Burgundy forges ahead

20 June 2006

While the nuclear revival is welcome, many are concerned about the lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity worldwide. By Judith Perera

At the Opportunities for Growth & Investment in Europe conference, organised by Platts and held in Paris on 8-9 May 2006, French industry leaders described how they were hoping to address the shortage of nuclear component manufacturing facilities with the formation of the Pôle Nucléaire Bourgogne (Burgundy Nuclear Partnership, PNB).

Speaking during a panel discussion on developing specialist nuclear expertise in Europe, Gerard Kottman, PNB head and CEO of tubing company Valinox Nucléaire – which is one of the members of the partnership – explained that PNB aimed to bring together all the engineering companies involved in providing components for PWRs along with relevant supporting academic and government institutions.

The main members of PNB are: Areva NP (formerly Framatome ANP); the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA, Atomic Energy Commission); Electricité de France (EdF); University of Burgundy (including the university technical institutes of Le Creusot and Chalon-sur-Saône, and the ENSAM Cluny school of engineering); Valinox Nucléaire (tubing); and Sfarsteel (heavy forgings). There are also 48 associate members.

Last year, these companies applied for and received pôle de competitivité, or ‘competitive cluster’, categorisation from the French Ministry of Industry. A budget of €470 million was proposed for a ten-year period, to be allocated over three stages: the first stage accounts for €20 million; the second, which will restore the industrial production equipment and shorten production time, was set at €150 million; and the final stage, which will end between 2010 and 2015, will cost €300 million. This final phase will aim to ensure a 100% increase in overall power production.

Industry leaders agreed that during the first two stages, for every euro invested by the government, another would be invested by industrial partners, but company leaders hope to provide all the investment themselves during stage three.

Kottman explained that PNB would be “a one-stop-shop for nuclear components” all located within 90 minutes of each other. He said Europe needs 300GWe of new electricity capacity and the aim of the partnership is to become a manufacturing hub for nuclear in Europe so that there will no longer be any need to source components from Japan.

The partnership programme includes plans for extensive investment and training, including the creation of an international school for nuclear plant maintenance, construction and decommissioning. Over the past 15 years the nuclear industry has not been recruiting new personnel and consequently the average age of PNB partnership employees is 45-50. The partnership hopes to remedy this through its links with the University of Burgundy.

Kottman told NEI that several years ago his company and others in the Burgundy region were on the point of closure for lack of orders but had opted to downsize in anticipation of a nuclear revival. It had proved to be a good decision, he said, since now order books were full and he had had to recapitalise his company twice to meet the sudden increase in demand.

David Guillon, president and CEO of Sfarsteel, said the new EPR and AP1000 reactors are more complicated for manufacturers at a time when the industry has been running down for the past 20 years.

Until around the 1980s, nuclear plants generally required around 20 different forgings per unit. In the 1990s this increased to 50-55 and today it is 75, he noted. But when demand for new nuclear plants was low this was not a problem. Today the industry is delivering more forgings for just two plants than it did for all of those built in the 1980s.

Japan and PNB would each have the capacity to build four new plants a year, but from 2010 the industry will not be able to meet demand, he said. Other heavy industries are booming at the same time and competing for the same scarce resources and skilled workers. The learning curve for nuclear work, however, is comparatively long.

Currently Japan has the monopoly on very heavy forgings, Guillon said: only Japanese companies can produce forgings over 500t while French companies are limited to 250t. But Sfarsteel is now considering whether to build a new workshop to supply heavier products.

Of the EPR’s forgings, 19 are considered heavy. Sfarsteel could provide all of those except the nozzle shell, so the company is now looking to invest in its own plant, even though supplying one piece three or four times a year would not initially be economically viable.

Kottman added that the partnership is working on investment plans “to ensure that we are ready to meet demand.” The target of PNB, he said, is to become a second source for fourth generation nuclear power plants.

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