Discussion Thread – can nuclear be kick started at lower cost?

I’ve split this discussion from Open Thread 6.

I want to use this post to focus comments on whether lower-cost Gen II+ (e.g. via the Chinese CPR-1000 and Indian PHWR) are a better current option to be pursuing than higher-cost Gen III+ (like the AREVA EPR and any US proposal that you’d care to think of right now). The other issue is whether Gen III+ reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000 and KEPCO APR-1400 can quickly become cost-competitive with Gen II+, as recent results from China and South Korea are suggesting…

Here is the Nucleonics Week piece that forms the fulcrum of this discussion, with South Africa as the case study (h/t to jaro at EfT):

Nucleonics Week October 7, 2010

South Africa seeking to restart nuclear program at lower cost

South Africa is poised to restart its stalled nuclear power program in the coming months, seeking a solution less costly than the Westinghouse and Areva bids it received in early 2008.

Among the possibilities the government is considering, according to South African and other officials interviewed last month, are reactors from China and South Korea that rivals say lack 21st century safety features. For the South Africans, those “Generation II+” designs have the benefit of support from major nuclear utilities — including, perhaps, France’s EDF — and the prospect of generous export financing. The CEO of state utility Eskom, Brian Dames, has said that South Africa “may not be able to afford” a Generation III reactor design, according to Clive Le Roux, chief nuclear officer and senior general manager, nuclear division of Eskom Holdings Ltd. Le Roux said in an interview September 20 that the government is taking an “open technology” approach and asked Eskom to evaluate “all PWR technologies based on the criteria used in 2006” to establish Eskom’s initial reactor tender, which ultimately failed on grounds of cost.

But South African industry officials said the nuclear power plan could be significantly delayed or abandoned if the government — which is in charge of the country’s nuclear program —chooses a reactor design that requires a larger emergency planning zone than is foreseen in the environmental impact assessment process on which approval of the proposed sites depends. That might be the case for so-called Generation II+ reactors such as the Chinese CPR-1000, according to Le Roux. Eskom is responsible for conducting the EIA process. He said the EIA documents for Eskom’s sites are based on an evacuation zone of 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles).

Rob Adam, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Corp. of South Africa, Necsa, said in an interview September 17 that the government is expected to approve next month an integrated resource plan that foresees construction of 11,000 MW of nuclear capacity by the late 2020s, with initial construction in 2020. He said the deployment of the reactors would be done in a “fleet” approach from the outset, in contrast to Eskom’s tender of 2007, which asked for detailed bids on two or three initial units and an option for 10 to 12 later on. But the government has not yet announced the timeline for a decision on how to proceed with the procurement, he said.

Adam said it’s not yet decided whether the procurement will be “country-to-country” or via a tender. In December 2007, Eskom invited Westinghouse and Areva to submit bids for their flagship products, AP1000 and EPR respectively. Eskom had asked for two bids, one called “Nuclear 1” for initial capacity of 3,200 MW-3,500 MW and a second for a fleet of 10 to 12 replicate units. But Eskom and the government were taken aback by the cost of the bids when they were submitted in January 2008, South African officials said last month. Eskom repeatedly delayed a decision on Nuclear 1, as the utility found itself caught between what loomed as a huge capital investment for the turnkey plants — South African media at the time cited the figure of $9 billion for the two or three units, but Eskom has not confirmed that — and a decreasing ability to raise financing after its credit rating was cut by Moody’s Investors Service in August 2008.

The international financial crisis put an end, at least temporarily, to the utility’s nuclear plans, and the board of Eskom Holdings announced on December 5, 2008 that it had decided to terminate the Nuclear 1 tender “due to the magnitude of the investment.” At the time, South African officials said the government was looking for an alternative model for building the reactor fleet that would involve a “bigger opportunity for South African companies” and bring the unit cost of nuclear power plants down. South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA and deputy foreign minister, Abdul Samad Minty, said September 20 that the country’s Department of Energy “is also leading the development of a nuclear energy implementation strategy” to develop necessary infrastructure, including “localization and industrialization and nuclear fuel security.” “We will work with international partners with the most cost-effective plans that address these issues with minimum impact on cost and delivery schedule,” he told the IAEA general conference in Vienna.

Le Roux said Eskom has evaluated PWR technology from Japan, Russia and South Korea in addition to the Westinghouse and Areva technology, and has added China’s design for consideration. The China Guangdong Nuclear Power group, or Cgnpc, which is part-owned by China National Nuclear Corp., has developed a three-loop, 1,000-MW-class PWR based on technology transferred by Areva predecessor Framatome in the 1980s. The CPR-1000, as it is called, is the workhorse of China’s burgeoning nuclear power program, representing most of the 24 reactors under construction in the country. Le Roux said that in the previous tender, “we asked Areva to build an ‘RSA-1000,’” meaning a CPR-1000 adapted for the Republic of South Africa. But he said that the Eskom board had eventually rejected the idea.

With the experience of the failed 2008 tender, the new South African government and the new Eskom board might be more receptive to a reactor design that is not labeled Generation III and doesn’t have the same price tag. Chinese utility Cgnpc has announced unit overnight costs for its CPR-1000 built in China that are less than half those of the AP1000 or EPR (NW, 1 July, 3).

Evacuation zone

But Le Roux said that the EIAs for Eskom’s proposed reactor sites were based on the European Utility Requirements document, a compilation of specifications for new reactor designs by most of Europe’s nuclear utilities. The EUR, Le Roux said, specifies an emergency evacuation zone around a reactor site of only 800 meters (about half of a mile). Eskom’s sole nuclear power station, the two-unit Koeberg PWR plant, has an “immediate evacuation” zone of 5 km (about 3.1 miles) and a “contingency” evacuation zone of 16 km, Le Roux said. The latter is based on the US NRC’s 10-mile emergency planning zone, he said. Eskom is looking at three new sites for its next nuclear power units: Thyspunt, Bantamsklip, and Duinefontein, which is adjacent to Koeberg. All are in the Cape region, where electricity demand is highest and which is far from South Africa’s coal fields. Le Roux said Eskom had assumed the EUR emergency planning zone criteria when preparing the EIA for new units at Duinefontein, even though the 16-km zone exists for Koeberg.

Le Roux said that Eskom had asked Cgnpc whether it had redesigned the CPR-1000 so that it could meet the new evacuation zone criteria. Adam said that “there is a lot of discussion with the Chinese” at present. If Eskom insisted on a Generation III reactor, “they couldn’t do it on their own,” because Areva and Westinghouse have technology rights to their designs outside China. If Eskom chose a Generation II design, he said, it could be put at Koeberg considering the emergency planning zone, but not at the other sites. “It would be messy to redo the EIAs,” he said. “You’d have to tinker with the EPZ.”

Adam also said that if the Chinese are keen to build reactors in South Africa, it’s not just to export their products but also because they are interested in the country’s uranium resources. South Africa’s nuclear policy, on the other hand, calls for indigenous development of nuclear fuel cycle technologies, including enrichment and fuel fabrication, so that the country can sell more valuable products for export.

CPR-1000 with EDF?

Meanwhile, French daily Les Echos reported last month that EDF was interested in partnering with Cgnpc in selling CPR-1000s to South Africa, but that the French government had rejected that idea on grounds that EDF should not promote Chinese technology over that of Areva. The French government owns more than 85% of each of those companies. It recently declared EDF the leader of the French nuclear industry, but said EDF and Areva should work together more, especially when it’s necessary for export business.

EDF CEO Henri Proglio, who took his position last November, has set the goal of establishing EDF as a nuclear architect-engineering force worldwide, and reorganized the utility’s nuclear engineering division to include a “future nuclear” department charged with investigating new reactor designs. The department has been looking at various designs, including the CPR-1000, according to one EDF official. He did not confirm that EDF was also looking at a 1,500-MW-class design separate from Areva’s 1,650-MW EPR, as Les Echos had reported.

The five-member commission of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, ASN, issued a statement July 6 asserting that reactors built today should include features to prevent core melt accidents and to limit radioactive releases in the event of such an accident, notably systems to recover molten corium that might melt through the reactor vessel. EPR has such a system, but some other reactors do not, including the CPR-1000 and the South Korean version of the APR-1400 PWR that is to be built in the United Arab Emirates. The commissioners wrote, “We don’t want two-speed safety and we will continue to promote in Europe and internationally safety goals that take into account the lessons of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and September 11, 2001. Faced with projects to export reactors that don’t meet these safety goals, ASN will not hesitate to say that such reactors could not be built in France.”

Asked September 23 whether that ruled out the CPR-1000, ASN Chairman Andre-Claude Lacoste told Platts that the commission was not designating any specific design, and said he did not know what design features the Chinese or the South Koreans might be proposing for export projects, including in South Africa.

Safe enough?

In a separate interview September 22 in Vienna, Bernard Bigot, chairman of France’s Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies, or CEA, said France was promoting an agreement among countries exporting nuclear reactor technology on new design criteria. They are: reduction of the risk of core melt by a factor of 10 compared to existing units, practical elimination of radioactive releases outside the reactor building, and resistance to extreme external events, including voluntary attacks. “The whole world must share this [approach],” Bigot said. He said the CPR-1000 “does not meet the three criteria,” in particular because it doesn’t have a double protective shell surrounding the reactor building. France’s Nuclear Policy Council, chaired by President Nicolas Sarkozy, said last July that “we won’t export low-cost reactors,” Bigot recalled. He said that while there are differences of opinion within EDF on which technologies are acceptable for export, “the French government has a clear position.”

Necsa’s Adam said there is some resistance in South Africa to taking on a Generation II reactor design, and that there is hope that vendors will “bring down the cost” of Generation III designs. The CEA’s Bigot said that buying a nuclear reactor today is a commitment for 60 years or more, so entrants into the market should look for the highest safety standard available today. Bigot said that “the South Africans have not asked for CPR-1000” but rather want the Chinese to help lower the cost of EPRs that would be built in South Africa. “EPR is in the process of being clearly optimized” on the basis of experience with the design, he said.

Liu Hua, director general of the department of nuclear safety and environmental radiation management in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, said in an interview September 22 that the CPR-1000 had been significantly upgraded compared to the French technology of 30 years ago. He cited measures to reduce the risk of vessel melt-through, to limit the risk of loss of coolant accidents, and to increase the capacity to cope with hydrogen formation under containment, as well as backfit of digital instrumentation & control systems. He said the CPR-1000 meets IAEA safety standards for new reactors, with a core melt frequency of 10 E-5 (Ed: 1 in 100,000 reactor years) and a release probability an order of magnitude lower. “We are satisfied that CPR-1000 is a safe reactor type,” Liu said. “It’s safe enough”.

How safe is safe enough is a hot topic. “Even the AP1000 still needs improvement,” the Chinese regulator said. South Africa’s Minty told the IAEA conference that completion of the final EIA for the three proposed reactor sites is anticipated “before the end of 2010.” He said the EIA would be submitted to the government for “evaluation and a decision on an environmental authorization in the first half of 2011.” Boyce Mkhize, CEO of South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator, told Platts September 23 that “in the end, it’s the government’s decision which technology” is deployed in South Africa.” “We just need to make sure what’s chosen meets the IAEA safety standards.”

—Ann MacLachlan, London, Vienna and Paris


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

111 replies on “Discussion Thread – can nuclear be kick started at lower cost?”

DV82XL, on 24 October 2010 at 1:13 PM — I agree, except that with small modules one can try it out for a starting price of only around $200 million instead of really big price tags.


BHP Billiton might make use of a pair of small modular units, plus existing GT’s and transmission line capacity to power Roxby Downs if they thought that regulatory hurdles were manageable and the price right. With dry cooling, of course.

Major advantages include:
… Reduction in fuel transport costs to the remote location.
… No need for transmission line upgrade
… BHP-B are already experienced in managing radiation risks – they would not have the same emotional hangups as some other potential operators.
… Avoids site difficulties associated with current proposals near Port Augusta.

I couldn’t think of a more appropriate location or operator for Australia’s first NPP.


@ John Bennetts
Agreed, (for visitors to this blog not familiar with BHP , Roxby Downs is an enormous uranium/copper mine in the Sth Australian desert) However John don’t forget there is also an enormous amount of recoverable hot rock energy available , within a stone’s throw of the mine ,so to speak .


BHP are interested in every other type of rock, so they might as well add these to their portfolio… but somehow I think that they are in too much of a hurry to wait for either.



there is also an enormous amount of recoverable hot rock energy available

If you leave out the word “recoverable” I’d agree with your statement.

There is a lot of heat, just as there is in the sun. But it is diffuse and difficult to extract. We’ve been working on trying to engineer hot dry rock and hot fractured rock systems since 1973. There are no commercially viable electricity generation plants anywhere in the world despite attempts by many countries over that time. (Don’t confuse the geothermal energy from volcanic areas with what we are trying to do in Australia; it is not the same. We do not have any volcanic areas in Australia).

The heat in the rock is diffuse and there are major technical difficluties with extracting the heat from the rock mass. Also don’t get overly taken in by the hypes that will follow initial installations. Early apparent success will come from mining the hot water that is in the rockmass. This is not the same as extracting heat from the rock mass on an ongoing basis over the long term.

I agree there will be some small geothermal plants, but I do not expect geothernal to be a major supplier of our electricity. I expect it will be a small bit player like solar and perhaps a few other finge, non-hydro renewables.


@ Peter,

I’ve heard there are some (large) issues surrounding transmission of dry-rock geothermal generated electricity from their typically remote locations. E.g. there would be a lot of energy loss from Coober Pedy to Adelaide.

What do you make of this? It is only something I’ve *heard*, it’s never been substantiated to me.


Tom Keen,

Transmissions is not the main concern. High Voltage DC transmission lines would be used and they are proven. They are economic for large baseload power generation (Churchill Falls Canada to New York, Brazil and many nother places).

The real problem is extracting the heat from the rock. The fractures in the rock are not parallel plates through which the water flows evenly and extrac ts the heat evenly from the whole fracture surface. The water is disobedient. It takes the easiest path through the rock mass which is through “channels” of the highest hydraulic conductivity.

You’ll hear a lot of spin (especially from the modellers and proponents), but this is the real world of fractured rock masses.


Cheers Peter, always good to get the facts straight.

I’m certainly not holding my breath over it as a realistic large-scale option.


There’s no need to go to Canada’s Churchill Falls to find operating HVDC transmission. The Vic-Tas interconnector beneath Bass Straight is DC, as also several links already operating within the National Electricity Market of SE Australia.


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