Safer reactors designed in the U.S. and Europe make their power grid debuts in China
Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.
Both of the design debuts happened in China late last month. On Thursday, 29 June, a 1,400-MW EPR designed in France and Germany synced up to the grid at the Taishan nuclear power plant. The next day the U.S.-designed 1,117-MW AP1000 delivered first power at China’s Sanmen plant.
Both projects are coming online years behind schedule, and they are still at least several months away from full commercial operation. But the real problem for the AP1000 and the EPR are the designs’ unfinished Western debuts.
Delays are commonplace in the nuclear industry. For instance, the Korean-built nuclear reactors originally due to begin starting up last year in the United Arab Emirates were recently pushed back to late 2019 or early 2020. But the AP1000 and EPR troubles are in a different league.
The AP1000 is designed to passively cool itself during an accidental shutdown, theoretically avoiding accidents like the one at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. But AP1000 developer Westinghouse declared bankruptcy last year due to construction troubles, particularly at dual-reactor plants for utilities in Georgia and South Carolina. The latter abandoned their pair of partially built AP1000s after investing US $9 billion. The Georgia plant, initiated in 2012, is projected to be completed five years late in 2022 and at a cost of $25 billion—$11 billion more than budgeted.
Delays for the EPR, whose dual-layered concrete shield protects against airplane strikes, contributed to the breakup of Paris-based nuclear giant Areva in 2015. And the first EPR projects in France and Finland remain troubled under French utility Electricité de France (EDF), which absorbed Areva’s reactor business, Fromatome. The Finnish plant, started in 2005 and expected to take four years, is currently slated for startup next year, and deadlines continue to come and go. In June, Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj announced that startup had slid another four months to September 2019.
The troubled EPR and AP1000 projects show that U.S. and European firms have lost competence in nuclear construction and management. ”It’s no coincidence that two of the four AP1000s in the U.S. were abandoned, and that the EPRs that started much earlier than Taishan’s in Finland and France are still under construction,” says nuclear energy consultant Mycle Schneider, principal author of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “The Chinese have a very large workforce that they move from one project to another, so their skills are actually getting better, whereas European and North American companies haven’t completed reactors in decades,” says Schneider.