New nuclear build – sufficient supply capability?

3 March 2009

As the important role nuclear power needs to play in supplying cheap and environmentally-friendly energy becomes increasingly accepted, the ability of plant component suppliers to keep up with the demands placed on them has come into question. There are now several reports which foresee the number of nuclear power plants worldwide doubling by 2030, envisaging perhaps 40 or 50 per year being commissioned on an annual basis by the end of this period. The more immediate challenge, however, is to move back towards the rate of growth established in the 1980s, when an average of over 20 reactors a year were commissioned. This is essentially the requirement in the period up to 2020, with new reactor construction re-established in major markets such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, while being reinforced in the huge growth markets of China and India.

Everyone recognises that there is currently insufficient capacity at heavy engineering plants to make the reactor components for this level of new build, essentially for those units of 1100MWe and beyond. Indeed, the supply challenge is not confined to the heavy forgings for reactor pressure vessels, steam turbines and generators, but extends to other engineered components. An obvious point to make, however, is that it would be remarkable if there actually was sufficient supply capability available today. There have been no orders for new nuclear plants in most of the major countries for over two decades, so why would any supplier maintain the dedicated capacity in place? Men and machines have moved into supplying other sectors, notably the oil and gas industry which has been comparatively buoyant over this period. There is therefore an obvious major challenge to achieve new investment in major forges and steelmaking lines and this will be dependent on new reactor orders, rather than simply uncommitted plans or vague proposals.

It is also important to note that since significant numbers of new reactors were last being built, the world has moved on. Globalisation of production is now a reality in most sectors of our economies and nuclear is no different. When the first- and second-generation nuclear power plants were built, they mostly came from integrated suppliers in each country, requiring little from external sources. In the United States, companies such as Westinghouse, GE, CE and B&W would take on the “whole job” in supplying nuclear reactors. Today most of the new plants will come from a range of international suppliers, with the major vendor companies more focused on design, engineering and project management stages. Apart from obvious economic advantages in concentrating the production of key components in a limited number of centres, there is also a notable demand from customers to maximise local supply. This can mean a high level of technology transfer, clearly important for gaining orders in countries such as China and India – indeed, Westinghouse’s readiness to transfer the technology for its AP1000 to China was apparently a major factor in its selection.

Taking this further, it is clear that the envisaged new nuclear build programme in the UK, for example, will be almost like establishing a new industry. Despite significant experience of nuclear in the past, as a leader in nuclear technology from the 1950s onwards, the UK has not had a substantial nuclear reactor construction programme for many years. It is therefore reasonable to question whether there is now the capability to supply the plant and equipment (either from local suppliers or from the international market), to carry out the major civil engineering and construction works that will be required and also to provide adequate programme management and technical support. Within the UK nuclear industry itself, the change in focus in recent years towards plant decommissioning and the cleanup of old sites is tying up a lot of resources – this must now be adjusted.

The major area of today’s concerns on supply capability is with the largest forgings needed for Generation III + reactors. Production of the reactor pressure vessel for these requires, or is best undertaken by, forging presses of about 15,000 tonnes capacity which accept steel ingots of around 500 tonnes. These are currently not common, and those presses in operation do not have high throughput – as little as four pressure vessels per year has been stated as the current capacity level, fitting in with other work, though the potential is naturally much greater than this. Reactor vendors prefer large forgings to be integral as single products, but it is possible to use split forgings which are welded together – these welds then need checking through the life of the plant.

The very heavy forging capacity in operation today is in Japan (Japan Steel Works), China (China First Heavy Industries) and Russia (OMX Izhora). New capacity is being built by JSW and in South Korea (Doosan), France (Le Creusot) and is planned in both UK (Sheffield Forgemasters) and India (Larsen & Toubro). Nothing in North America currently approaches the scale of these enterprises. The suppliers of nuclear equipment must be qualified and quality controlled and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (AMSE) nuclear accreditation known as the N-stamp is internationally recognised. This means that the authorised vendor has produced the commercial nuclear-grade components in accordance with the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Nuclear Codes and Standards – this applies to both design and fabrication of components.

The largest and best-known supplier of heavy forgings is Japan Steel Works (JSW), which has the distinction of supplying the large forgings for reactor pressure vessels for the first two 1650MWe Areva EPR plants in Finland and France. At its Muroran plant on Hokkaido, it has 3000 to 14,000 tonne hydraulic forging presses, the latter able to take 600-tonne steel ingots, and a 12,000 tonne pipe-forming press. At present its capacity is reported to be only four reactor pressure vessels per year, but this is set to double. Muroran also manufactures steam generator components, generator & turbine rotor shafts, clad steel plates and turbine casings for nuclear power plants. Around 130 JSW reactor pressure vessels are currently in service around the world. The company has said that one of its main targets is to supply nuclear reactor pressure vessels to the Chinese and American markets and it has advance orders from GE-Hitachi for ABWR and ESBWR components, as well as EPR pressure vessels.

“The major area of today's concerns on supply capability is with the largest forgings needed for Generation III+ reactors”

China First Heavy Industries (CFHI) produces pressure vessels for nuclear power plants and is bidding to supply pressure vessels and steam generators for China’s second two AP1000 reactors. It has been utilising a 12,500 tonne press but commissioned a 15,000 tonne open-die hydraulic press at end of 2006 – currently claimed to be the world’s largest. CFHI announced in December 2007 that it had gained approval from the National Development and Reform Commission to invest CNY 2.3 billion ($337 million) in expanding its production capacity. Located in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China, the project is going to double the company’s annual production of molten steel and increase pressed forging capacity to 240,000 tonnes per year. The Harbin Boiler Works and Shanghai Electric Group are also bidding for AP1000 work which will require very heavy forgings, so they can be expected to install that capacity rapidly if required.

Russia’s main reactor component supplier is OMZ’s Komplekt-Atom-Izhora facility, which is doubling the production of large forgings so as to be able to manufacture three or four pressure vessels per year from 2011. OMZ is expected to produce the forgings for all new domestic AES-2006 model VVER-1200 nuclear reactors (four per year from 2016), plus exports. At present Izhora can produce the heavy forgings required for Russia’s VVER-1000 reactors at the rate of two per year. The company is rebuilding its 12,000 tonne hydraulic press, claimed to be the largest in Europe, and a second stage of work will increase that capacity to 15,000 tonnes.

In South Korea, Doosan Heavy Industries is currently undertaking a major investment in casting and forging capacity, apparently including a 14,000 tonne forging press. It has contracts from Westinghouse and Shaw to supply reactor pressure vessels and steam generators for four new AP1000 reactors in USA, as well as two of the four being built in China at Sanmen and Haiyang. It also has an agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) for the supply of heavy forgings and equipment for further projects in China, apparently in the 1000MWe plus category.

In Europe, STARsteel (acquired by Areva in 2006) has an 11,300 tonne forging press and also one of 7500 tonnes. Areva’s Creusot Forge subsidiary in Burgundy specialises in large forged components and announced recently that it was investing to increase production of heavy nuclear components, including large reactor pressure vessels. In particular, the nozzle shell ring for the EPR requires capacity to forge a 500 tonne ingot and only JSW can do this now. This investment will consolidate a second source of supply for EPR components, additional to JSW. In the UK, Sheffield Forgemasters has a 10,000 tonne press which takes 300 tonne ingots, and is looking at financing options for installing a 15,000 tonne press which will handle 500 tonne ingots. If proceeding, this will be commissioned at the start of 2012 and enable it to manufacture all heavy components for EPR and AP1000 reactors.

The USA has not surprisingly seen a decline in nuclear engineering facilities. In the mid 1980s there were about 440 facilities with N-stamp accreditation from the AMSE. This number subsequently halved, only partly due to industry consolidation, but has now recovered to 255 as of mid-2008. Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Power Generation Group (B&W NPG, formerly BWX Technologies) has entered an agreement with Areva to produce EPR components for UniStar at its Mount Vernon, Indiana plant. In 2008 the Shaw Group and Westinghouse created a joint venture Global Modular Solutions which is building a $100 million factory at Lake Charles, Louisiana, to produce structural, piping and equipment modules for new nuclear power plants utilising Westinghouse’s AP1000 technology. It is part of an emerging world network of such factories – preceded by one in China. Also in 2008, Areva set up a $360 million joint venture with Northrop Grumman to build a factory at its shipyard at Newport News, Virginia. The facility is designed to be a twin of Areva’s Chalon-St Marcel plant in France, taking major components forged elsewhere, notably reactor pressure vessels, steam generators and pressurisers, and finishing them ready for installation. Areva Newport News is expected to produce components for at least seven EPR reactors in the USA as well as more for export – Areva wants 80% of the components for its US reactors to be made in USA.

Therefore a significant amount of new investment is already taking place worldwide to satisfy the increasing requirements and avoid supply bottlenecks. Some commentators have made the mistake of seeing things in a static framework – if the orders for new reactors come in, the supply capability will be developed, even though things look tight at the moment. Supply constraints plus escalating steel and energy prices have undoubtedly flowed into plant costs, but the worldwide financial crisis and likely subsequent economic recession in many countries may provide a relief from this. There should be less competition for resources from other sectors if a huge number of new reactor orders come in and construction delays from lack of major components avoided. Indeed, the delays experienced so far at the EPR projects in Finland and France are apparently attributable to rather different reasons.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Director of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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