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Progress Made for New Reactors in Japan, U.S., and a Door Opens in Australia

  • Four Japanese firms are in talks to combine their efforts to restart construction of a new reactor at the Higashidori plant, which is the first of two planned 1385 MWe ABWRs
  • U.S. announces the start of an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Versatile Test Reactor. The 300 MW advanced design, which will be used to test new materials and fuels, could be bult by 2026 at either INL or ORNL.
  • Australia energy minister Angus Taylor has launched an inquiry into whether nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Australia, taking into account economic, environmental and safety issues.

Restart of Construction of a New Reactor at the Higashidori Plant

The Nikkei wire service reports that Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings is in talks with Toshiba, Hitachi and Chubu Electric Power on creation of a joint venture to resume building a stalled nuclear plant in northern Japan.

Tepco broke ground on the first ABWR reactor at Higashidori after receiving approval in January 2011. It scheduled completion in March 2017, but put the project on hold after March 2011.

The new company would complete the new build, operate and maintain the Higashidori nuclear plant as well as hold consultations with provincial authorities. Construction is expected to start next year. If work restarted it would be on the first of two planned 1385 MW ABWRs.

The proposal, which is the the first of its kind in Japan, is the result of talks on a four-way nuclear partnership that began about a year ago.

bwr nrc
Boiling Water Reactor Type; Image: U.S. NRC

A joint venture spreads out the risk involved in a new plant, as well as safety costs that have skyrocketed with the implementation of stricter regulatory safety standards after the Fukushima disaster. Sharing the risks of dealing with these costs is needed for the financially squeezed Tepco and Chubu Electric, which have yet to restart any of their nuclear facilities idled after the disaster.

Hitachi and Toshiba, meanwhile, could benefit from the opportunity to maintain expertise threatened by the collapse o the Japanese export market. Earlier this year, Hitachi announced plans to pull out of a U.K. nuclear project after hitting an impasse in negotiations with the British government. The U.K. government has disputed Hitachi’s cost estimates for the Moorside project.

Toshiba, which built the first plant at Higashidori nuclear site, has withdrawn from the nuclear energy industry. After the failure of the V C Summer project in South Carolina, it sold its Westinghouse business unit to a private equity firm in Canada.

The central government has already given the go-ahead for the Higashidori project. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), says it did so because it wants to see a realignment in the nuclear power industry.

nuclear in japan

Assigning Tepco the role of building a new nuclear facility after the Fukushima disaster has been met with skepticism since the firm has not been able to restart its giant Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant with seven BWR type rectors located in in Niigata Prefecture. Political opposition to the restarts runs high in the province. Successive provincial governors have defied the national government by refusing to agree to restart of any of the seven reactors. Tepco is now trying to restart the two newest plants.

Tepco and Chubu may have plans for the joint venture to eventually take over operation of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant in the city of Omaezaki in Shizuoka Prefecture, on Japan’s east coast, 200 km south-west of Tokyo.

Japan has yet to restart any boiling-water reactors, the design type made by both Hitachi and Toshiba, leaving their personnel with no opportunities to maintain the technical skills required for long-term plant maintenance and repair. An 1100 MW BWR type reactor at the Higashidori site, commissioned in 2005, was shut down in 2011 and has remained offline since then.

Two of the five units, all BWRS, at Hamaoka are expected to be decommissioned, but three others are candidates for restart. This action combining the management of the two sites could shift thousands of employees to the new company.

Tepco expects the Higashidori project to expand its revenue as it faces huge compensation payments in connection with the Fukushima nuclear crisis and plant decommissioning costs.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japan’s nuclear share in 2017 was about 3.6%. Before Fukushima, Japan generated about 30% of its electricity from nuclear and planned to increase that to 40%.

A recent energy white paper adopted by the Cabinet called for further efforts to cut carbon emissions by keeping to a nuclear generation target of 20% to 22%.

Nine units in Japan’s reactor fleet are now in commercial operation. They are Ohi-3 and -4, Genkai-3 and -4, Sendai-1 and -2, Takahama-3 and -4, and Ikata-3.

DOE Starts EIS for Versatile Test Reactor

vtr-logo.png

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has formally announced the preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the construction of a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) to test fuels and materials for use in advanced civilian nuclear power reactors.

key fuel type is high assay low enrich fuel (HALEU) at greater than 5% U235 and less than 20%. HIgh temperature gas reactors (HTGR) and molten salt designs currently in development in the private sector expect to use this fuel type either as TRISO fuel or other uranium type fuels. Because of the higher temperstures of HTGRs, and the corrosive nature of molten salts, materials testing will be a key process step in achieving success with either reactor type.

DOE has published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), announcing that the department will develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to study the impacts of building a Versatile Test Reactor in the U.S. to test future fuels and materials.

DOE is required by NEPA to evaluate “a range of reasonable alternatives” for the construction and operation of a VTR and its associated facilities, including a “No Action Alternative” to serve as a basis for comparison with the action alternatives. The agency plans to build the reactor at either the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) or the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

In addition, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site are two locations under consideration for the fabrication of the fuel needed to run the Versatile Test Reactor.

The fact that DOE has announced two possible sites for the multi-billion dollar project will undoubtedly set off a competitive effort between the congressional delegations of the two states

The Department of Energy said the new versatile test reactor is needed as part of an effort to revamp the nation’s nuclear power industry by developing safer fuel and power plants.

In making the announcement U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said, “This testing capability is essential for the United States to modernize its nuclear energy infrastructure and for developing transformation of nuclear energy technologies that reduce waste generation and enhance nuclear security.”

“The lack of a domestic reactor with versatile fast-neutron-spectrum testing capability is a significant national strategic risk affecting the ability of DOE to fulfill its mission to advance the energy, environmental, and nuclear security of the United States and promote scientific and technological innovation.”

Newly sworn in U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal said, “DOE needs to develop this capability on an accelerated schedule to avoid further delay in the United States’ ability to develop and deploy advanced nuclear energy technologies.”

“If this capability is not available to U.S. innovators as soon as possible, the ongoing shift of nuclear technology dominance to other international states such as China and the Russian Federation will accelerate, to the detriment of the U.S. nuclear industrial sector. Beginning the NEPA process at this time will ensure that all environmental factors are considered before the Department makes a final decision to move forward with the project.”

World Nuclear News reported the VTR will be used to provide a source of fast neutrons to support the development of advanced reactor technologies. Such facilities are currently available in only a few locations worldwide and the USA has not operated one in over 20 years. The DOE was directed to develop the facility under the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which became law in September 2018. DOE Sec Perry announced the VTR effort would go forward last February.

The reactor is to be a smaller (about 300 MWt) version of the GE Hitachi PRISM power reactor, which builds on the design legacy of the EBR-II, an integral sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype that operated at Argonne National Laboratory from 1963 to 1994. VTR, like PRISM, would use metallic alloy fuels. DOE has previously said the facility could be in operation by the end of 2026.

Details of the Two Site Alternatives

The INL VTR Alternative would see the VTR sited at INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), using existing hot-cell and other facilities at the MFC for post-irradiation examination. The site’s current infrastructure “should be largely adequate” to support the facility, according to the DOE. Under this alternative, fuel for the VTR would be manufactured either at MFC or at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Under the ORNL VTR Alternative, the reactor would be sited at a yet-to-be-identified location at ORNL, which is in eastern Tennessee. Several existing facilities would be used and/or modified to provide operational support and post-irradiation examination capabilities. Driver fuel for the VTR would “likely be manufactured elsewhere,” according to the Federal Register notice.

Opportunities for the Public Comment

During the first steps of this NEPA process, DOE invites the public to comment now through September 4, 2019 on what the department should include in the scope of the upcoming Draft version of the EIS.

Under NEPA, the Draft EIS analysis will be completed during the next several months, published, and the public invited to comment on it for 45 days. DOE will evaluate comments before the EIS is made final. When final, the EIS will be published and made available to the public for 30 days before the department can issue a Record of Decision.

In addition to gathering written comments, DOE will host two interactive webcast scoping meetings to provide information about the VTR and the NEPA process, and to gather oral and written comments.

The webcast scoping meetings will be held August 27, 2019, 6:00 ET/4:00 MT and August 28, 2019, 8:00 ET/6:00 MT, and will be accessible during those times on the internet August 27 and August 28. To join the webcast scoping meetings by phone, participants can call toll-free in the U.S. at 877-869-3847.

On a related front, the Energy Department late last year restarted the Transient Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory to test new nuclear fuels. That facility had been on standby since 1994.

Australia’s Government Open to Possible Use of Nuclear Energy

(WNN) Angus Taylor, the federal government minister for energy and emissions reduction, has asked the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy to investigate the nuclear fuel cycle and report by the end of the year.

The bipartisan inquiry will consider the implications of nuclear power in a system that is predominantly (61%) dependent on coal and to report on “the circumstances and prerequisites necessary for any future government’s consideration of nuclear energy generation including small modular reactor technologies in Australia.”

MP Ted O’Brien, chair of the standing committee on the environment and energy, will lead the inquiry.

He said the committee, which consists of government, opposition and cross bench MPs, will try to establish whether nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Australia, taking into account economic, environmental and safety issues.

Taylor, the minister launching the nuclear inquiry, has a background in economics and law. Prior to entering government service, Taylor worked for global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He was made a partner in 1999.

O’Brien, who will lead the inquiry, spent over 10 years with global consulting firm, Accenture. Just prior to entering politics, his final posting with Accenture was as Director of Growth & Strategy for the Asia Pacific and Emerging Markets – responsible for corporate strategy, mergers & acquisitions based in Beijing.

au nuclear

The inquiry is being commissioned as the country faces an acute shortfall in reliable generation capacity and doubling of electricity prices over the past decade. Coal, historically the main source of electrical generation power, is in a downturn due to climate change concerns.

WNN reports that the inquiry will have to review previous inquiries into the nuclear fuel cycle, including South Australia’s 2016 Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission and the 2006 Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy in Australia, also known as the Switkowski report. WNN reports that in contrast particularly to the 2006 team, the eight members of this inquiry are essentially lay people – none has any evident background with energy.

The Australian Department of Agriculture reports that wind energy projects have been paired with construction of natural gas plants to provide baseload support for the grid relative to the intermittent nature of wind power. Reports of exactly how much wind power gets to the grid vary in part due to differences in measurements by government, industry, wind energy investors, and green groups.

According to Geoscience Australia Australia’s current use of solar energy is low with solar energy accounting for only about 0.1 per cent of Australia’s total primary energy consumption.

Minerals Council of Australia Endorses the Study

Nucnet reports that Tania Constable, chief executive officer of the Minerals Council of Australia said a federal government inquiry into the possibility of using nuclear energy in Australia is an important first step in starting “a mature fact-based national conversation for the Australian community,”

Ms Constable, who has a long career in energy policy, said the rest of the world is already focusing on the critical role nuclear energy will play in delivering zero emissions 24/7 energy to a power-hungry world.

She said that with 30% of the world’s known uranium reserves and as the third largest uranium producer, Australia will be critical to helping the world meet its need for electricity while also reducing emissions.

The Minerals Council, which represents Australia’s exploration, mining and minerals processing industry, said Australia has some of the highest energy costs in the developed world, an ageing baseload power generator fleet and real challenges with integrating large amounts of intermittent energy sources into the grid without appropriate back-up supplies.

Ms Constable said that by initiating an inquiry into nuclear power, the federal government is allowing the Australian community to have an honest discussion regarding the role existing and new nuclear technologies like small modular reactors could play in addressing Australia’s medium and long-term energy challenges.

The Australian Nuclear Association also welcomed the inquiry, calling on the government to repeal “long-outdated” federal and state legislation preventing its proper consideration. It called for informed public debate while acknowledging concerns of safe waste disposal and radiation protection.

Opposition Not Sitting It Out

Meanwhile, Australia’s opposition Labor Party has asked the government to outline potential locations for nuclear power plants. Party leader Anthony Albanese suggested the inquiry showed the government was softening its position on lifting the ban on nuclear power. Albanese has no expertise in energy issues. He was first elected in a campaign which emphasized opposition to airport noise.

Conservative Liberal and Nationals MPs have been pushing for the inquiry, arguing nuclear could be a way to drive power prices down and cut emissions.

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Dan Yurman's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 13, 2019 11:06 am GMT

The restart of any nuclear plant in Japan would be symbolically signficant, given the hesistance/fear the island nation has treated nuclear power with since Fukushima. Dan-- how confident would you be that this project actually goes through?

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Aug 13, 2019 2:56 pm GMT

METI has endorsed the restart of construction.  This is a very powerful ministry in the Japanese government bureaucracy.  For this reason, completion of construction is a likely outcome.  The next step will be regulatory approval of startup along with local consultations.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 13, 2019 9:11 pm GMT

Thanks for sharing-- one to watch closely for sure!

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