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Significant nuclear-related news items in perspective. For previous items, see the Archive.

19 February 2021

UK publishes Hydrogen Roadmap

The UK Nuclear Industry Council, a joint industry-government body, has published a Hydrogen Roadmap for the UK showing how the country might achieve 225 TWh (6.76 million tonnes) of low-carbon hydrogen each year by 2050. It outlines how large-scale and small modular reactors (SMRs) can produce both the power and the heat necessary to produce clean hydrogen. It proposes 12-13 GW of nuclear reactors of all types using high-temperature steam electrolysis and thermochemical means to produce 75 TWh/yr (2.25 Mt) of clean hydrogen by 2050. This would complement some ‘green hydrogen’ from intermittent renewables but with higher load factors for expensive electrolysers reducing cost to that of today’s ‘grey’ hydrogen production which has large CO2 emissions. A “robust policy framework” will be required.

This is complementary to an October 2020 policy briefing by The Royal Society in UK on Nuclear Cogeneration. It examines how the use of nuclear power could be expanded to improve the overall efficiency and energy system resilience to meet the UK net-zero 2050 goal. It considers particularly cogeneration, where the heat from a nuclear power station is used to address some of the ‘difficult to decarbonise’ energy demand, as well as providing electricity. Hydrogen production is a prime focus, and small reactors could match their thermal output to the requirements of a single plant or cluster of co-located industrial processes.
WNN 17/2/19.   UK, Hydrogen

New Chinese mini electric vehicle heads for mass market

At the end of 2020 some ten million electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, were on the road worldwide. The move to greater electromobility depending on reliable electricity is led by Tesla but boosted by a new Chinese car.  SAIC-GM-Wuling released the Wuling HongGuang mini EV in mid 2020 at a price of $4200. It immediately became very popular, with sales of 119,000 in six months. The concept is for a small and affordable 2-door, 4-seat car, with 665 kg kerb weight which exploits the inherent simplicity of an EV. It has a 13 kW motor and a 9.2 kWh battery, giving 120 km range. It is sold only in China.
Electric vehicles

Texas shivers in the dark

Unusually cold conditions in Texas and contiguous US states – more typical of Alaska - have boosted electricity (and gas) demand while limiting supply from wind and solar PV sources due to snow and ice, and also from gas. More reliable sources of power, notably several nuclear power plants, proved insufficient after some 15 years of subsidised investment in unreliable sources coupled with undue reliance on natural gas. Texas wind and solar farms get $2.4 billion a year in direct regulatory support which provides some 44% of their revenues, skewing investment away from reliable sources. Government policies have also favoured using electricity for heating. Natural gas spot prices peaked at 200 times normal, and electricity prices at 360 times the seasonal average. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) presided over blackouts to shed up to 10.5 GWe of load as demand reached 69 GWe.
WNN 18/2/21.  US NP

Plutonium power doubled on Mars

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover has landed on the planet as the second mobile science laboratory to explore it.  At 1025 kg it is a little heavier than its Curiosity predecessor, which has travelled some 24 km since it landed in 2012. Both are powered by multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generators fuelled by 4.8 kg of plutonium-238. The radioactive decay of this produces 2 kW thermal which is used to generate about 110 watts of electric power, 2.7 kWh per day. The half-life of Pu-238 is 88 years, potentially giving several decades of function.
WNN 19/2/21.  Reactors & Radioisotopes in space

12 February 2021

Construction licence for first new-generation Russian fast reactor

Russian regulator Rostechnadzor has issued a construction licence to Siberian Chemical Combine at Seversk for a lead-cooled fast neutron reactor, the BREST OD-300. This is a new-generation fast reactor which supersedes Russia’s established sodium-cooled BN fast reactor designs and represents a major step forward in nuclear power technology. Lead cooling enables greater utilisation of minor actinides from recycled fuel than in BN reactors.

Plans have evolved since 2010 and in 2012 Rosatom announced that a pilot demonstration BREST-300 fast reactor with associated fuel cycle facilities would be built at the Siberian Chemical Combine at Seversk, near Tomsk, 3500 km east of Moscow. The SCC is a subsidiary of TVEL, the nuclear fuel manufacturing subsidiary of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom. The whole project comprises three phases: a mixed uranium-plutonium nitride fuel fabrication/re-fabrication module; a nuclear power plant with BREST OD-300 reactor; and a used nuclear fuel reprocessing module. It is known as the pilot demonstration energy complex (PDEC) and is a key part of Rosatom's high-priority 'Proryv' (Breakthrough) project to create a new generation of nuclear power technologies on the basis of a closed nuclear fuel cycle using fast neutron reactors. On this basis Rosatom envisages nuclear power providing 45-50% of Russia’s electricity by 2050, rising to 70-80% by the end of the century.

Rostechnadzor issued a licence in 2014 for the fuel fabrication module for dense mixed uranium-plutonium nitride nuclear fuel. The government then in 2016 ordered construction of the reactor by 2025, but Rosatom has since announced that it would not begin commercial operation before 2026. It will be built by Titan-2 engineering. Proceeding with the project depended on successful testing of the nitride fuel in the BN-600 reactor from the end of 2013. If BREST is successful as a 300 MWe unit, a 1200 MWe version will follow.

A related facility is the multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor, MBIR. This is a 150 MWt multi-loop reactor under construction since 2015 at the Research Institute for Atomic Reactors at Dimitrovgrad, about 800 km east of Moscow. It will be capable of testing lead or lead-bismuth and gas coolants as well as sodium, simultaneously in three parallel outside loops. Initially it will have sodium coolant and will run on MOX fuel with high plutonium content. Completion was expected in 2020, but the project was paused after starting construction and commissioning is now expected in 2028. It is to be part of an international research centre at RIAR’s site, with the project open to foreign participation in connection with the International Atomic Energy Agency's International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO). MBIR will replace the old BOR-60 fast reactor at the site which has been widely used by international researchers since 1969.
WNN 16/1/19, 11/2/21.   Russia NP

Study calls for European nuclear renaissance

The European Union should embark on a "nuclear renaissance" programme if it is to achieve its climate objectives, a new study on the EU climate policy has concluded. Commissioned by ECR Group and Renew Europe, the report says it is practically impossible to generate sufficient energy with wind and solar energy. The study focused on the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. As well as limitations on land required, it concluded that nuclear energy was more cost-effective than intermittent renewables, but needed a level playing field. The European Commission needed to do “a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis of alternative policy options available to pursue the EU's climate neutrality objective.” The authors said that “It's time for all policy makers to live up to the EU principle of technological neutrality.”
WNN 5/2/21.  Europe

5 February 2021

First Chinese Hualong reactor in commercial operation

China National Nuclear Corporation has put its first Hualong One reactor, Fuqing 5, into commercial operation.  The 1090 MWe (net) unit was connected to the grid in November after 66 months construction (despite delay due to primary coolant pumps).  Unit 6 at the site is about a year behind it. China now has 49 nuclear reactors in commercial operation, total 47.5 GWe.

The design and construction of the Hualong One as a third-generation large reactor is a flagship project for China, so achieving commercial operation of the first unit is celebrated. It “marks a milestone for the development of China’s nuclear power, making China the fourth country to master its indigenous Generation III nuclear power technology following the USA, France and Russia," CNNC said. It intends to promote the design in export markets.
WNN 1/2/21.   China NP

Global Laser Enrichment project in USA restructured

After approval from the US government, Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) in USA has detached from GE-Hitachi and is now owned by Australia’s Silex Systems (51%) which developed the technology and owns the intellectual property, and Cameco Corporation (49%), both foreign companies.  GLE has exclusive rights to commercially develop the SILEX laser isotope separation process technology under an agreement reached between GE (now GE-Hitachi) and Silex in 2006. Cameco joined the project in mid-2008. Silex and Cameco in December 2019 agreed to jointly purchase GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy's 76% interest for a total of $20 million, and the three parties executed an agreement for the restructure of GLE. Cameco has an option to increase its share in GLE to 75% in two years.

Silex Systems and GLE jointly continue to focus on the SILEX uranium enrichment technology demonstration project in Wilmington, North Carolina, and anticipate completion of a full-scale pilot plant by the mid 2020s. GLE also plans to commercialise the technology by enriching depleted uranium tails to natural-grade uranium at a SILEX plant to be built at Paducah, Kentucky. This is underpinned by a 2016 agreement with the US Department of Energy to sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes of DU material from its inventory to GLE for re-enrichment at the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility over several decades. Annual production is to be about 2300 tonnes natural U3O8 equivalent. GLE will evaluate commercial opportunities for enriching to higher levels at Paducah to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for conventional nuclear plants and high-assay fuel (HALEU) for new generation small modular reactors (SMRs).

All world enrichment of uranium today uses centrifuges which are vastly more efficient than earlier technology. SILEX is a third-generation technology.
WNN 19/1/21 & 1/2/21.   US Fuel Cycle, Enrichment

Japan’s energy minister underlines necessity of nuclear power

In the light of winter power shortages, Japan's energy minister has said he considers nuclear energy "indispensable" if the country is to meet its target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 while maintaining reliable supply. In 2019, nuclear energy provided only 7.5% of the country's electricity, compared with 30% ten years ago. Much of Japan’s nuclear power capacity remains off line due to post-Fukushima modifications being required. Japan's 2018 Basic Energy Plan, due for revision this year, targets 20-22% from nuclear power by 2030 with a similar amount from renewables and 56% from fossil fuels. Political rhetoric calls for much more from renewables, but industry points to the practical need for more nuclear.
WNN 3/2/21.  Japan NP

29 January 2021

US President Biden sets out climate action plan

President Biden has signed executive orders to take aggressive action on climate change, including re-joining the Paris Agreement and “empowering American workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution that achieves a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and puts the United States on an irreversible path to a net-zero economy by 2050." He has directed his administration to make the climate crisis central in US foreign policy and national security considerations and rebuild US infrastructure for a sustainable economy. It remains to be seen what all this means for electricity generation. The order includes an immediate review of "harmful rollbacks" of environmental standards under his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a UN survey claims to have found that almost two-thirds of people around the world now view climate change as a global emergency. Poll questions were distributed through advertisements in mobile gaming apps across 50 countries last year. With 1.2 million respondents, the survey used a new and unconventional approach to polling. Almost half the participants in the survey were aged 14 to 18. Oxford University weighted the data to create what it said were representative estimates of public opinion.
WNN 28/1/21.   US NP

Nuclear applications beyond electricity supply hold key to future

Using nuclear plants to generate heat as well as electricity for non-grid industrial applications could be central to deep decarbonisation efforts beyond being a source of zero-carbon electricity, according to speakers at the fifth Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum. Both today’s conventional reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors can support the heat and electricity demands of industrial processes, hydrogen production for transport fuels, and the increasing need for desalination to produce potable water.

Hydrogen is becoming a focus of attention in using intermittent renewable sources to produce “green hydrogen” and there are numerous substantial investments aiming to demonstrate this. Off-peak use of nuclear electricity could do the same. However, in both cases, low capacity factor of electrolysers makes the economics dubious. Applying high-temperature nuclear reactors specifically to hydrogen production promises much better economics. Along with the direct supply of process heat, this is likely to be most effective by deploying relatively small reactors, up to 400 MW thermal, for industrial applications.
WNN 26/1/21.   Hydrogen, Process heat, Desalination

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