US nuclear industry thrives, but only for export

US nuclear industry thrives, but only for export

The American nuclear renaissance is going strong, even if hardly any nuclear reactors are being built in the United States. Japan’s continuing nuclear calamity has heightened concerns about the future of nuclear power and its safety, but in China, India and other regions, the push for nuclear power seems likely to continue to surge. Those are the countries that provide a strong market for the American companies that build nuclear reactors and their components.

Ask Steven Haas. Since the day he was born, 27 years ago, nobody in this country has ordered and completed a nuclear plant. But there he was, one day recently, plugging circuit boards and other electronic components into a cabinet the size of an industrial refrigerator that was labeled ‘Sanmen.’ That is the name of a twin-reactor plant in China that the Westinghouse Electric Co. has been supplying with a design and major components. The cabinet was one of scores that will go into each reactor, allowing digital communications and control of equipment.

After Sanmen, he said, will come Haiyang, another Chinese twin-reactor plant, and Vogtle 3 and 4 in the American state of Georgia, and V C Summer 2 and 3 in South Carolina. “And I think there’s other jobs coming,” he said, adding: “I hope so. If not, I won’t have a job.” But he probably will. In addition to the four units Westinghouse is supplying China, it is negotiating for 10 more. While the process has hit a pause amid the crisis in Japan, where an earthquake knocked out all cooling to six reactors, it seems bound to resume. The electricity demand of China, India and the West Asia grows unabated.

Safety systems in place

And the Westinghouse design and another by General Electric are intended to provide ‘passive’ methods of cooling a reactor in an emergency, by relying on natural forces like gravity and convection, with few or no power-operated valves, diesel generators and other safety systems that a tsunami or other hazard could knock out. For the US, nuclear power has become an export industry.

And here in western Pennsylvania, production is going full tilt. Westinghouse, which two years ago moved into a 750,000 sq ft office complex here, looks more and more like Boeing or General Motors, a company that designs crucial parts, makes some and farms out the manufacture of others, and integrates components from all over the world.

The four Chinese reactors have generated about 5,000 jobs in the US, at Westinghouse and related companies, said Aris Candris, chief executive of Westinghouse Electric. The company had hoped for many reactors to be under construction in this country by now, he said, but “overseas projects are growing a lot faster than we are and are picking up the slack.”

The result is some odd alliances. For example, the United Arab Emirates last year picked a consortium led by South Korea to build four reactors in a contract valued at an estimated $20 billion. It could be worth more because it could lead to yet more reactors. At a clean energy conference in Washington in January, Jon M Huntsman Jr., then the American ambassador to China, said that he had recently run into Bill Gates in China.

Gates is an investor in a new kind of reactor, part of a class called ‘small modular reactors,’ that are intended to be affordable for smaller utilities and suitable for places where the need is for hundreds of megawatts, not thousands of megawatts.

Gates is an investor with Nathan P Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, in a company called TerraPower, which has developed a design for something called the travelling wave reactor. For the most part, it makes its fuel as it runs, taking extra neutrons released in the chain reaction and using them to turn a low-value form of uranium into plutonium, which is almost immediately consumed.

The approach means that a country could have nuclear power without bothering with enrichment plants, which are a route to nuclear weapons. Babcock & Wilcox, another American company with a history of reactor construction, is working on a modular reactor of a more conventional design. It is supposed to be built entirely in a shop and shipped to the site, reducing the problems of quality control and skilled labour in remote locations.

Its design is for a reactor that can stand alone or be installed in multiples up to 10, as demand grows. Its future may also be abroad, in places where putting a 1,000-megawatt reactor on a small grid would be like loading an elephant into a canoe, causing blackouts every time it shut down unexpectedly. Existing plants are subjected to mathematical analysis to show that they will suffer core damage less than once every 10,000 years of operation. Engineers acknowledge that this is not verifiable through measurement of actual accident frequency, but they say that such calculations are a good way of comparing risks among different systems, or sometimes among plants.

Cooling technology

The Westinghouse plant’s frequency, using this analysis, is 100 times lower than conventional plants. General Electric, too, has a passively safe model on the drawing boards. It takes many components outside the reactor vessel and moves them inside.

The design also locates cooling water above where it would be needed and relies on steam to rise through pipes – its natural direction – to reach cooling water that will condense the steam back to a liquid. The plant can operate without electricity for three days without heating the core, the company says. In contrast, most plants are equipped to run for four to eight hours without some kind of power

The focus for all these companies is on Asia and India. “Most of the action that one can really care about, frankly, is in the developing world,” said Stewart Brand, the futurist and developer of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, a proponent of nuclear power, said, “Those are the places where the massive amounts of power demand are coming on, every month, over the next couple of decades. They’re the ones building all kinds of new coal-fired plants,” plants that could have been nuclear.

Matthew G Bunn, an associate professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard and a nuclear expert in the office of the White House science adviser, surveyed the landscape after the March 11 earthquake in Japan and said of the Chinese, “They’ll build more nuclear than anybody else.”

Hand in hand with development of civilian power reactors is the possibility of development of nuclear weapons. When the US exports fuel, it usually keeps control over what can happen to the fuel after it has been through the reactor, a crucial detail because when uranium-powered reactors make electricity, they also make plutonium, which can be used for bombs.

That strikes Michael J Wallace, a 40-year veteran of the nuclear industry, most recently at Constellation Energy, as a reason for the US to seek to be a technology exporter, to compete with Russia and, eventually, China. “If the US is going to be relevant in the global marketplace and have an ability to continue to exercise leadership on matters of nonproliferation,” he said, “it would seem that we’ve got to have a viable programme going forward.”

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