Recently in Nuclear Power Category

Slumping Economy Slows Nuclear Power Resurgence


Nuclear power has been poised for a huge rebirth due to worldwide concern about climate change and global warming. However, the global recession is making it very difficult for companies and governments to justify construction costs for new nuclear facilities. Recently, upfront costs for nuclear projects have quickly increased due to rising steel costs and lack of technological expertise.

France’s Areva has acknowledged industry changes, noting that the nuclear sector used to be a suppliers’ market, but the worldwide recession has changed it to a buyers’ market.

An example of the recession’s effects can be found in the December 2008 decision by South Africa to cancel its plans to construct a second nuclear reactor. Deeming the project no longer affordable, the country is expected to fill its energy needs through coal.

It is not only the costs of construction that are a deterrent for building new nuclear facilities. France’s EDF has announced the cost of power produced by their new reactor in Flamanville will be 20% higher than initially expected. Power generated by this reactor, which is expected to begin operations in 2013, will cost approximately 55 euros per megawatt hour instead of the initial 46 euro estimate.

Don’t be surprised if, by the time the recession ends, nuclear power is not the same cost-effective option it used to be. These higher costs may make people reconsider adding nuclear capacity more than the potential dangers posed by the technology.

Call for Protests Against New Belarus Nuclear Plant


Autonomous Operation, an interregional anarcho-communist association, is calling for protests against the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Belarus. The group plans to participate in the annual “Chernobyl Way” procession on April 26 (the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster) in Belarus.

Fearing their demonstration will not be enough, the group requests international support in the form of actions held across the world on April 26, 2009. The purpose of these actions should be to help people learn about the issues surrounding the construction of the Belorussian nuclear plant.

Belarus received more radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster than any other country. Despite opposition, the Belorussian government and President Aleksandr Lukashenko plan to build a new nuclear power plant in Ostrovetskaya near Lake Naroch, the largest lake in Belarus. Russia’s Rosatom is set to manage the construction, which is expected to cost approximately $5-6 billion.

Construction of the Ostrovetskaya Nuclear Power Plant is expected to begin in early 2009. The facility is expected to house two 1,000 MWt reactors to be put into operation in 2016 and 2018. Once operational, the plant is expected to provide up to 15% of the country’s electricity.

Two more reactors could be built in Belarus, with operations beginning around 2025.

Unfortunately, this call for action is probably too late. The Belorussian government hopes to start construction on the new facility this month. If this happens, the protests will occur three months into construction - that is, if the protests even occur. After all, we are talking about Belarus, which is far from being a true democratic state.

Autonomous Operation Call for Action

Are Passive Systems in Nuclear Power Really Safe?


I just read an interesting article in the latest issue of New Humanist about how many environmentalists are now going nuclear. I understand and appreciate the points being made, but one passage really surprised me, though I have heard this argument before:

Len Green, an engineer who helped build Sizewell B nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast, explained that modern plants are engineered to meet every possible contingency, including the kind of employee negligence that lead to the explosion at Chernobyl: “The designs have to be thoroughly assessed, then every stage of construction is assessed, and when they’re operating, they’re assessed.” According to Professor Robin Grimes, a materials physicist at Imperial College London and former researcher at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, they’re not just safe, they’re foolproof: “The new designs of power stations use passive systems, which means that they automatically behave in such a way as to shut the reactor down. The operator doesn’t even have to take any action at all.”
What bugs me is the statement that new reactors using passive systems are foolproof. First of all, there are different types of passive systems.

Fully passive safety systems depend on natural, physical phenomena such as pressure differentials, convection, gravity or the natural response of materials to high temperatures to slow or shut down the reaction.

However, hybrid systems also exist. For instance, some systems use pressure relief valves to manage excess pressure levels. While these valves are supposed to function without human intervention, there is a possibility, however slight, that they can fail. Parallel redundant systems may be used, but the possibility of failure still exists.

Some examples of passive systems include:

  • Increasing the probability that neutrons are captured by U-238 atoms instead of U-235, which initiates fission
  • Utilizing steam voids to moderate fewer neutrons and dropping power - this is currently used in Pressurized and Boiling Water Reactors
  • Using pools of liquid metal for thermal expansion that allows more neutrons to escape the core - this is currently used in some Fast Breeder Reactors
I have no problem acknowledging that newer, passive safety systems in nuclear reactors make the units relatively safer than the older, “active” designs. However, I find it difficult to believe that passive designs are guaranteed 100% safe and foolproof. After all, they are built by humans, and we are prone to making mistakes, whether in design, building materials or implementation. All it takes is one mistake to create another potential Chernobyl-type accident.

If that’s not enough, nuclear energy creates other accident possibilities including the transportation and storage of nuclear wastes. Don’t forget the accident at France’s Tricastin facility last year, caused by liquid containing unenriched uranium spilling from an overflowing reservoir. I can also point to the small plutonium leak at an Austrian IAEA facility last August.

Sure, things may be getting safer, but inherent danger from nuclear power continues to exist.
Kozloduy NPP 1-4As Russia and Ukraine continue their bitter natural gas dispute, several countries now report a complete shutoff of their gas supplies from Moscow. The countries are:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Greece
  • Macedonia
  • Romania
  • Turkey
Partial supply decreases have also been reported by Austria (90%), Slovakia (70%), the Czech Republic (75%) and Hungary.

Bulgaria has sufficient reserves for several days, but President Georgi Parvanov said his country should begin immediate preparations to re-start Unit 3 at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant. It would take approximately one month to re-open the reactor.

Kozloduy-3 was shutdown in December 2006 as part of an agreement with the European Union (EU), which was concerned about inadequate safety levels. However, Bulgaria’s EU accession treaty apparently allows closed reactors to be temporarily re-started in the event of an acute energy shortage.

Varna and Dobrich in eastern Bulgaria have been left without natural gas supplies. In Varna, on the Black Sea coast, 12,000 households were left without central heating amid freezing temperatures.

Russia’s Gazprom is certain it can provide enough gas to Europe, but is attempting to find routes other than through Ukraine, which has been accused of siphoning gas from the pipelines. The Ukrainian government denies the allegations. Russia supplies Europe with approximately 25% of its natural gas, 80% of which is shipped through Ukraine.

Photo: Kozloduy NPP Units 1-4

EU Wants Armenian Metsamor NPP Closed

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The European Union wants Armenia to close its Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, but the Armenians refuse to dismantle the facility until a replacement is operational. Metsamor currently provides 40% of the country’s electricity.

The Metsamor NPP was constructed during the 1970’s approximately 30 kilometers west of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The facility was built with two VVER-440 model V320 nuclear reactors, but this technology is no longer considered acceptable by modern safety standards.

Metsamor is located in an eartthquake-hazard region, where strong earthquakes constantly occur. The plant is operated by Inter RAO UES, a Russian company, as part of a five-year deal to help pay off Armenian debts.

Armenia plans to build a new nuclear plant with a capacity of either 1,000 or 1,200 MW. Projected project costs are between $4 billion and $7.2 billion. Construction may start in 2011 and the new facility is expected to go online in 2017. The United States and France have indicated their willingness to help Armenia replace Metsamor. Russia is also expected to cooperate with the Armenian government.

The European Union is concerned about safety due to both the use of old technology and location in an actively seismic area. EU appears determined to close all nuclear plants using outdated technology as soon as possible, even if that means exerting huge pressures on the governments of countries with these old plants.

It will be interesting to see if Russia eventually takes the lead in building a new facility, instead of the US or France. This is one of those cases that confounds me - I hate seeing another new nuclear plant built in the world, but without a new nuclear facility, what would Armenia do to meet its energy needs? I feel the same way about Ukraine - I don’t want them building more nuclear plants, but they don’t have many sensible, clean alternatives either. If a country needs to use nuclear power, I would rather see them use new, safe technology than something outdated and dangerous.

Photo: Bouarf - Gnu Free Doc Lic 1.2

Russian Floating Nuclear Power Plants for Qatar


Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation (Kahramaa) has opened discussions with Russia about utilizing new Russian floating nuclear power plants (FNPP). Qatar is studying the possibility of adding up to 5,400 MW of nuclear capacity between 2011 and 2036. Qatar is also constructing the world’s largest solar power facility, which should be operational by 2013.

The country is also interested in using nuclear power for electricity so they can export more gas for additional income. Russia plans to only lease FNPP’s, but potential dependence on a foreign energy supply is not a concern. If Russia ever tried to put pressure on Qatar, the middle eastern country could always revert back to power from its gas reserves.

The Russian floating nuclear power plants are a good prospect for Qatar because they not only have the capability to generate electricity, but can also be used to desalinate water. Kahramaa estimates local daily water demand in Qatar could more than double by 2012 to approximately 681,000 cubic meters per day. FNPP’s can supply roughly 240,000 cubic meters of water each day, which would at least partially solve the problem.

The first Russian FNPP’s are anticipated to be online by 2011. These plants use two KLT-40S reactors similar to those used on Russian icebreakers and submarines. The expected capacity is 70 MW, enough to power cities of 100,000-200,000 people. Radioactive byproducts will be stored in special compartments and removed every 10-12 years during pre-planned overhauls.

Traditional land-based nuclear plants have been considered, but necessary safety zones make it inconvenient to locate a facility in such a small country. Also, it is not clear if the existing electricity grid can support the additional 1,000 MW from a large, land-based plant.

The biggest concern about such plants is safety and security. Rosatom director Sergei Kiriyenkosays says FNPP’s will be much safer than land-based facilities. The plants will have five radiation protection barriers and can withstand a 7-8 point earthquake, 100 mph winds or a falling Jak-40 jet. Transportation  will be without fuel, refueling will occur at special, secure shipyards and the plants are being designed with unspecified security systems to protect them from underwater sabotage.

That’s all well and good, but you know my feelings about nuclear power. A big problem with these plants is not only that radioactivity can be spread in the atmosphere, but also via ocean currents. It certainly is an interesting idea, but not one I can get behind.

Mini Nuclear Reactors Coming Soon to Your Community?


I guess this really should come as no surprise, but a Santa Fe, New Mexico company will soon be providing nuclear power to communities across the United States. Hyperion Power Generation (HPG) has obtained developmental rights to produce hot tub-sized nuclear generators using technology originally pioneered at the US government’s Los Alamos laboratory.

These miniature nuclear reactors will be powered by low-enriched uranium fuel. Each Hyperion Power Module will generate 25 Megawatts of electricity, enough to reliably supply power to 20,000 standard American homes for 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Currently, suggested applications include:

  • Industrial, such as oil shale and sands drilling and processing;
  • U.S. Military facilities;
  • Primary power for small remote communities in developing nations, including water pumping and processing.
Each unit will cost approximately $25 million and are small enough to be transported on the back of a lorry. They will be factory sealed, buried underground and “guarded for maximum security.”

Hyperion claims these reactors have no risk of meltdown because there are no moving parts and the fuel will instantaneously cool if the units are opened.

Quoting from Hyperion’s website:

The core of the HPM produces energy via a safe, natural heat-producing process that occurs with the oscillation of hydrogen in uranium hydride. HPMs cannot go “supercritical,” melt down, or get “too hot.” It maintains its safe, operating temperature without the introduction and removal of “cooling rods” – an operation that has the potential for mechanical failure.

Often referred to as a “cartridge” reactor or “nuclear battery,” the Hyperion HyperDrive is self- regulating with no mechanical parts to break down or otherwise fail. The inherent properties of uranium hydride serve as both fuel and moderator providing unparalleled safety among nuclear reactors. Sealed at the factory, the module is not opened until it has been returned to the factory to be refueled, approximately every five years or so, depending on use. This containment, along with the strategy of completely burying the module at the operating site, protects against the possibility of human incompetence, or hostile tampering and proliferation.

Each module is expected to produce a softball-sized amount waste every five years and will release no greenhouse gases. The waste materials is considered a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Hyperion already has 3 factories around the world working on production of the initial 4,000 units. The first 100 have already been allocated to industrial enterprises operating in remote areas.

Well, this really makes me nervous. Am I really supposed to believe a meltdown is impossible?

Hyperion says burying the module protects it against the possibility of human incompetence. What about incompetence at the production plant?

I also don’t believe Hyperion can honestly guarantee 100% that all units can come out of the factories in absolutely perfect condition, with no bad parts included. Any production process is likely to produce some bad components - that’s just a fact.

Is nuclear energy as an industry where that risk can be considered acceptable? I don’t think so. Yes, these units will be underground, which should minimize terrorist threats, but if a problem occurs, and at some point something will go wrong, it could effect the water table.  Worst case scenario could be an explosion that blows up through the ground and exposes the unit to the atmosphere.

If you want to know what could happen, I researched uranium hydride and found an OSHA website that indicates this material is spontaneously flammable in air, and contact of the hydride with strong oxidizers may cause fires and explosions.  Further, contact of uranium hydride with water forms flammable and explosive hydrogen gas.  Contact with halogenated hydrocarbons can cause violent reactions.

Perhaps these modules will be safe, but 100% safe with absolutely no chance of a major problem ... I highly doubt it. They may be factory sealed, but can the seal stay secure for five years in every single unit?

As expected, there is not enough information on Hyperion’s website to allay my fears. I hate to say it, but Hyperion merely telling me these units will be safe is not good enough for me.

In yesterday’s Lithuanian election almost 89% of voters were in favor of ignoring the country’s European Union agreement and keep the Ingalina-2 nuclear reactor operational until 2012.

The proposal was non-binding, however the 47% turnout was also below the 50% mandated for a referendum to be considered valid.

Ukraine Building 2 New Nuclear Reactors


Khmelnitsky NPPEnergoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear energy company, will begin construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant in southwestern Ukraine. Construction is expected to begin in 2010.

The new units, Khmelnitsky-3 and Khmelnitsky-4, are expected to be V-320 model, 1000 MWe VVER pressurized water reactors. The first of these units is expected to begin operations by the end of 2016.

Khmelnitsky-1 came online in 1987 and Khmelnitsky-2 on August 8, 2004. Currently, the Khmelnitsky facility produces around 6-7 billion KWh per year, or approximately 9% of Ukraine’s electricity.

Ukraine currently has 15 operational nuclear reactors at four facilities providing approximately 46.4% of the country’s electricity. Current total capacity is 13835 MWe.

Photo courtesy of Energoatom

Lithuania May Keep Ignalina Nuclear Plant Open

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Ignalina Nuclear Power PlantReactor 2 at Lithuania’s Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, an RBMK-1500, 1300 megawatt reactor, is currently scheduled for closure in 2009. Amid mounting pressure from its citizens, the Lithuanian government is considering breaking its agreement with the European Union to shut down the reactor.

The reactor currently supplies 70% of Lithuania’s electricity, as well as power to Latvia and Estonia. Many Lithuanian leaders and citizens want to renege on the agreement, fearing the closure will cause a problematic reliance on Russia for the country’s electricity needs.

On October 12, Lithuanians will vote in a non-binding referendum to delay the reactor’s closure. President Valdas Adamkus, an independent, opposes the referendum. However a July poll conducted by Veidas magazine showed 78.3% of respondents favored a delay, while only 9.6% were against it.

The Lithuanian government favors a delay until at least 2012, saying the closure would hurt the country’s economy. Ignalina-1, another RBMK-style reactor, was shut down on December 31, 2004 as part of Lithuania’s accession treaty.

The European Union opposes a delay, fearing the continued operation of any RBMK-style reactors, the same type involved in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Since the agreement is part of Lithuania’s 2004 accession treaty to join the European Union, any change must be discussed in an intergovernmental conference, approved by the 27 member states and ratified by their parliaments - a process that is “virtually impossible.”

A new “Baltic States” nuclear power plant, built with Western technology, will be built at the Ignalina site, but the two 1600 megawatt reactors will not be operational until 2015.

Photo courtesy of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant