Atomic luau1 September 2004
The 14th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference took place in Hawaii on 21-25 March 2004. Speakers brought news from countries making up a third of mankind. By Jeremy Gordon
The theme of the 14th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference was ‘New Technologies For a New Era.’ And, while really new technology was a little thin on the ground, there was certainly much talk of the new era into which a revitalised nuclear industry is emerging. Familiar forces such as global development, environmentalism and expiring oil supplies are converging to create the new climate that a mature nuclear industry armed with new technology may begin to exploit.
Many speakers stressed how well nuclear compares to other no- and low-emmission generation technologies. Also, how, in the light of Kyoto and peak oil, the most competitive among these technologies stands to reap huge rewards in the fullness of time.
Luis Echavarri, director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency presented some alarming statistics, indicating that about $2.5 trillion must be invested by 2030 to increase generating capacity by the 105% necessary to meet predicted energy demand. While oil imports to OECD countries will double by 2030 there will also be an increasing reliance on natural gas. If the world hopes to meet both the demand for electricity and the Kyoto protocol demands for CO2 reductions, nuclear is an obvious and essential option now and in the decades to come.
But nuclear continues to face considerable challenges, particularly in the West. The deregulation of markets and the removal of guarantees for plant construction has made investors slow to support long-term projects, even though nuclear has remained competitive. Many speakers called on governments to exercise their abilities in market control, claiming nuclear would benefit greatly from recognition of its emission-free status, and the reduction of risk involved in new build.
The nuclear-age-old issue of public acceptance is still as relevant as ever.
Tai-Sun Kim of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power explained that the site selection process for a final repository for South Korea has been restarted, this time with public opinion as the top priority. Thanking supporters who he said gave their efforts selflessly to the cancelled Wido project, he told delegates that the importance of public acceptance cannot be over emphasised and while cooperation with local communities is key, cooperation with anti-nuclear groups just gets increasingly difficult.
But, as David Bladwin of General Atomics said when presenting the company’s GT-MHR design if you ask opponents of nuclear power what it would take to change their mind, what level of safety they would find acceptable, the amount of waste and the technology used to secure it, the designs under development at the moment are getting very close to those requirements.
The work of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), will be key to any turn-around in public opinion. Intended to be economical, safe and excellent hydrogen producers, internationally approved GIF designs are exactly what the nuclear industry needs to construct a new worldwide fleet of stations. Helen Leiser, the forum’s policy director, expects public interest to increase dramatically as research and development into the six candidate designs begins in earnest. It is vital for the industry to position itself to ride the wave, turning old prejudices against nuclear on their heads.
Ken Hedges of AECL told of the real enthusiasm in Canada about their nuclear industry’s future in the immediate wake of the Manley report on Ontario. There’s now a more positive focus than ever, problems in the form of the looming shortfall in Ontario, the blackout of 2003 and the Pickering A restart have brought focus to the need for investment while the success of the Candu construction projects in China prove that it can be done.
Asia’s forward-looking attitude ensures its place as the centre of nuclear construction, with many smaller reactor projects intended to stabilise power supply in less populated regions or provide on-the-spot power for desalination. South Korea has eight units under construction while research continues on the 60MWe System Integrated Modular Advanced Reactor and the Korea Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor, Kalimer, which has recently been augmented with a hydrogen generation techology and been submitted for consideration under GIF.
China’s Tsinghua University plans to begin construction of a 150MWe HTR-PM (high temperature reactor – pebble module) demonstration plant in 2006, to be completed by the end of the decade. In addition, government officials are moving to finalise the siting decision for four new 1000MWe PWRs. That all this comes on top of completing work at Tianwan and Qinshan is indicative of China’s plan to establish nuclear as 4% of its total generating capacity while energy use grows rapidly.
In Taiwan, construction continues on the Lungmen ABWRs while the country excels in plasma research. Delegates heard that plasma incineration technology that is apparently ready for commercialisation is capable of reducing most waste volume up to 10-fold, while combustible waste volume is reduced up to 100-fold. Plasma reformer technology is also helping Taiwan to develop new carbon nanotube manufacturing processes as part of the drive towards developing practical fuel cells.
Hydrogen production was to prove a major theme of the conference. Speaker after speaker emphasised that in the coming era, nuclear’s ability to produce both no-emmission electricity and hydrogen would ensure it a special and undeniable market, at the centre of the world’s energy needs. A special hydrogen session was well attended and saw an explanation of the recent fruits of Toshiba’s research into fuel cell production and miniaturisation. Toshiba regards VHTRs (very high temperature reactors) as being among the best ways of producing hydrogen.
If speakers such as James Lake of Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) are to be believed, “the future for nuclear energy in the first half of the 21st century is tremendous.” Lake’s work in Idaho has seen a trial of a sulphur-iodine cycle production method which consistently produced 32 litres of hydrogen per hour, over an 11,000 hour trial at an overall efficiency of 45%. Lake told delegates that the technology is very good – but remains very expensive. INEEL is the US Department of Energy’s lead laboratory in nuclear research and hopes to host one of the first GIF reactors, complete with hydrogen production facility.
Although Hawaii seems rather too glamourous a location for a nuclear meeting, the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference was in fact returning to its roots: the very first one was held there in 1976. One of Waikiki Beach’s largest hotels, the Sheraton Waikiki, provided the conference venue and excellent accommodation to many of the attendees, despite the ghastly wallpaper that terrorised the corridors.
The natural beauty of the surroundings brought focus to environmental concerns. Indeed, during the conference week, record CO2 levels were detected at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory and a thunderstorm was featured on the local news. A decade ago, thunder and lightning were virtually unheard of in Hawaii.
Perhaps the pleasant setting was a mixed blessing for the meeting. Though many were no doubt attracted to the thought of spending time in Hawaii, its beauty and sunshine surely tempted the less committed from the conference rooms, leaving only about 60 delegates spread between the nine parallel technical sessions on the final day. The difference was noticeable – about 300 attended in total.
The situation was perhaps not helped by the timing of the morning and afternoon sessions. It was assumed that delegates would like to spend their lunch time – often a generous two hours – enjoying the location and so lunch was not really provided. In addition, the lack of coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon dramatically reduced the frequency of shoulder-rubbing opportunities.
Minor complaints aside, the quality and sheer number of the presentations was very high, reflecting the surge of vitality the industry is feeling at the moment.
The next meeting of the Pacific Basin Nuclear Council will be hosted by the Australian Nuclear Association in Sydney between 15-20 October 2006.