June 24, 2009

Update on China and South Africa Nuclear Reactor Construction and Wall Street Journal on Small Nuclear Reactors

1. South African nuclear technology firm PBMR plans to have its first 80 megawatt (MW) power and heat processing plant based on its pebble-fuel technology by 2018. Previously there was a target date of 2014, but the project was cancelled for a few months, but appears to be back on track.

The global economic slowdown has forced the company to change the design to include industrial applications as well, using PBMR's ability to create high temperatures to attract buyers among companies including those active in Canada's oil sands projects and petrochemicals group Sasol (SOLJ.J).

Ferreira said that while the first plant would take some four years to be built from the time the company expects to take a final commercial decision in 2014, the next ones would take only two years to be constructed.

China is scheduled to start construction of its 200 MWe pebble reactor in Sept, 2009.

2. Work to build a new reactor at Fuqing, China has been officially launched - three months ahead of schedule. Construction at various stages is now ongoing for six units at the site.

Preliminary permission was granted for the other four units in April by the National Development and Reform Commission with ground being broken for units 3 and 4 early this month, and excavation for units 5 and 6 already about 30% complete. The overall 6000 MWe project is expected to cost 100 billion yuan ($14.7 billion).

China National Nuclear Company (CNNC) said that preliminary design work for units 1 and 2 is complete and it is satisfied that construction and equipment design work meets the requirements for the project. Procurement of major components is running on schedule, with contracts for units 3 to 6 under development.

The astonishing pace of nuclear development in China - Fuqing is just one of seven multiple reactor power plants currently being built - is part of a national plan to have 72 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2020

3. Bob Metcalfe, a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners wrote a pro nuclear energy piece in the Wall Street Journal. He is a trustee of MIT and a 2005 recipient of the National Medal of Technology for leadership in the invention, standardization and commercialization of Ethernet.

Today, 20% of our electricity is provided by 104 nuclear energy plants in the United States. These are already cheaper and cleaner than burning coal, oil and gas with all their pollutants, especially CO2. But these plants are all run on big old nuclear reactors, which nobody but the utility companies likes very much.

The good news is that the big names in nuclear energy -- like Areva, Hitachi, General Electric and Toshiba -- have recently been joined by a bevy of high-tech start-ups seeking to develop advanced nuclear-reactor designs for both fission and fusion energy production. So far, there are five fission and two fusion start-ups [actually there are more nuclear fusion and fission startups. He is probably just counting Tri Alpha Energy and EMC2 Fusion and not General Fusion or Lawrenceville Plasma], among them Hyperion, NuScale and Tri Alpha.

The fission-reactor designs of the start-ups are very different from the existing plants and even from the advanced designs put out by the established players. Rather than proposing a few more big nuclear reactors, the start-ups are advocating many small nuclear reactors, variously called small, right-sized or modular. Though big power plants might still be built, they'll run on numerous small reactors.

These new small reactors meet important criteria for nuclear power plants. With no control rods to jam, they are far safer than the old models -- you might well call them nuclear batteries. By not using weapons-grade enriched fuels, they are nonproliferating. They minimize nuclear waste. And they're economical.

Small enough to fit on a large kitchen table, the new reactors can be manufactured at very low cost and shipped by truck to power-plant sites. As an Internet guy, these small fission reactors seem to me like the microprocessors that took over from the huge, air-conditioned, glasshouse mainframe computers.

As venture capitalists, we at Polaris might have invested in one or two of these fission-energy start-ups. Alas, we had to pass. The problem with their business plans weren't their designs, but the high costs and astronomical risks of designing nuclear reactors for certification in Washington.

The start-ups estimate that it will cost each of them roughly $100 million and five years to get their small reactor designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. About $50 million of each $100 million would go to the commission itself. That's a lot of risk capital for any venture-backed start-up, especially considering that not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy were both formed in the 1970s to develop nuclear energy and thereby reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But neither has reduced our dependence on foreign oil, especially not with nuclear energy. To find out why start by watching the movie "The China Syndrome," which came out in the 1970s immediately before the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. Since then, the Greens have been anti-nuke obstructionists.

4. GE’s Eric Loewen made a public presentation about a PRISM reactor. PRISM is GE’s name for an integral fast reactor, or IFR. It would be a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations. A GE-led industrial team has completed the advanced conceptual design, which is an evolution of the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module.

One nice thing about the S-PRISM is that they’re modular units and of relatively low output (one power block of two will provide 760 MW). They could be emplaced in excavations at existing coal plants and utilize the same turbines, condensers (towers or others), and grid infrastructure as the coal plants currently use, and the proper number of reactor vessels could be used to match the capabilities of those facilities. Essentially all you’d be replacing is the burner (and you’d have to build a new control room, of course, or drastically modify the current one). Thus you avoid most of the stranded costs. If stranded costs can thus be kept to a minimum, both here and, more importantly, in China, we’ll be able to talk realistically not just about stopping to build new coal plants but replacing the existing ones, even the newest ones.

And best of all they’re eminently affordable: Loewen showed that they could be profitable selling energy at just 5 cents per KwH — which means that you don’t need to price carbon emissions at all to make these power stations economically attractive. With pricing on carbon emissions, of course, they become even economically compelling.

Here is an 11 page 2007 presentation of PRISM by Loewen. This will get converted into its own article with whatever other updates can be found.

Previous coverage of China's nuclear construction.

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