Generating a nuclear future at PBNC200029 November 2000
Optimism about the future of the industry is growing. At the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference 2000, the tone was one of looking towards the future. In all areas, the industry is starting to see signs of positive growth and development.
With ironic timing, the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference 2000 (PBNC2000) was held in Seoul, South Korea on 29 October – 2 November, immediately after the anouncement of the cancellation of the Lungmen plant in Taiwan. Despite this, the conference was remarkably optimistic about the future of the nuclear industry. The developments that have taken place in the KEDO project (see NEI, October 2000) were a major topic of conversation, as were events in Korea in general.
There were many topics that were discussed at the conference, but there was one overriding theme: that the nuclear industry was on the verge of seeing a number of interesting and positive developments. One speaker said that he was more optimistic about the future of the nuclear industry than at any time since the Three Mile Island accident.
This optimism has arisen from:
•The dramatic increase in the price of oil and gas over recent years, which has concentrated attention on operating costs, and security of fuel supply.
•An increasing public awareness about environmental issues, and greater concern about the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions.
•Deregulation in many parts of the world, which has created great opportunities for existing plants.
There were mixed views as to how much needs yet to be done to transform optimism into actuality. International co-operation is one prerequisite; the costs of new design and construction are such that this is essential. The economic competitiveness of nuclear energy has to be improved considerably, with many speakers estimating that construction costs of $1000/kW need to be achieved. It was recognised that work still needs to be done in winning general public acceptance for nuclear power.
A number of topics within this general theme were discussed in some detail.
The KEDO project
A whole session was devoted to discussion of the KEDO project. It has been a long and tortuous process to get the project to its current position, and much work remains yet to be done. However, the project has provided a good model for the reduction of tensions between two nations, increasing understanding and boosting prosperity. This has been a considerable achievement, especially when one considers how poor international relations with North Korea were as recently as 1998, when it launched a ballistic missile that passed over Japanese territory.
Stephen Bosworth, the US ambassador to South Korea, said that there were a number of lessons to be learnt from the KEDO project. The most important was that such an undertaking could not succeed without the strong and active support – political as well as financial – of the governments involved. The KEDO project cannot be achieved without the necessary funding, and it has continually been challenged by insufficient budgetary considerations for heavy fuel oil and by rising cost estimates for the LWR project.
A second lesson is that it is necessary to be realistic in expectations of support from countries not directly involved. While most nations espouse support for non-proliferation, few will back their support up with significant funds unless they feel directly threatened. While 22 nations have provided material or financial support in most cases it has been minimal: by and large, the international community has not greatly responded to what is perceived as an issue only affecting North and South Korea, Japan and the USA.
A third lesson is that governments have to separate commercial and security interests. Parochial commercial interests should not be allowed to distract attention from the fact that KEDO is fundamentally a security project.
Another area which attracted a great deal of interest was that of new reactor design. This is partly because the designing companies recognise that for nuclear power to undergo a new construction renaissance, they need to bring down construction costs by at least 25%, with a target figure of $1000/kW being generally accepted.
Different designs are being worked on. Some are evolutionary developments of current designs, such as the development of the Korea Standard Nuclear Plant, which are intended to take advantage of mixing proven design with new developments. Others, such as the pebble bed modular reactor, have been developed from first principles.
In addition to the development of new reactor designs, there has been a great deal of work on new technologies in other areas of the industry.
Interesting developments were presented by Sueo Machi, from the Japan Atomic Industry Forum, who outlined a number of non-power developments of nuclear technology. One was the use of radiation technology to produce electron beams to remove NOx and SOx emissions by irradiation from coal-fired plants. This process produces ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate, which can be used as agricultural fertiliser. It is the only technology that simultaneously removes SOx and NOx. It does not require large amounts of water. A large pilot plant for verifying this technology is in operation in Poland.
In-Soon Chang, the president of Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), explained what R&D programmes were under way in Korea. These include:
•Korea Next Generation Reactor (KNGR). This will be a 1400MWe advanced light water reactor, with a design based on the KSNR. The basic design of the KNGR was completed in February 1999. The project is currently in the final phase, and is currently under review by the regulatory body.
•Korea is developing the SMART (System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor) system, which is intended to combine small-scale power generation with seawater desalination. It will be a 330MWt reactor, capable of supplying 40,000t of fresh water per day and 90MWe. The conceptual design was completed in 1999, and the basic design is underway, due for completion in 2002.
•The LMR Design Technology Development Project was approved in 1992 to develop an LMR which can serve as a long-term power supply with competitive economics and enhanced safety. KAERI is developing KALIMER (Korea Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor), and the basic design is due to be completed in 2006, with the possibility of construction during the mid 2010s.
•The hybrid power extraction reactor (HYPER) is being developed by KAERI to transmute nuclear waste and provide energy through the transmutation process. KAERI is aiming to finalise the system concept by 2001, and complete its conceptual design by 2006.
•The direct use of PWR fuel in Candu reactors (DUPIC) was first proposed in 1991. The remaining fissile material content in spent PWR fuel is sufficient to be directly reburned as a Candu fuel. The joint research programme between KAERI and AECL is under way to verify the performance of DUPIC fuel. Fifty DUPIC pellets and three DUPIC elements for irradiation test in KAERI’s Hanaro research reactor of were fabricated in March 2000.
One of the more contentious subjects discussed was when new construction might be seen. There were three basic opinions: one view was that we might expect to see new nuclear plants being constructed in the USA within the next two years; another view was that there would be no significant new construction until the economic conditions have been put into place; and the third view was that significant new construction will take place when the new designs have been finalised.
The majority view seemed to be that if nuclear construction can be made cost effective, then new contracts would automatically follow. In general terms, these economic criteria specify construction costs of $1000/kW and operating costs of 1.5c/kWh.
In the early days of deregulation, one of the big concerns of utilities was that large, capital-intensive nuclear plants would prove to be a serious problem because of their stranded costs. In fact, this has not happened. Utilities have found that well-run nuclear plants provide power at a low operating cost, and nuclear plants have been increasing in value, as measured by the price utilities are prepared to pay for them.
The raw data of the growth of power demand throughout the world remains impressive. Meeting that demand is not going to be an easy task.
In addition to this, the greater public awareness of environmental issues, especially with regard to the emission of greenhouse gases, means that fossil fuels will be limited in their ability to meet that growing demand. Alternative energy sources are not able to meet the demand, so it is felt that nuclear power will inevitably be required.
The next PBNC
The next PBNC conference will take place in Shenzhen, China in October 2002. It will be instructive to see whether the current optimism has been translated into new plant orders.