The World Nuclear Association held its 41st Annual Symposium in London on 14th-16th September 2016. The timing of this was very appropriate, with the announcement by the UK government that it would proceed with the Hinkley Point C project coming during the course of the event. David Flin reports from the symposium.
Attending the event there were around 600 delegates, along with 37 speakers which led to a number of themes emerging from the symposium; some were issues that have long been a theme, and some were relatively new news.
One of the subjects referred to in many of the presentations was that of the role nuclear power could and should play in combating climate change. There have been a lot of discussions on this at conferences previously, but the ratification by China and the US of the Paris Agreement was a new development that fed in to the conference discussions.
The big news to come out during the course of the conference was the decision by the UK government to grant approval to the Hinkley Point C nuclear power project, and giving encouragement to the other new nuclear projects under consideration in the UK. Strangely, this news did not create quite the level of excitement that might have been expected, because while it was positive news, it was also merely a step – although an important step – along the development of the project.
One of the big themes of the conference was how the industry would meet the goals of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Harmony programme. This programme is based on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2°C scenario to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. This includes a large increase in nuclear energy, with the WNA setting a target for nuclear energy to provide 25% of electricity in 2050, which will require around 1000GW of new nuclear capacity to be constructed.
Agneta Rising, director general of WNA, said that this will involve constructing around 10GW/year from 2016 to 2020, around 25GW/ year from 2021 to 2025, and 33GW/year from 2026 to 2050. It will also require increasing the availability factor from the current levels of around 80% for operating reactors. Construction times are falling, and currently stand at an average of 66 months, down from 84 months.
William Magwood IV, director general of the NEA, said that meeting these targets was going to be difficult, and to do so, we would have to learn and apply lessons from around the industry. Winning the trust of the public was a big issue, so it was also important to not merely learn and apply lessons from Fukushima, but also to demonstrate that this had been done. He said that the public face of the nuclear waste issue was predominantly negative, and that this had to be addressed.
Baek Sik Noh, vice president at Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) said that first and foremost, the industry had to concentrate on safety. Safety was already good, but the industry had to be seen to be constantly striving to be better. In particular, KHNP took significant lessons from Fukushima, and invested $1 billion in 56 measures to provide additional safety measures, including introducing waterproof drain pumps and additional mobile gensets in case of power loss. He emphasised that best practice and technology enhancements need to be shared between companies.
John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, pointed out that climate change discussions frequently revolve around the use of renewable energy, and nuclear power often gets ignored, even by government officials. It is vital that all available weapons be deployed in the fight against climate change and to meet the targets set in Paris. He noted that the nuclear industry does not have a waste problem: “We don’t have a waste problem. We know where the waste is, and we know how to manage it.”
Duncan Hawthorne, CEO of Horizon Nuclear Power, said that for new build to gain investor confidence, the current new build projects need to be built on time and on budget. Investor confidence was vital to any possibility of achieving the COP21 targets.
Also vital to achieving the Harmony targets is good access to fuel for the new nuclear reactors. The symposium had a number of presentations on the state of the uranium mining and the fuel enrichment sectors of the industry.
Mark Chalmers, COO of Energy Fuels Inc, noted that in the past there were clear cycles of boom and bust in uranium supply, with production increasing or decreasing in accordance with the price of uranium, with a time-lag of around five years. He described the years of low production as “coma” years, and during these years, inventories of uranium fuel are drawn upon, and production can fall below demand.
Production plummeted in the mid-1990s, falling from typically 170 million pounds/year to 90 million pounds/year. There was a renaissance in production from 2004 to 2013, but since then, prices have fallen, there is limited new production, and many sites have been mothballed or had production significantly throttled back.
The indications are we are entering another coma period, and there are some potentially big problems. World uranium stockpiles are not as high as they were, and most uranium production is not sustainable at current prices. Production will not be able increase quickly enough to meet demand when demand picks up.
Alexander Molyneux, CEO of Paladin Energy, said that the price of uranium had collapsed since Fukushima, from $70.2/lb to $33.1/lb. Paladin Energy has been optimising its cost structure, and reducing its non-production costs. While this strategy is successful at maintaining profitability, it does impact rapid expansion capability.
Tim Gabruch, vice president of marketing for Cameco, said it was a tough market for uranium producers, and that it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In January 2011, the price of uranium was $72.25. In September 2016, it was $25.50.
One of the critical factors will be whether or not there is a major restart of Japan’s nuclear reactors. These reactors represent a significant percentage of global capacity, and their non- operation creates an overhang in the market. The longer this goes on for, the worse the position gets. He did not think the industry could count on the Japanese reactors returning to service “any time soon.”
There is much greater uncertainty in demand levels for the near- and medium-term. The price situation means that new production is not coming on line, and currently producing mines are being mothballed. Production is being curtailed at lower margin sites, and this will continue until the price level readjusts.
Alexander Lokshin, first deputy CEO for operations management with Rosatom, said that the use of recycling and closed fuel cycles extends the life of uranium reserves. Rosatom can transform waste and used fuel into shorter lived products, reducing the waste duration issue. MOX and REMIX fuels saves natural uranium, and locks plutonium into a fuel cycle, reducing the waste problem.
Askar Zhumagaliyev, CEO of Kazatomprom, said the decline in the price of uranium has been mostly driven by an increase in output and overproduction. In addition, low activity on the spot market was another trigger that made prices go down.
Kazatomprom has increased production at its existing deposits over recent years. However, the current market situation makes any further increase in output unfeasible.
Daniel Poneman, president and CEO of Centrus Energy, advised the creation of a strategic reserve of enriched uranium. A strategic reserve can defray risk, even if it is never used. Nuclear capacity has to double by 2050, and nuclear power is key to ensuring energy security. A strategic reserve provides cover in case of supply disruptions, and there are a number of ways in which supply disruption might occur. These include:
- Regulatory/policy changes
- Natural disasters
- Equipment failure
All of these can result in disruptions to supply, and a strategic reserve can mitigate the effects. It makes economic sense to build up a strategic reserve while the fuel cost is low.
Thomas Haeberle, CEO of Urenco, said that uranium enrichment was a global challenge at the moment. There has been growth and stagnation over the last 20 years, and the industry has been stagnant since Fukushima. He added his voice to those saying that the current market price is not sustainable for reinvestment, and reinvestment is required to ensure future operations.
Reinvestment requires a marginal price, which needs either costs to fall, or the price of fuel to increase.
Overall, the fuel situation was not thought to be promising to support the goals of the Harmony programme, but this should correct itself once the price of uranium reaches a sustainable level and the necessary readjustments are made.
Leonam dos Santos Guimarães, director for planning, management, and environment for Electronuclear of Brazil, said that there were a number of challenges facing the nuclear industry in Brazil, as well as a lot of potential. He said that the challenges, many of which are common to the rest of the world, include:
- Public opinion
- Technology selection
- Supply chain skills
- Business models
There are a lot of choices, and Brazil has two operating reactors at Angra, with a third under construction, as well as planning for units 4 and 5. The WEC has made an evaluation for how much nuclear power might grow in the region, and the three scenarios it considered gave a range of 13-55GW of installed nuclear capacity in Brazil by 2050.
Frédérick Lelièvre, executive vice president of sales/regions and I&C for Areva, explained that the restructuring of the company will start to take place next year, with the company being divided into two parts, one of which will increasingly be bought by EDF.
Areva will no longer be tied to a single supplier, but will be able to support other reactor types, such as the VVER. The company will be creating a leaner structure, and is planning on cutting costs by €500 million out of a current €3.5 billion.
With such tight control of costs, it is important to ensure that technology is used effectively. Some imaginative examples of this include the use of drone for remote inspections and exoskeletons to help workers with load lifting.
Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), said Iran had a target of generating eight to ten percent of its electricity by nuclear power by 2030, and that it had one operating reactor at Bushehr, with another two units under construction there.
Because reactors constructed close to power demand cut down on the need for transmission links and integration into the network system, Iran, a country covering a large area and with separated population centres, was interested in installing SMRs of up to 100MW.
In addition to supporting power generation, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has been used to support other sectors. Examples of this include using the centrifuges produced by AEOI for pharmaceutical and agricultural applications.
Cooperation is vital to develop the nuclear industry. He said that Iran had a lot of cooperation with the IAEA, and it shares its experience with its Gulf neighbours through the JCPOA.
Mingguang Zheng, senior vice president of SNPTC, said that China was building plants using many different types of reactor. This can add to difficulties, because of the increased logistics and support, but it also means that you can adopt the best of the features for new designs.
Vincent de Rivaz, CEO of EDF Energy, said that there were a number of factors that were essential to constantly develop and improve nuclear plant operation. These were:
- Safety. Safety is the most important consideration, and requires constant improvement. It is a big help to have a strong, credible, independent regulator.
- Investment. It is not possible to achieve top performance if you overwork your people.
- Open and transparent. This is essential to win trust.
- You have to motivate the workforce. You only get the best work from a motivated workforce.
- Give all the stakeholders a sense of the future, and their involvement in it.
He said that you couldn’t improvise in the battle against climate change, and that all the tools, large nuclear, SMRs, renewables, battery storage, and gas, need to be used.
New projects are tough, particularly in countries just starting new construction. You need to sort out the economics, the finances, the costs, and the technology. Safety and security are at the heart of all projects, and this always has to be foremost.
Peter Prozevsky, CEO of WANO, said it is very useful to harmonise and standardise licensing and regulations. This reduces financial risk, and increases safety and operational performance. He also said that one of the lessons from Fukushima is that safety must not only be maintained, it must also be constantly evolved.
Jerry Head, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said there were a number of reasons to drive for standardisation of licensing and regulations:
- Licensing efficiency. It means you can switch from country to country, and focus resources. There is no need for one-off design features.
- It allows more thorough design and safety reviews, and regulators can look more deeply into specific features.
- The supply chain becomes more efficient and more stable.
- It is possible to implement improvements more effectively, and you get more efficient life-cycle maintenance.
- Owners groups become more effective, and it is easier to learn lessons.
- It is possible to share decommissioning techniques, making it more effective.
- Emergency planning and response can be improved.
Kimberley Nick, a lawyer with OECD NEA, said that to meet the 2°C climate change target, nuclear will be required, and harmonisation will be required to boost nuclear. Harmonisation can also provide benefits for already operating reactors, enhancing retrofit capability.
As part of the move towards harmonisation, the Multinational Design Evaluation Programme (MDEP) is providing a forum
for increased international cooperation. Membership of the MDEP has increased from ten to 15 national regulators, and the policy group has decided to extend the cooperation period from 2017 to 2022.
One problem facing regulators in particular is the attrition of experts and the relative paucity of new entrants, which is leading to a growing issue, and we have to find ways to alleviate the resource crunch.
Overall, the symposium was cautiously optimistic about making progress towards achieving the goals of the Harmony programme. It is an ambitious programme, and – particularly on the fuel front – there are potential issues. However, new construction is starting to take off, and the announcement of the approval of the Hinkley Point C project in the UK came to provide an appropriately cautious upbeat note to the symposium.