in the UAE. Power demand in the UAE is expected to triple by 2020. About 98 percent of electricity in the country is currently generated by natural gas power plants, according to the World Nuclear Association. Hamad Alkaabi, UAE permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said about 65 percent of that natural gas is imported. Alkaabi said both coal and crude oil generation was looked at, but due to environmental concerns those sources were not viable options. Renewable energy is being pursued, but only small portions of demand can be met by renewables, said Alkaabi, which left nuclear as the viable technology available.

“The UAE is developing a program in partnership with international responsible partners with expertise in this area to ensure that the UAE program is based on the top technology and will be safe and secure from a technical point-of-view,” said Alkaabi.

In 2009, the contract between South Korea and the UAE was signed to design, build and develop four APR1400 reactors that will have the potential to generate 5,600 MW.

“The project so far has been very well, said Alkaabi. “Not only on the industry side, but also the infrastructure needed.”

The program in the UAE is focused on a long-term sustainable development. Alkaabi said it made sense to develop the program only if a sizable industry was created, which is why the country decided to build four reactors to start the program. UAE officials, though, have paid attention to the events in Japan and the global response, again, to ensure safety for a new nuclear program.

“The UAE will adopt any lessons learned,” Alkaabi said. “And they will continuously be involved in any discussions internationally.”

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. could be able to proceed with full construction on the new units by the end of this summer, having the first unit online in 2017.

Lithuania, a country that has been without nuclear power since the closure of the Ignalina plant in 2009, has plans to build a single Hitachi-GE 1,350 MW Advanced Boiler Water Reactor at the Visaginas plant, said Aurimas Kontautas with the Lithuania Energy Institute.

Before the closure of Ignalina, nuclear generated about 70 percent of the country's power. Almost 40 percent of power produced in Lithuania was exported.

“Electricity was a major export until the closure of the nuclear power plant,” said Kontautas.

The plant's two units, RBMK Russian-developed reactors, came online in 1983 and 1987. Plans were in place to add a third reactor in 1985, but the Chernobyl disaster happened and the third unit was demolished. Lithuania is now moving forward, and Kontautas said the license should be issued for the Visaginas plant by July 2015 with start-up to commence in 2020.

Not only are large reactors the focus of new construction, but small modular reactors (SMR) are also gaining a lot of interest, said Bell.

“There is serious interest in SMRs from serious players,” he said, and cited companies such as Ameren (NYSE: AEE), Fluor and Bechtel. “When you see that kind of interest, there is something there.”

Connery agreed, and said the Department of Energy's $450 million award for the development of two SMRs in the U.S., which is currently being reviewed, could help enhance the U.S. supply chain.

But, the U.S. is “still going to need big nuclear,” she said. “And sustain the 104 reactors we have.”

Bell said a great market for SMRs could be in replacing power lost from the expected retirement of older, coal-fired power plants. Developers of SMRs, though, must prove that the units are less costly and have the siting capabilities.

“It would be great to replace those (coal units) with clean nuclear generation,” he said.

Nuclear power plants are being built, and the U.S is taking part in the build-out. Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) is building two new Westinghouse AP1000 units at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, which are expected to be in-service in 2016 and 2018. SCANA is also constructing two AP1000 units at the Summer plant in South Carolina. Those units should be online in 2016 and 2019. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is completing Watts Bar Unit 2, with commercial operations expected to take place in 2015. TVA also has plans to complete the 1,260 MW Bellefonte Unit 1, a project that was shelved in 1988 when it was 90 percent complete.

“They have an ambitious program and proven capability to bring back to life older units,” said Bell.

With all eyes on nuclear, though, this is the time for the industry to succeed.

“We simply cannot screw this up,” said Bell. “Have to bring these first units online on, or near, budget and on, or near, schedule. And that is the plan and that is the current status.”

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