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Sunday, February 5, 2017

New Large Light Water Construction, USA and France

Recent news that Toshiba will, in all probability, end its venture into nuclear power plant design and construction has made sort of an upheaval in the pro-nuclear community.  The Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plant construction in the US is not going according to plan (and Westinghouse is owned by Toshiba) and further, purchase of the architect-engineer and construction functions of these domestic projects, formerly the business of CB&I / The Shaw Group, and originally Stone & Webster Engineering, has not led to the desired results either.

Not new is the fact that in Europe, AREVA's construction of two new large light water EPR plants in Finland and in France is also not going well.  AREVA has collapsed, and a bailout is in progress; Toshiba is approaching that possibility.

I think at this juncture it's helpful to point out some broad similarities between the AP1000 projects in the USA and the EPR projects in Finland / France.  First though I'd direct you to this piece I wrote for ANS Nuclear Cafe on nuclear plant construction, because it contains vital information to this discussion.

There are the following three broad similarities between the new US and the new French projects:

•All are FOAK or First Of A Kind Plants.  Both the AP1000 and the EPR are overall new nuclear power plant designs which supposedly incorporate some previous experience and some new design features (such as modular unit construction, for example) meant to mitigate previously experienced delays in construction.  Any "first ever" project -- even one intended to simplify things -- is likely to run into unforeseen delays and complications, which then should be translated as "lessons learned" to the later projects of the exact same design to fully achieve efficiencies.  The first of either of these types of plants has not even been finished even though they've been under construction for years, so that what exactly the sum total of lessons learned is, is not yet even fully perceived.

•All are FOAG or First Of A Generation.  By this I mean that both the AP1000 and the EPR are intended to be "Gen-III+" plants, in which certain design features, additions, or improvements deeply reduce the chances of a core damage accident when compared with previous light water reactors.  This factor's full impact is not yet known or perhaps even fully analyzed, but it becomes quite significant when one realizes that the plain Gen-III plants being built by South Korea and by China are not experiencing any construction delays.  It will only be after the Gen-III+ projects are completed that a full assessment can be made as to whether or not this particular point is a factor, but for historians it's already clear that this is a comparison that needs to be monitored, fully analyzed and recorded.

•All are being built by nations which have a multi-decade gap in the process of designing and constructing nuclear power plants.  It only takes a generation to lose the base to successfully construct nuclear power plants, as was plainly put by Framatome in the 1970's (this was AREVA's predecessor) when it implored the French government to order a nuclear plant a year "or else lose the whole nuclear enterprise."  This did not occur, and the enterprise was lost.  By "enterprise" I mean the institutional knowledge gained from years of constant nuclear plant building, which really is a "design-construct-learn-design-construct-learn" process that requires constant work.  The loss of institutional knowledge, industrial capability and construction capability is keenly felt now in both nations' projects.  It should be noted that decades of continuous work have been going on in China and South Korea, and their projects are running vastly better than the US and French projects.

The factors above are quite enough by themselves to lead any new nuclear project into distress if they're present, and as we see all of the US construction is in trouble to some degree as are the EPR projects.  The present state of collapse of Toshiba (because of Westinghouse) and of AREVA however have very little to do with the above three factors; instead these are related to the following factor:

•Both companies have allowed themselves to become directly exposed to specific nuclear plant project construction risks.  In the past, big projects failed but the reactor vendors were never in trouble because they weren't tied to the fortunes of this or that project.  (See my ANS article linked earlier.)  There was a push over the years to get the reactor vendors to assume at least some of the risk so that the A-E / Constructor / Owner were not the only ones exposed, and today we are seeing that with the EPR construction (where at Olkiluoto, Finland it's even to the point that AREVA offered the plant as a "turnkey" project where it is doing all the jobs) and the AP1000 construction.  It must be pointed out that the Chinese AP1000 units are NOT being actually constructed by Toshiba / Westinghouse / WECTEC.    It is this exposure, COUPLED with the earlier three points, that has led to the financial stresses experienced by AREVA and by Toshiba / Westinghouse.

Finally it should be pointed out that none of this indicates that large, gigawatt-class light water reactor nuclear power plants are "dead."  In fact, it points out that nations which think nuclear is important should make moves to never halt fully the construction of nuclear power stations.  The Chinese, and South Koreans are, once again, delivering on time -- so it IS possible with large light water plants.  The important thing is to realize that the skills and industry required will evaporate quickly once the last light goes out -- and wishing to return and turn the light back on, one will find the whole building missing.  It almost is a start-from-scratch scenario.

Atomic Power Review - Feb 5, 2017

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