Powering future demand17 May 2004
The main focus at the 12th International Conference on Nuclear Engineering, held on 26-29 April, was on future energy demand, and how the next generation of nuclear power systems would be able to meet it. By Thecla Fabian
Advanced reactors are long overdue, US Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) told the opening plenary session of the 12th International Conference on Nuclear Engineering (ICONE-12), held in Crystal City, Maryland, USA on 26-29 April. Craig, whose state hosts the Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) lead civilian nuclear technology development laboratory, is a longstanding proponent of advanced nuclear systems.
“Energy is essential for development,” Craig emphasised. “The developing world wants a standard of living not unlike what we have, and that will take a phenomenal amount of energy.” He pointed to statistics from a University of Nevada study that showed that “one third of the world’s 6 billion people have no access to electricity, and 1 billion do not have good water.”
In the meantime, demand will continue increasing in the USA and other developed nations. US electricity demand is expected to grow 50% over the next 20 years, “yet 31 states cannot meet US ozone standards at current production levels.”
Craig pointed out that, in the developing world, energy demand will grow even faster. “Most of the new energy demand will come from the developing world, led in the near future by China and India.”
In the future, “we will need to either eliminate combustion, or develop clean technology,” if the world is to meet rising energy demand and still control climate change, Craig said. “To me the answer is obvious – nuclear energy.”
However, he added that a new generation of reactors would bring new requirements – including large investments in the physical sciences, materials sciences, nanoscience and other areas of science and technology. It would also require training a new generation of scientists and engineers.
William Magwood, director of DoE’s Office of Energy, Science and Technology, which is responsible for the department’s work in advanced reactors and civilian nuclear technology, also stressed that nuclear is the ‘indispensable option’, to meet future energy demand because it can reliably meet domestic baseload power needs without producing carbon emissions.
The USA, which has not ordered a new nuclear power plant in more than 25 years, must break the ‘next plant barrier’, Magwood said. Significant technical and investment challenges remain, including the need to address waste, safety and terrorist issues. How much support the government should provide to bring new nuclear plants online is another open issue. Magwood called for government support appropriate for dealing with next plant barriers, but said government funding should not be a prerequisite for the long term.
He noted that DoE is participating with utilities in the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative that seeks to have a new nuclear power plant operating – or at least close to operating – by the end of the decade. Three consortia have applied for early site permits and have expressed interested in exploring the new combined construction and operating licensing option. DoE is working with these consortia and providing part of the funding to work out the new licensing programmes (see NEI May 2004, p2).
Long-term efforts are being directed towards Generation IV (Gen IV), an international collaboration begun in 2000 to develop advanced reactors suitable for commercial deployment. Magwood said the efforts have now been divided into the near-term Gen IV-A thermal systems that will use advanced high-burnup fuels and the longer-range Gen IV-B systems that will use fast reactors.
Magwood also highlighted DoE plans to build the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) at Idaho National Laboratory as another key component of the US effort to develop a new generation of reactors. He said the department should make an announcement over the next month or so on the path forward for the very high temperature reactor that will produce thermal neutrons and power a prototype hydrogen production plant. Current DoE plans call for NGNP to begin operations around 2020.
Nuclear plants designed to produce clean burning hydrogen fuel for automobiles and other uses are another component of the Bush administration’s advanced nuclear programme, Magwood stressed, noting hydrogen’s potential role both in reducing production of greenhouse gases and in promoting US energy independence. “A lot of work will go into NGNP, but if it is successful, it will implement the president’s hydrogen fuel initiative much sooner than expected.”
Standardisation of components and multinational production of key plant modules will play an important role in development of new nuclear plants, but will also bring new problems. Standard design is needed to build a business case for new nuclear plants, said E James Reinsch, president of Bechtel Nuclear. “The only way to make nuclear cost competitive is for 65-75% of the plant to be built with modules manufactured elsewhere and assembled at the plant.” However, such standard systems would require the development of international standards for materials, chemistry, the tube support system and thousands of other systems.
INPRO LOOKS FORWARD
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is grappling with standardisation as part of the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) effort. The INPRO TECDOC 1362 recommends a more internationally oriented licensing and component certification system, said Ronald Steur from IAEA’s Nuclear Power Division Section on Nuclear Power Technology Development. An international certification regime is emerging that will shape requirements in the early stages of reactor development, he said, adding that IAEA guidelines are slowly evolving into mandatory standards.
INPRO was the focus of more than a dozen papers and a special session at ICONE-12. INRPO coordinator Juergen Kupitz from Germany outlined the differences between the Gen IV and INPRO programmes. Gen IV is comprised of 11 nations, mainly technology holders, who have selected six technologies that will be most applicable to current industrialised countries.
INPRO, on the other hand, is looking specifically at the needs of developing countries, which will be the source of the largest energy demand increases over the next 50-100 years. It will consider technologies designed to meet the needs and preferences of these developing countries, based on a time horizon 50 years in the future. With the recent addition of France and the Czech Republic, INPRO has grown to 19 members, said Kupitz.
The technologies that emerge from INPRO are likely to be different from those that emerge from Gen IV, Kupitz said. INPRO is likely to focus on more than one system, depending on regional needs. “We don’t expect South Africa to look at fast reactors or Canada to look at light water reactors,” he explained, adding that INPRO can serve as an umbrella for countries that want to work on similar projects. Infrastructure also needs to play a far larger role in INPRO than in Gen IV, Kupitz said.
Both Steur and Kupitz stressed that, although the focus of the two programmes is different, they do work together. Eight nations are members of both the Gen IV International Forum (GIF) and INPRO, and several GIF members are represented on the INPRO steering committee. The USA, UK and Japan have not joined INPRO yet, “but could in a year or so,” Kupitz said. The USA, with DoE as the lead agency, has observer status on INPRO.
One area that has not been explored is applying the INPRO assessment methodology to the six concepts selected by GIF. “For the time being, no one is interested in this,” said Vyacheslav Kuznetsov from Russia’s Institute of Innovative Energy.
INPRO also is becoming more firmly entrenched in the IAEA structure. It was initiated in 2000 as an extra-budgetary activity funded by those nations that choose to join. This year, it will be partially included in the general budget.
Phase IA, completed in June 2003, developed a methodology for assessing innovative reactor systems. Phase IB, scheduled to conclude this month, seeks to validate the methodology by applying it to a number of case studies, including plans for Argentina’s CAREM reactor, Russian fast reactors, China’s pebble-bed reactors, and others. The results will be distributed to industry, regulators and others in the hope of starting a dialogue between potential vendors and users.
INPRO takes a holistic (cradle-to-grave) perspective on nuclear technology, looking at the entire process from fuel fabrication to waste disposal, Kupitz said. Waste and environment issues are a distinct category in the INPRO programme. Like Steur, Kupitz stressed that INRPO provides a forum for harmonisation of licensing, codes and standards.
Proliferation resistance is intrinsic to INPRO said Steur. To date, INPRO has primarily been concerned with state proliferation, not theft and terrorism issues, but this could change in the future. INPRO’s proliferation efforts are based on two principles: intrinsic proliferation-resistant technology features; and extrinsic societal features such as conventions, state commitments to fuel supply and return agreements, and institutional arrangements. Both intrinsic and extrinsic measures are needed to provide redundant proliferation resistance.
INPRO also stresses building proliferation resistance into the design process as early as possible, with international discussions of how to do this taking place both within and outside of INPRO, Steur said. Factors considered include the number of barriers, the robustness of each barrier and an assessment of the system as a whole.
Steur also cautioned that the IAEA would have to at least triple its current number of inspectors (from 800 to about 3000) to optimise both intrinsic and extrinsic proliferation resistance. Signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol will not be enough to meet these objectives. “Even non-enemies may want to look at each other.”
In this context, Steur finessed a question on US president George Bush’s efforts to prevent new countries from fabricating or reprocessing nuclear fuel. “Bush can have this opinion, but the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group is not necessarily going to accept it.”
POWERING THE RUSSIAN ARCTIC
Small reactors for use in developing countries, remote areas and other specialist applications are receiving increasing interest in many areas, not only through INPRO.
Lev Adamovich from Russia’s NIKIET, speaking through an interpreter, described a series of Russian studies seeking extremely small power plant designs for use in remote arctic communities of 2000-4000 people.
A leading contender is the 3MW UNITHERM reactor, which would be assembled and loaded with fuel in the factory and then barged intact to the site. All the primary side equipment except the feedwater pump would be inside the containment. The reactor would be set up on a concrete pad, where it would operate for 25 years on a single load of fuel. At the end of the operating period, the reactor would be shut down and left on site to cool for five years. The cooled reactor would be defuelled, disassembled and shipped back to the factory along with the spent fuel casks.
One of Russia’s goals is to develop a reactor that can be mass-produced so costs can be kept as low as possible, Adamovich said. Another objective is to minimise the number of people needed during the operational period, possibly to the point where the reactor would be unstaffed except for periodic inspection and maintenance visits. Such a reactor, of course, “would have to be absolutely, passively safe,” he said.
The design being considered is an advanced three-loop PWR with two design options, a 2.5MW version that would be better for district heating and a 6.4MW version that would be better for electricity production. Rechargeable batteries would provide 72 hours worth of emergency backup power. UNITHERM would use zirconium clad uranium fuel at 19.5% enrichment. Control rods would be reset about once a year.
GLOBAL TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY
The potential contributions of nuclear technologies to meet world energy demands while driving down carbon dioxide emissions “are enormous but not inevitable,” concluded the interim report of the six-year Global Technology Strategy Program (GTSP), a collaborative effort between DoE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland.
Another preliminary conclusion is that “international coordination is desirable, and probably needed” if these contributions are ever to be realised, said John Clarke, a senior investigator on the project. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was put forth as a paradigm for managing this coordination. Clarke was the first chair of the international ITER council. He also was a former DoE associate director of energy research and executive director of DoE climate activities.