2019: the year in nuclear

Yoana Cholteeva 22 January 2020 (Last Updated July 15th, 2020 21:36)

From Hitachi scrapping a £16bn nuclear power station project in Wales, to revelations that the UK’s Hinckley point C is now running almost £3bn over budget, we track the headlines to create a picture for nuclear in 2019.

2019: the year in nuclear
A model of Hinkley Point C, Somerset, England

Hitachi scraps £16bn UK nuclear power station project

In January this year, Hitachi found itself having to abandon a £16bn nuclear power station project in Wales.

The tech giant lost the opportunity to build a nuclear plant at Wylfa on the Welsh island of Anglesey, as well as another planned project in Oldbury, Gloucestershire, after it failed to reach a financing deal with the government.

According to the Confederation of British Industry, the failure of the Wylfa plan was a “significant blow” to the UK’s future energy supply as it was meant to be the next in line of new-build nuclear plants following Hinkley Point C.

Action begins to remove Fukushima’s nuclear fuel rods

On 15 April 2019, after a four-year delay due to equipment malfunctions and high radiation, work began to remove nuclear fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

There were 566 spent and unspent fuel rods in the cooling pool near the reactor building, which was left undamaged after an earthquake and tsunami caused a major meltdown in 2011.

The rods are currently being removed underwater by a remotely-operated crane, which will then place them in a protective cask.

According to plant operator Tokyo Electric Power, the removal of the rods will be fully completed in March 2021.

US Senate introduces bill to disclose nuclear information sharing

On 10 April 2019, US Senators introduced legislation directing executive branches to disclose which companies will be allowed to share nuclear information with countries wanting to build nuclear reactors. The bill was introduced by Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Todd Young, with Democrats Tim Kaine and Edward Markey, as a response to the Trump administration issuing Part 810 authorisations for any company to share nuclear information with Saudi Arabia.

The main concern for senators was to safeguard against a potential Saudi nuclear programme and avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

If passed, the bill would amend the 1954 Atomic Energy Act and force the Department of Energy to hand over the existing 810 applications.

US nuclear research programme runs 40% over budget

As part of the Trump administration’s policy to revitalise the US nuclear industry, the country planned the launch of a new nuclear versatile test reactor (VTR) research programme in February 2018.

In April this year, the US Department of Energy estimated that the VTR research could cost between $3.9bn and $6bn, 40% more than the original $3.5bn estimate given by Idaho National Laboratory head Kemal Pasamehmetoglu during the planning stage.

The new estimate comes via a freedom of information request placed by the non-governmental organisation Union of Concerned Scientists.

It would also be the first of a number of fast reactors, which breed their own fuel and increase the amount of energy produced from uranium compared with light water reactors, and is expected to be finished by 2025.

Toshiba and AECOM partner for nuclear decommissioning in Japan

In June, Toshiba signed an alliance agreement with US-based engineering firm AECOM for a partnership in nuclear-decommissioning services taking place in Japan.

The companies aim to offer comprehensive services to Japanese government organisations and commercial power utilities planning to decommission their reactors and nuclear facilities.

The Japan government currently plans to decommission 24 commercial reactors.

AECOM has already completed reactor decommissioning for the US Department of Energy and the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

August data shows nuclear power tenders up by 40%

In August 2019, the GlobalData power industry tenders database found that global nuclear power industry tenders in Q2 2019 had risen by 40%. The tenders activity in Q2 2019 saw 21 new tenders announced, in comparison to the last four-quarter average of 15, according to GlobalData.

In terms of territorial allocation, Europe led nuclear tenders activity for the second quarter, with 16 tenders and a share of 76.2%; it was followed by Asia-Pacific, with three tenders and a 14.3% share, and Middle East and Africa with one tender and a 4.8% share.

Focussing on global power tenders activity by the type of technology during the same period, nuclear held fifth position in terms of number of tenders with a 1.7% share.

Rosatom launches the first floating nuclear plant

In September, after more than a decade of planning, Russian nuclear company Rosatom announced the arrival of the world’s first dedicated floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov, which was docked at the port of its permanent location in Chukotka, Russia.

The 144m-long and 30m-wide vessel has a displacement of 21,000t and is expected to be commissioned in 2020.

The plant unit is the first floating vessel equipped with two KLT-40C small modular reactors with 35MW capacity each.

The new power plant was designed by Rosatom and will be part of its Floating Nuclear Thermal Power Plant project.

UK’s Hinkley Point C nuclear project to run £2.9bn over budget

Also in September 2019, French energy company EDF announced that the construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, England, the UK’s first nuclear plant for 30 years, will cost between £1.9bn and £2.9bn more than previously estimated. The rise in costs was due to challenging ground conditions that made earthworks more expensive than expected.

This increases the overall project cost to between £21.5bn and £22.5bn, depending on the “effectiveness of action plans” in partnership with contractors. Furthermore, EDF stated that there was a higher risk of a delay in delivering the project’s milestones on time, although the aim to generate first electricity in 2025 remains unchanged.

The plant has a planned capacity of 3,200MW and is expected to provide around 7% of the UK’s power needs.

World Nuclear Industry declares nuclear power not efficient enough

On 24 September 2019, the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report concluded that nuclear energy is being outcompeted by renewable energy sources, calling its own industry “too expensive and slow to save the climate.”

According to the report, nuclear energy’s share of the global gross energy mix has dropped from its 17.46% peak in 1996 to 10.15% in 2018, despite an increase in global nuclear operating capacity to 370 GW.

The lead author of the report, Mycle Scheider, explained that stabilising the climate is urgent and nuclear power is too slow.

UK Research and Innovation to fund compact nuclear power station

In November, UK Research and Innovation announced that it has provided initial match funding of £18m for a consortium of companies to design a compact nuclear power station. The project is led by Rolls-Royce and involves BAM Nuttal and Nuclear AMRC.

The group has been working on the plants for four years and it plans to produce all the components in the UK, transport them to the sites and assemble them under a weatherproof canopy.

Rolls-Royce estimates that the first five of the compact nuclear power stations will be ready by the 2030’s, have a capacity of 440MW and cost £1.8bn each. They will be able to produce power for 60 years after being licensed.