Nuclear power industry not mature

By Gloria Hsu 徐光蓉  / 

Fri, Sep 14, 2018 - Page 8

A few milestones for nuclear energy have been achieved recently. First, it was announced that the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is halfway to completion in 2025 to generate plasma fusion, “demonstrating the feasibility of fusion as a clean, safe and nearly limitless source of energy.”

Second, China’s Sanmen Nuclear Power Station, the first in the world to adopt Westinghouse Electric Co’s AP1000 pressurized water reactor, has been completed and is to enter commercial operations by the end of the year.

Third, construction of the first third-generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) has been completed in Finland. It is being tested and is expected to generate electricity by the end of next year.

Pro-nuclear advocates are not thrilled by these developments and they are painful to the nuclear power industry as their dreams meet with setback after setback.

The US, Japan, Russia and the EU collaborated in a nuclear fusion research project about 20 years ago, but there was still a long way to go after more than 10 years of research and constantly increasing budgets.

Two years after the US opted out in 1999 and the project came to a halt, a simplified conceptual model design came out, and China, South Korea and India joined the project.

However, the production of the first plasma fusion reactor, originally scheduled for this year, has been delayed to 2025, and the cost has doubled.

After plasma is produced, it might take another 10 years to achieve a genuine nuclear fusion reaction. Many people doubt whether the project would generate the 10-fold gain of plasma heating power needed for the reactor to operate. Furthermore, the ITER does not even aim to generate electricity.

It was also about 20 years ago when Westinghouse released the design of the AP1000, which greatly simplified the mechanisms of switch, motor, safety grid connection and control systems. The reactor can be built using existing factory products, which makes construction easier and cheaper than older models.

Construction of the first AP1000 at the Sanmen power plant began in 2008, but the launch date has been postponed from 2014 to this year and costs have increased by at least US$1.5 billion.

In 2008, Georgia Power Co and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co in the US each signed a contract with Westinghouse for two AP1000 reactors.

Even though the AP1000 is the most economical nuclear power reactor, the operators asked consumers to help pay for the cost when the four reactors began construction.

Since both sites started pouring basemat concrete in March 2013, they have consistenly fallen behind schedule while costs have kept on mounting.

Soon after Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March last year, construction of the two reactors in South Carolina was stopped and many are pessimistic about the completion of the two reactors in Georgia.

The EPR model, designed and developed by German and French companies, was released in 2007. The European model promises high efficiency, multilayered disaster prevention security, factory-made components and a reasonable price.

Construction commenced in Finland in August 2005 and operations were to begin in May 2009. The French contractor, Areva, was confident and promised that it would absorb any costs above the 3.7 billion euro (US$4.3 billion at the current exchange rate) contract.

The reactor has yet to start operations, but its cost has already exceeded 10 billion euros, causing massive losses that Areva almost had to declare bankruptcy, had it not been dissolved and restructured into the state-owned electric utility company Electricite de France.

Nor has construction of the same model in France been completed, as the contractor is still addressing flaws discovered during construction, while costs have reached 10.9 billion euros.

What the EPR and AP1000 models have in common is their claims of simplified designs and cheaper costs — both of which have gone awry after construction began.

Following major nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai-ichi, nuclear power businesses have tried to regain the public’s confidence with conceptual reactor designs that they say are more efficient, safer and simpler.

The question is whether these designs, which look miraculous on paper, can be built and if they can meet the targets.

When production increases, most businesses — such as manufacturers of LED displays, cellphones or photovoltaic technologies — follow a linear learning curve, gaining experience as lead times shorten and costs drop.

However, the nuclear energy industry is an exception, as every unit differs slightly from previous ones, there is a negative learning curve, with construction getting more expensive and time-consuming.

Despite the delays and rising costs, many nuclear energy advocates continue to have full confidence in the technology, saying that an “extremely simple” and “absolutely safe” reactor that will “never be used to develop nuclear weapons” is on the horizon and will dispel all doubts.

These people place high hopes on thorium-based reactors, small modular reactors and molten-salt reactors, among other new designs, but they are still at the stage of computational design and their feasibility remains uncertain.

We still do not know whether these reactors will live up to expectations or if new problems will occur.

Conceptual models and prototypes are not finished products. Nuclear energy should be a mature industry after almost 70 years of development and the industry should not evade problems and continue to try to win over the public by talking about “brand-new concepts.”

Concepts need finished products to prove they work.

The Longmen Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District (貢寮), which is wrought with flaws and problems, is the best evidence of that.

Gloria Hsu is the director of Mom Loves Taiwan, a group of mothers against nuclear power.

Translated by Chang Ho-ming