Bienvenido a Miami15 October 2004
The third biannual Americas Nuclear Energy Symposium was held in Miami Beach, USA on 3-6 October 2004. 'Building bridges to greater cooperation' was the subtitle: the meetings are intended to strengthen ties between North and South America. By Jeremy Gordon
The third Americas Nuclear Energy Symposium was intended to bring the two American continents together: boosting the North’s industry back into forward motion and helping guide the South’s energy development along a safe, sustainable and presumably nuclear path.
Over 230 delegates spent some sunny days in Miami in early October at the conference, which has grown significantly from the seed planted by the US Department of Energy (DoE) and the American Nuclear Society at a pilot meeting in 1998. Of course, it’s hard to measure cooperation but the levels of intercontinental participation were certainly good: there were large delegations from the US national laboratories and senior figures from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the USA. Over 40% of the presentations and posters were from South America.
While the USA is thinking of advanced reactor designs for the years to come, it makes more sense, at least in Argentina and Brazil, to finish off some long-delayed projects. Brazilian Sergio Mathias of Eletronuclear told of his hopes for a positive decision on the future of Angra 3 by the end of the year. The unit is about 40% complete with thousands of components kept in storage, rather like Argentina’s Atucha 2,
a 692MWe Siemens PHWR which is 81% complete. Dario Jinchuk of the Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina explained that the project, which should have been generating much needed power since the early 1980s, has done nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s costing $4.5 million each year to maintain the condition of the components and construction site and $4 million each year to store the reactor’s
never-used heavy water. The commercial decision to be made is whether to commit $479 million to finish the job, or spend $191 million to deconstruct what’s already been built. Argentine utilities would rather build a natural gas station.
These political and financial failures have cost South American progress dearly, Atucha was meant to be the first of five similar units but the entire scheme stalled after local funds fell through on the first. The three nuclear power nations in South America have just six units between them – surely a good market for US exports, as evidenced by the keynote plenary speaker: Linda Conlin of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Conlin’s bank considers a lack of access to capital to be the main obstacle to nuclear growth in the developing world, not technical know-how, and is committed to changing this state of affairs. Jinchuk would agree: “You must have all finance ready from the start – and don’t rely too much on government!”
Nevertheless, Argentina presses ahead, hoping to carve out a niche in the business of research reactors and their fuel through Invap. Apart from the steady advancement of their designs, the most obvious example of Invap’s success at the moment is the ongoing work on the Australian research reactor. In addition, Jinchuk said that the Sierra Pintada mine, nameplated at 300tU/y in the country’s eastern Mendoza region, will be completed and commissioned due to the rise in uranium prices.
In Mexico, the developmental situation requires both power and potable water – some 240,000m3 of it are required in Chihuahua every day. It seems, however, that they have a solution lined up, if not for this decade then maybe the next. The Iris (International Reactor Innovative and Secure) project was described by Mario Carelli as having a Generation IV-minus rather than a Generation III-plus design and, according to Carelli, it’s also got the best acronym and the best logo. Essential factors for success.
Iris’ ‘safety-by-design’ concept will allow it to be licensed as having no need for emergency response. This material advance in safety is far more significant than infinitesimal risk factors (although they are), and is a demonstrable, easily communicable feature that makes the entire licensing process easier, faster and cheaper.
Another beneficial feature of the project is its development by consortium. Ownership of the design is split between member firms and countries and so any one could decide to build. It’s a modular system based on 335MWe units that can be grouped into threes or two sets of twins, sharing systems. The cost is stated as $1100-1200/MWe and the construction schedule as two to three years per unit. Of course, the modular design allows the first unit to operate and earn money while the second is under construction. This cash-flow means the constructing utility should never be more than $175 million out of pocket.
For Mexico, the provisional plan put forward by Gustavo Alonso of the Institute of Nuclear Science (ININ) would be a coastal three-unit Iris plant sharing a stream of sea water for cooling and desalination. Seven reverse-osmosis desalination units could be served by the reactors, each providing 20,000m3 of potable water. Adding desalination reduces the power output from such a plant from 1005MWe to 840MWe costing in the region of 3-4¢/kWh. The water would cost between 60-85¢/m3. Lots of drinkable water, but whether it’ll be cheap enough for agriculture in such an arid region would largely depend on how hungry people are.
Mexico is looking for a way of generating an extra 9400MWe before 2010. Iris could become a solution in the future, but right now the contingency plan is to uprate the two units at Laguna Verde to 110%. Luis Carlos Longoria Gandara, also of ININ, said that the EPR, ABWR, ACR and AP1000 designs are all under consideration at the moment.
William D Magwood III, director of the DoE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, told the plenary session that the USA really is on the threshold of a new era of technology. Shane Johnson, also of the DoE, told of a new laboratory to be created at the USA’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and that INEEL’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant project has moved ahead. Johnson said that the DoE has taken the project, expected to be a very high temperature reactor, to commerce and received numerous comments that were beneficial in refining strategy. He said there will soon be an industrial partner in this “very important endeavour.”
On the other hand, the USA, more than any other developed country, faces an ongoing struggle over waste disposal. Aside from the practicality, legality and popularity problems that dog the Yucca project, the capacity of the store and the sheer bulk of waste are raising serious questions. Steve Piet, from INEEL’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) has conducted a comparison of advanced fuel cycles, some of which give up to 60 times more reactor years per unit of storage space than the once through system currently in place in the USA.
This is a good thing because in 2008, two years before Yucca is scheduled to open, the AFCI must report to the US Congress on the need for a second Yucca-scale store. By 2010 some technology must be selected to move to an advanced fuel cycle and by 2015 this should be combined with the Generation IV technology then coming into use.
If all the existing US power reactors extend their lives to 60 years on a once through cycle, there will be so much spent fuel that two Yuccas will be needed; if the US nuclear sector keeps its share of the total generation at about 20% until 2100 on the once through cycle, the equivalent of nine
Yuccas will be required; if nuclear is to increase its share, as the industry hopes, up to 22 Yucca-scale stores will be required. Considering the trouble that the original Yucca has had, most of these scenarios look quite unacceptable.
There are certain factors, however, that mitigate the problem: a change in legislation will allow Yucca to hold more than the mandated 63,000t of commercial spent fuel – the mountain itself is capable of holding up to 105,000t. And it is possible, according to the AFCI’s figures, that the use of separation and a repeated fast recycle strategy will enable Yucca to store all the spent fuel the USA will generate up to 2100. But whatever the far future holds, big decisions will need to be made even before Yucca begins operation.
Of course, waste is nuclear’s big headache. And it’s this that renders the industry unsustainable: sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising later generations’ ability to meet their own needs. At the moment nuclear meets our energy needs, our carbon-free needs, it can meet our hydrogen and desalination needs but it cannot be considered sustainable until we prove that the waste can be dealt with once and for all.
So waste is a big problem, but so is climate change, and the competitiveness of nuclear will largely depend on how seriously we take the apparent problem of climate change. “In spite of all the problems, nuclear is looking better these days,” said Juan Eibenshutz: the revision of environmentalism’s roots from anti-nuclear to anti-CO2 marks a “major breakthrough in the future of nuclear.”
Donald Jones of RCF consulting showed figures which suggest that, at the moment, fourth- or fifth-of-a-kind nuclear plants are competitive with gas and other fossil generation. Factoring in the penalties of carbon sequestration or taxing to fossil generation and first-of-a-kind nuclear becomes competitive. The American Nuclear Society’s James Tulenko considers Generation IV goals of four-year construction times and economy of $1100-1200/MWe are only possible with subsidy. So if commitments to carbon trading and so on are taken seriously, we can expect the upswing in nuclear’s fortunes to accelerate over the next decade.
There are precious few jokes in nuclear. At this meeting it was pleasing to see a very good level of humour from speakers, exhibitors and, most notably, the banquet speaker, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nils Diaz. His prepared speech had been leaked onto Nuclear News’ website and so he was forced to change tack at the last minute, delivering a warm address that prompted a few real belly laughs. He reassuringly told diners that the USA’s nuclear plants were “as safe as they should be.” Well that’s nice to know.