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The EPR – a solution to climate change?

First published in Cleantech magazine, January 2009. Copyright Cleantech Investor Ltd. 2009

By Jon Mainwaring

The issue of climate change has helped to push a number of low-carbon, renewable energy technologies to the fore over the past couple of decades, but recent years have seen the re-emergence of a controversial source of electricity – nuclear energy – as a potential solution to reducing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Playing a key role in the revival of the nuclear industry’s fortunes is the European Pressurised Reactor (also known as the Evolutionary Power Reactor or EPR).

The EPR is a pressurised water reactor that has been in development since the beginning of the 1990s by French energy utility EDF and Areva-ANP – a specialist developer of nuclear power plants jointly owned by French energy engineering company Areva and Germany’s Siemens. There are currently two EPR power plants under construction: one at Flamanville in Normandy, France; the other at Olkiluoto in Finland.

The EPR is a direct descendent of the N4 and KONVOI pressurised water reactors, the most modern reactors in use in France and Germany today. With a larger electricity generating capacity (1,600+ megawatts, compared with 1,450MW for the most recent nuclear power plants), it promises more efficient use of fuel, a reduction in radioactive waste and a longer service life. Specifically, Areva claims it will consume between 7-15% less uranium per megawatt-hour (MWh) compared with the current generation of nuclear power plants in operation today.

In terms of radioactive waste, EPR plants are designed to be an improvement over existing plants. While spent nuclear fuel is mostly made up of uranium (which is less radioactive than natural uranium ore and can be stored as ’low-level’ waste) and stable or short-lived fission products, a small percentage consists of very nasty elements that include plutonium and elements known as actinides which require long-term, secure isolation. According to Areva, there will be around 10% fewer long-lived actinides generated per MWh in EPR plants.

Furthermore, a 60-year lifespan for EPRs (compared with 40 years for existing nuclear plants) makes for a lower construction cost per MWh.

Areva also intends its EPR plants to be ten times safer from a core accident at power than existing reactors. In particular, it has introduced a number of preventative measures to protect against core meltdown. These include a group of four safety subsystems, each capable of performing the reactor’s entire safety operation on its own, as well as ‘functional diversity’ to ensure that, in the case of the total loss of a safety system in spite of its redundancy, the safety function can still be performed by another system.

However, Greenpeace, and others in the environmental movement opposed to nuclear power in general, have specific criticisms of the new EPR power plants. A briefing put together by the pressure group in November 2008 pointed out that, because the EPR will be the most powerful reactor ever built, it will have a core containing more radioactive elements than any other and that, in the event of a serious accident, the impact on human beings and the environment could be massive. In particular, Greenpeace referred to a study conducted in 2007 by British nuclear engineering consultancy Large Associates, which showed that an accident involving the EPR in France could require the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and would entail the serious contamination of many thousands of square kilometres.

The Greenpeace report also claimed growing evidence from the sites in Finland and France of weaknesses in EPR plant construction. It listed issues with the reactor currently being built at Olkiluoto, including: the failure of pipe circuits within the primary cooling pipes to meet required safety criteria; an incorrect mixture of concrete for the reactor’s base slab; problems with the quality of components in the reactor vessel; and the failure of the steam generator to meet quality standards.

It should be noted that these construction issues at Olkiluoto have since been rectified. Areva itself issued a progress update concerning the Finnish reactor in October, stating that manufacture of the primary components, the reactor vessel and the first steam generator, had been completed, while forging for the reactor coolant pipes had been validated. But because of these issues, the switch-on for the Olkiluoto plant may be delayed until 2012, instead of the current target of summer 2011 – a deadline that had already been postponed from the original commissioning date of 2009.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace also claims the EPR’s design does not reflect the changed security situation with regard to terrorism following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. This is disputed by Areva, which says the reactor building, spent fuel building, two of four safeguard buildings and the control room are all protected by an outer shell made of reinforced concrete thick enough to withstand the high-speed impact of a military or commercial aircraft. Additionally, the other two safeguard buildings are located at opposite sides of the reactor building so only one would be destroyed by an aircraft crash, without any safety consequences. However, Greenpeace maintains that pathways and vulnerabilities have been identified that could lead to radioactivity bypassing the containment unit under certain scenarios.

Clearly, many in the green movement are against a new generation of nuclear power reactors and there have been demonstrations against the EPR by anti-nuclear protestors in both France and Finland. However, the nuclear industry argues that using nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions and guarantee energy security makes sense. “Nuclear is a green energy whether people like it or not,” says Gérard Kottman, president of the Pôle Nucléaire Bourgogne (Burgundy Nuclear Partnership) – a cluster of French companies, research centres, education and training institutions involved in nuclear energy. “Forget about dogma. Forget about ideologies. Look at the facts.”

One of those facts is cost. A key issue at the heart of the debate about nuclear power is the huge capital cost associated with new plant. While fuel costs are relatively negligible, amounting to less than half-a-penny per kilowatt-hour (sources: Royal Academy of Engineering and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), plenty of money has to be spent many years before new plant even begins to produce electricity.

However, over the long term nuclear appears to have a lot going for it as far as cost is concerned. A 2004 report from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), called The Costs of Generating Electricity, estimates that the current cost of generating electricity from nuclear power comes to 2.26p per kWh compared with 3.7p per kWh for an onshore wind farm and 5.5p per kWh for an offshore wind farm. These figures took into account the expenses associated with commissioning plant, as well as the costs of operation, maintenance and decommissioning. In fact, the RAE’s report, which also examined coal and gas-fired power stations as well as wave and other marine-based power, found that, for base-load operation, nuclear power was the second cheapest form of electricity (the cheapest being combined-cycle gas turbine plants that burn natural gas).

EDF intends that the Flamanville EPR will become a reference site which it can use for future EPR projects not only in France, but around the world. It has placed four target countries at the top of its list: China, UK, US and South Africa.

The UK Government is keen that nuclear power “should play a role in providing the UK with clean, secure and affordable energy” and believes it is vital to the country’s long-term interest. EDF’s UK subsidiary was already supplying several million customers before it made its £12.5 billion bid in September 2008 for British Energy – the UK’s largest electricity generator and operator of seven advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors (AGRs) around the UK as well as the country’s only civil pressurised water reactor, located at Sizewell in Suffolk.

EDF says that the British Energy acquisition fulfils a twofold strategic objective: as well as making it the UK’s leading supplier of electricity, it will “consolidate its position as world leader in the revival of nuclear power”. Owning British Energy means EDF now has some of the best sites for constructing new nuclear power stations in the UK, giving it a considerable edge over competitors in its ambition to lead the revival of nuclear power in the country.

EDF plans to build four EPR plants over the next twelve years in the UK, but it is not the only company interested in constructing these reactors in the country. German-owned energy supplier E.ON wants to build two EPR plants, also with the help of Areva and Siemens.
After a licensing phase of around five years, EDF expects to start the physical work of building its first EPR plant in 2012, with completion targeted for 2017. After that, it anticipates delivering a new plant every 18 months or so.

In the US (the world’s leading nuclear energy market with 100,000MW of electricity generating capacity), EDF aims to take advantage of energy security and climate change fears that have led US authorities to encourage nuclear power generation. In fact, US public support for nuclear power has grown significantly in recent years, with 68% of Americans endorsing it in 2006 compared with just 49% in favour in 1983 (source: Nuclear Energy Institute).

In July 2007, EDF teamed up with Constellation Energy, a leading US utility, to jointly develop, build, own and operate EPR-type power plants in the US. Three sites will be provided by Constellation in order to accommodate four EPR plants, with the first of these reactors due to be commissioned in 2015.

China has eleven nuclear reactors in operation currently, representing approximately 7,000MW capacity or a 2.3% share of the country’s energy supply. Recognising that demand for electricity in the country is growing at a huge pace (around 15% year-on-year compared with 2% for Europe), and the need to diversify its energy infrastructure away from a reliance on coal, the People’s Republic has had to upgrade its plans for nuclear power. Originally targeting a 4% share of the country’s energy supply by 2020 for nuclear power, China upped this goal last summer to 5%, with a further target of 16% by 2030.

Westinghouse, the US nuclear plant builder (now owned by Japan’s Toshiba), is already building several new nuclear power plants in China, but EDF believes there is huge potential for its EPR plants in this market. In November 2007, it created a joint venture with a Chinese utility to own, build and operate two EPR-type reactors – each with 1,700MWcapacity – at Taishan, in Guangdong province. Construction is expected to begin in 2009 with commissioning scheduled for 2013/2014.

Well known for its electricity supply problems, South Africa is embracing an ambitious nuclear programme. ESKOM, the country’s only nuclear operator, plans to install 3,000MW of nuclear power plants by 2016 (with further options up to a limit of 20,000MW). EDF is currently pitching to build two EPR plants as part of a consortium that includes Areva, Bouygues, Alstom and South African engineering company Aveng.

One issue agreed on by both those opposed to nuclear energy and its proponents is the shortage of nuclear know-how among the current generation of engineers. This is a problem for Europe in particular as it has been so long since the last generation of nuclear power plants were installed. The UK’s Sizewell B, for example, was completed in 1995.

Greenpeace argues that the stagnation of nuclear construction over the last decade or two “has caused a lack of competent personnel”. Meanwhile, EDF’s senior executive vice-president for power generation, Bernard Dupraz, concedes that even France needs a huge recruitment drive. “For example, we have to replace those who are leaving because of retirement as well as finding new personnel for the construction of new plants,” he says. A large proportion of the many thousands of people employed in France’s nuclear industry are nearing retirement, but Dupraz believes that EDF and others in the industry can fill the gap. “We are very confident because we have found young people are very attracted by this area,” he states.

In the UK – where 2,000 engineers, technicians and managers will be required to build each plant (not to mention the 300 people required to run it once it starts operating) – EDF plans to enlist the cooperation of universities. “I think with the help of British universities we can overcome this problem,” says Dupraz. Until recently, there was only one UK graduate course for nuclear power technology (at Birmingham University), but many other universities now offer relevant graduate courses, while nuclear-related undergraduate programmes are planned at Lancaster and Surrey universities, as well as at Imperial College London.

Meanwhile, UK engineering group Balfour Beatty recently announced it would work with Areva to identify the skills and resources required to deliver a fleet of EPR plants in the UK.

Governments and big business certainly seem keen on EPR plants as a solution to climate change, but will a new generation of nuclear power stations prove too little too late to make a difference? Certainly, Greenpeace thinks so. In fact, it regards nuclear power as undermining action on climate change, arguing that installing new plants will prove a distraction to reducing emissions since “every dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar stolen from the real solutions to climate change”.

Slogans aside, and even assuming next-generation EPR plants do come on stream by 2017, it will certainly be a close run thing if by 2020, as required by the EU, the UK does manage to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels. In the longer term, though, EPR plants look to have a big role to play.

Jon Mainwaring visited Burgundy as a guest of the Invest in France Agency and the Pôle Nucléaire Bourgogne. The Pôle Nucléaire Bourgogne specializes in the mechanical and metallurgical industries for nuclear plant production. It is just one of 71 French industry clusters, each offering unique concentration of an industry sector within a particular geographical region. All companies in the French nuclear energy supply chain are within a 70-kilometer radius of Dijon: Pôle Nucléaire Bourgogne members include 57 French and international companies and a host of professional organizations and education institutes. In future issues of Cleantech magazine we will profile some of the other French Pôles, or clusters, focusing on clean technology.

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