|Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 construction site with Vogtle Units 1 and 2 in the background. Photo courtesy of Southern Co. and Georgia Power Co.|
By Brian Wheeler
Almost two years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, the tragedy continues to make headlines. The nuclear industry is implementing lessons learned to ensure the safety of nuclear power. Safety checks have been conducted at facilities around the world. In the midst of safety enhancements and upgrades, new nuclear construction continues. More than 60 reactors are being built across the globe, which, when completed, will add to the 430-plus operating units that generate over 370 GW.
In the U.S., both Southern Co. and SCANA Corp. received combined construction and operating licenses in 2012. Both utilities are building two 1,154 MW Westinghouse AP1000s at sites in Georgia and South Carolina.
The development of advanced, small modular reactors also continues to gain momentum. The U.S. Department of Energy in March said a total of $450 million will be made available to support first-of-its-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SMR designs over five years. Through cost-shared agreements, the DOE said it will solicit proposals for SMR projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation by 2022.
Power Engineering recently moderated a roundtable discussion with executives from the nuclear power industry. The discussion centered on the status and future of nuclear power.
The participants were: Cheri Collins, general manager of External Alliances for Nuclear Development at Southern Co.; Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute; Greg Ashley, president of Nuclear at Bechtel; Ric Perez, chief operating officer at Westinghouse Electric Co.; and Neil Wilmshurst, vice president and chief nuclear officer at the Electric Power Research Institute.
To read the full transcript, visit Power Engineering magazine at www.power-eng.com
Power Engineering magazine: About a year and a half after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan the Japanese continue to rebuild and TEPCO is making progress at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Looking at the U.S. specifically, how has the response been?
|Tony Pietrangelo: The U.S. response has been comprehensive, well thought through, has been based on science and fact, and it’s been heavily-vetted with our stakeholders as well as in coordination with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Really on the day after Fukushima occurred, the industry began to take action in terms of walkdowns of our emergency preparedness, particularly the measures put in place after 9/11 to deal with large fires and explosions to ensure their readiness and that the equipment was staged. Any deficiencies found in those walkdowns were put in site corrective actions programs and were all addressed by the end of last year.|
|Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Nuclear Energy Institute|
We have also studied the events and drawn lessons learned, primarily through INPO (Institute of Nuclear Power Operations) on the timeline of how the events transpired and what the real causes were. EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) has also played a major role in that, and Neil can speak to that directly. But we did start interaction with our regulator in the middle of the summer last year. That resulted in very good alignment between our regulator and the industry on the first steps that needed to be taken in response to Fukushima. In March of this year, the NRC issued three orders and three requests for information. The main order dealing with mitigating strategies, or what we term FLEX: our coping capability for responding to loss of power and loss of ultimate heat sink. Guidance was developed by the industry and endorsed by the NRC at the end of August. We have flooding and seismic walkdowns underway at all sites now with reports due back to the NRC by the end of November. Those are walkdowns against the sites current design basis. We have FLEX evaluations ongoing and those responses are due to the NRC at the end of February 2013.
Equipment has been purchased already by the companies at each site, with respect to the on-site portable equipment that FLEX will deploy. We are in the process of finalizing the selection of a vendor for the off-site response capability. Again, we are well underway and the activity is proceeding at the sites.
With respect to emergency preparedness, there were requests for information on staffing and communications when you have a natural disaster and how fast you could get people into the sites, and those evaluations are underway. We’ve also put together guidance for additional level instrumentation for spent fuel pools. And the boiling water reactors received an order for reliable hardened vents. The guidance was developed through the BWR Owners’ Group. Again, responses are due to the NRC on that item by February 2013. There has been a comprehensive set of actions and activities closely coordinated on our side through a Fukushima Steering Committee that both Neil and I serve on. We meet regularly with the NRC steering committee.
When issues come up, we vet them, we get them resolved and we move forward. We think it has worked very well so far and it has put our plants in position to successfully implement actions from the lessons learned at Fukushima.
|Neil Wilmshurst: Tony, obviously, very comprehensively answered it.|
|Neil Wilmshurst, vice president and chief nuclear officer, Electric Power Research Institute|
Additionally, EPRI has been working with a number of entities including TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) and others on the technical understanding of what happened at the plant, which will inform future plant designs and future severe accident management responses. This work also involves validating existing computer modeling tools for accident analysis. We will be comparing exactly what happened at Fukushima Daiichi to what our current computer tools are simulating. By validating the models against a real event, we can become better prepared to avoid and respond to future events.
We are also continuing R&D around seismic hazards and seismic effects, and recently, we published a body of work around filtering strategies informing the global conversation around how to minimize the potential for land contamination. There is a lot of work ongoing and a lot of progress being made. But there is still a significant amount to be done.
|.||Cheri Collins: The AP1000 design has many of the features already incorporated into it that were being talked about through the NRC 90-day Fukushima task force. Of course our fleet has responded as every other fleet in the United States has responded as these gentlemen have laid out. Safety being our No. 1 priority, we will always look for applications of lessons learned to make our facilities even safer.|
|Cheri Collins, general manager of External Alliances for Nuclear Development, Southern Co|
|Ric Perez: Most of us in the industry know this but, sometimes it is lost by the broader community: the design certification process, especially for the AP1000, happened in the latter half of 2011 after the Fukushima accident; so, whether it be the 90-day NRC report or even the COL public hearings that occurred afterward by the NRC commissioners, a great deal of the knowledge and lessons learned have been already woven into the new reactor rules published by the NRC.|
|Ric Perez, chief operating officer, Westinghouse Electric Co.|
Echoing what Cheri said, we believe a robust public dialogue of the NRC new rule-making is a positive for providing confidence to the public that this new generation of reactors really absorb the intent of the underlying policy position that was made by government, industry and the regulator when they developed the Part 52 process. Part 52 envisioned a new generation of standard reactors, which would provide the public with a higher degree of confidence and interaction on unexpected events.
PE: What safety enhancements, or upgrades, have been made at U.S. plants?
|Greg Ashley: I will just echo what Tony said that the approach to addressing the lessons learned, understanding the accident at Fukushima and then translating that into what actions the U.S. nuclear industry needed to take was very measured and very comprehensive. The utilities did reach out very quickly to gather the expertise necessary to begin to address those actions. Our industry was well-positioned to start to address those.|
|Greg Ashley, president of Nuclear, Bechtel|
Looking at beyond design basis events, for example, with the large number of combined operating license applications that had been developed and early siting permits for new generation, a lot of the new methodologies, such as the flooding and seismic methodologies, were already available to us. Bechtel was asked to support the utilities in flooding evaluations, seismic walkdowns and the FLEX gap assessments. That work is well along and the utilities, with industry support, are moving rapidly towards meeting the dates as Tony described to evaluate what the next steps are. It has been a very measured approach taken by the utilities with the support of Bechtel and others to bring that technical expertise to bear.
Pietrangelo: We wanted to make sure we were addressing the principle lessons learned from Fukushima. The first one to me is if you lose power and you don’t get it back soon enough, you are going to melt the core at some point. What FLEX focuses on is how we make that coping capability indefinite with installed plant equipment, on-site portable equipment and off-site portable equipment. There are really three phases to this and, again, we are well underway with the evaluation.
The other key lesson learned was on multi-unit events. Clearly, Fukushima demonstrated that you can have interaction between separate units at the same site that could make the response to the accident more complex. Dealing with multi-unit basis, we are seeing this with our emergency preparedness strategies, our emergency response organizations, staffing and communications.
Finally, the design basis was exceeded in Japan with the tsunami and the historic earthquake. We want to make sure that we are meeting our current design basis, and that’s what the plant walkdowns being conducted now are establishing.
This is the whole industry having to pull together, the utilities, the vendors and the suppliers, to make this response robust. I think the outcome will be an even safer, more reliable fleet in the future.
Perez: For the new generation of reactors, the main lesson learned raised relative to severe accidents, loss of off-site areas of the plant and loss of ultimate heat sink – you look at all of those high-level takeaways from Fukushima – they are very much inculcated into how these plants were designed and how they were structured to cope with those types of events. And not only those kind of events, events that could occur due to malicious acts, such as the airplane impact rule that came out years ago in the U.S., which models a similar type of a loss of a large area of the plant. That’s in the fundamental design basis of these new generation plants.
PE: Two combined construction and operating licenses for new plants were issued earlier this year. How are new projects in the U.S. progressing? And can you talk about the importance of these new construction projects?
Collins: The Vogtle 3 and 4 construction is moving right along. Let me note, it is the largest job-producing project in the state of Georgia employing, currently, about 2,300 construction workers. At the peak of construction, which will be another several months, about 5,000 people will be working on-site. When the plants become operational, we will have 800 permanent, good-paying jobs.
On the site, just a quick summary of what is going on, we are moving towards a key milestone and that’s the pouring of first nuclear concrete. That is scheduled for later in October. Work on the modules, as this is a modular-assembled plant, continues. The work on the cooling towers and turbine island also continues. All rebar and activity down on the nuclear island that precedes the pouring of first nuclear concrete is obviously going on and going well. We have done a load test on the heavy-lift derrick, which is one of the largest cranes in the world based on lift capacity. The testing went well and that crane stands as the highest thing on the landscape for quite a ways and looks really good there. So a lot of activity is going on.
We are very focused on bringing our project in on-schedule and on-budget. It is our obligation and what we owe to our customer. We believe that if we can do that, it will send a positive signal to any other utilities in the U.S. that think it’s the right thing for their business and their customers to add nuclear, or additional nuclear, to their portfolio. We believe it will send them a positive signal. We are very focused on doing it right. Safety first, safety first, safety first. Pulling it in on-schedule and on-budget is also important.
Pietrangelo: These projects are critical to the future of our industry, and we are treating them that way. We have done everything we can both from an industry perspective, generically, and what both Southern and its partners and SCANA and its partners are doing to make those projects successful. As Cheri said, so far they are on schedule and on budget and that is what has to happen to get these plants online in the timeframes we are talking about.
Our first generation, we did go over budget for a number of reasons and we tried to learn those lessons and apply them, both in the regulatory process as well as in management and construction. Unless we demonstrate it by actually doing it, you can wave your hands all you want, no one is going to believe you unless you do it. These are capital-intensive projects and they require financing. We have state policies in place in both South Carolina and Georgia that greatly facilitated those projects. As Cheri noted, they are tremendous economic engines in those states for well-paying jobs, and nationally over 25,000 jobs have been created for those two projects alone.
To have a second generation build-out, these projects need to come in as close to on-budget and on-schedule as possible. As we see market conditions change over time, we will have a build-out.
Perez: Cheri touched on construction and the major components for the plant are proceeding very rapidly. We are in advanced stages on all the nuclear island components. In fact, we will have most of all nuclear island components delivered for the first unit before the end of next year, including reactor vessels, steam generators and reactor coolant pumps. We have benefited greatly by the fact that there are four units ahead of these proceeding in China. For us, they are all second- or third-of-a-kind manufacturing events.
We have delivered the partial-scope simulator to Southern Co., which basically is the NSSS (nuclear steam supply system) island as we finish up the turbine island design that will be integrated. We will finish the certification of the simulator in the next 18 months. We are making a lot of progress on the unit.
The biggest challenge, and I think Cheri can attest to it, is that this is the first plant built under the new regulatory process. And there is a great deal of learning; learning by the utilities, the suppliers, the constructors and the regulator on how to manage under these new rules and norms. That has been a bit of a challenge on how we properly understand and transfer the rule-making of the COL and transmit to it effectively the roughly 100,000 certified-for-construction drawings that are required for the plant, and make sure there is fidelity and traceability in that process. It has been a challenge; nevertheless, I am very positive by the fact that both working with Southern and Shaw we have been able to manage the few speed bumps we’ve hit as a team and with the regulator to make sure we have transparency and we are building the plant safely as licensed.
Ashley: The transparency and predictability of the four plants being built in the U.S. are critical for the industry going forward. There are also nuclear megawatts that are being added right now, as Bechtel is working six EPU (extended power uprate) projects. The predictability and delivery of those projects adding substantial new megawatts to the U.S. nuclear generation portfolio are similarly important from our perspective.
The Vogtle and Summer projects are very critical in training the next generation that is going to be supporting nuclear new builds and supporting the operation of the current fleet, especially under the life extension of the current fleet.
Wilmshurst: Ric touched on the construction activity in China. We shouldn’t understate what is happening outside the U.S. and the impact on the U.S. When you run the numbers there are about 60 plants under construction globally and about another 150 being seriously talked about. Just think about the benefit of the U.S. staying connected with the AP1000s being built in China, as well as the economic potential of those 150 being considered. Those people are going to be looking at how Vogtle and Summer progress.
PE: The NRC in August said it was putting a ‘freeze’ on final reactor licenses and 20-year license renewals in response to the Court’s ruling on waste confidence. Just recently, the NRC said it will review the waste confidence rule over the next two years. What impact is this going to have on plants?
Collins: The NRC’s decision on the waste confidence rule will not impact Vogtle 3 and 4 construction or operation. There is no action involving the waste confidence rule necessary for Vogtle 3 and 4 to operate. We have a full environmental evaluation that was part of our approved combined construction and operating license that we received in February of this year.
As for the remainder of the Southern fleet, we have no license actions pending, so we see no impact there either.
Pietrangelo: It does not impact any current operating plant. What is does affect is any license renewal, and there are a couple in the queue for that. And it does affect any potential new combined operating license, and there are a couple in the queue for that. The NRC has undertaken a rule revision over the next two years, that clock has already started ticking, to address the issues remanded back to the agency by the court’s ruling on waste confidence. It is still the NRC’s intent to treat used fuel generically, not on a docket-by-docket basis. We think that is the right thing to do.
We think this rulemaking can get completed in two years. All other licensing activities will continue unabated. The NRC will continue forward with environmental impact statements, safety evaluation reports; do everything but issue the final renewed license or combined operating license.
In the short-term, in these two years, there is really no effect on the current plants or on the new projects, as Cheri said, that are under development.
PE: What is the future for nuclear waste in the U.S.?
Pietrangelo: We support President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, namely to try to move forward with a centralized interim storage, to form a new government entity to manage the process going forward and to use a consensus process in the siting of a new repository. I think that is the principle lesson learned from Yucca Mountain: If you don’t have a consensus in the community and in the state in which it resides, you are going to have a tough road to hoe to try to license that facility. While we would like to see the Yucca licensing proceeding through the end to learn lessons from that, that doesn’t look like that’s in the cards in the near-term, but we will see what the court decides.
In the meantime, we think there are very good recommendations on the table. We expect to see some legislative activity in the next Congress on this issue. But basically we are in pre-1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act space. There are a lot of hard lessons learned over the past 30 years on this and a lot of money spent. We should be able to do better as a country in stewarding our technology and dealing with used fuel.
Wilmshurst: Storing the used fuel in dry storage facilities is not a technical concern at the moment. But that is not an infinite option. We’re already working with a number of parties to inspect the cask storage facilities, to understand the progression of the condition of the fuel inside these canisters over a number of years or decades, and to inform the relicensing of these storage facilities for extended periods.
While there is no immediate jeopardy that we see, there is certainly a need to keep pushing for a long-term solution.
Perez: When you look at society and nations outside the U.S. that have progressed the issue of managing used nuclear fuel, a lot of these ideas were highlighted during the Blue Ribbon Commission sessions and they actually leveraged those in their recommendations. Even the concept of an independent waste facility, it’s not just a good idea, it is actually working at other places like Sweden and Spain. They are progressing interim storage and final geological repositories. There are very good lessons learned that the Blue Ribbon Commission took.
It’s not a major technical problem to resolve; it’s more about getting the right kind of political will behind it, and it is something we should be able to do better than we have as an industry and a nation. We lead the world in reactor safety and in operational excellence, yet we struggle relative to good stewardship of used fuel; that’s a negative for American industry. With all the positives we have on our operating metrics, our performance and our safety consciousness of our industry, we haven’t been able to solve this one. It is not a partisan issue. It’s an issue about what’s the right thing to do for our nation. I thought a lot of the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations were very logical.
PE: There has been a lot of talk about the development of small modular reactors in the U.S. The Department of Energy is expected to select two designs for funding soon. How viable is the deployment of SMRs in North America?
Ashley: Bechtel has partnered with Babcock & Wilcox on the development of the Generation mPower design, and we did a lot of research before we entered into that partnership. We believe the technology and the deployment of the technology is very viable. There are a lot of advantages to the small modular reactor, not the least of which is lower initial capital cost. The flexibility and the scalability of a small modular reactor provides an alternative to the development of nuclear generation and is a key component to the deployment of the technology.
The technology is also taking advantage of a lot of the elements that Ric talked about in the AP1000 design, such as fewer active safety systems which makes this a very safe technology and one that addresses some of the issues experienced at Fukushima Daiichi. Simplified operations and maintenance is another key element that makes SMR an attractive alternative.
We believe the design is deployable in the Department of Energy’s timetable — in the 2020-2022 timeframe.
Perez: To augment what Greg said, we are historically a big reactor company. So it was a big event for us to go through a self-realization as to how, in our case, a 200+ megawatt reactor would fit the economies of scale that we historically have been delivering.
If you are purely looking at the lowest dollar-per-kilowatt, we still very much believe that a large baseload unit is the right way to go.
But what changed our mind? One was the future and promise of a small modular reactor relative to the small overnight capital cost. If you believe in the short-term that in general the world is going to be capital-constrained and there are going to be very few companies in the world that are going to be able to handle an approximately $10 billion type of investment, a small modular reactor, even though it may not be the cheapest on a pure dollar-per-kilowatt basis, may be the right answer, especially if you think about the urgency to decarbonize the U.S. energy stream and the need to have smaller utilities able to participate in that kind of deployment.
The other is time. If you believe these reactors can be can be erected within 18 months – factory-built and deployed at a site in 18 months similar to a gas turbine – that’s one of the big promises.
The last is maneuverability – whether you are actually going to maneuver the plant or not. When you look at the demand across the world for flexible power, we want to be able to maneuver clean power fast. We believe the small modular reactor with some of its inherent capabilities has the ability to maneuver with renewables. For the Westinghouse SMR, one of the implicit design features is to be able to maneuver the plant between 5 percent per minute, between 10 percent and 100 percent power, very similar to a gas turbine.
When you look at capital, rapid deployment and maneuverability, those are the things that took us over the goal line and said, ‘Let’s invest some of our precious R&D funds in collaboration with the DOE’s efforts to develop this.’ We think it has a real ability to make nuclear more relevant across the world. But we are still a big proponent of a big reactor. The new Generation III reactors like the AP1000, for markets and customers where there is a need for large baseload power, is still the right answer. But there is a place for the SMR.
Wilmshurst: We have looked into SMRs and we are updating our Utility Requirements Document to encompass SMRs so that interested parties can be smart when ordering these plants. The Utility Requirements Document provides a comprehensive set of requirements from a utility perspective, enabling nuclear plant designers to better meet customer expectations and to develop standardized designs.
Ric covered it pretty well. The challenges are around understanding where SMRs fit in the market and what the market drivers are to get them there.
There are ways to go in licensing and permitting the plants, but the technology is sound and is based on technology that exists today with a considerable amount of transfer from technology from larger-scale plants as well.