Thursday, May 11, 2006

Bargain Nuclear Waste Disposal and China Nuclear Power.

It seems that the massive £70 billion cost of cleaning-up 20 of the U.K.'s civil nuclear sites, Sellafield being the largest, could be cut by up to 25% (£17.5 billion) if British Nuclear Group (BNG) is bought up by Washington Group, which controls a third of the U.S. nuclear remediation market. It is expected that the U.K. decommissioning programme could generate £2 billion a year, a lucrative amount, considering the initial outlay of somewhere between £250 million and £1 billion needed to buy up BNG, which is effectively "state-owned" and is a company with contracts to operate nuclear sites within the U.K., including Sellafield.
The government wants to privatise BNG, which is a part of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., by the end of 2007. Bidders will be chosen later this year, and then invited to submit tenders in the spring of 2007. The process will be a tough contest, and Washington will have to compete against other potential buyers with clout, incuding other "Americans", Bechtel and CH2M Hill and the U.K.'s own Amec.
Washington has the contract to clean-up the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and claims that it has saved the U.S. government $16 billion (around £9 billion) - also about a quarter of the original estimate, so this presumably is the basis of the competitive deal offered to the U.K.? - and that the timescale for its decommissioning has been reduced by 23 years.
Some are sceptical that such an apparent bargain might apply in the U.K., on the basis that the huge savings made in the U.S. stem largely from reducing the scope of the clean-up operations, which sounds almost like a suggestion of "cutting-corners". Washington challenge this criticism insisting that they have made their savings through greater operating efficiency and better use of facilities. One example they give is that they have saved $450 million by converting an old reactor at Savannah River into a plutonium storage facility, which obviates the need to build a new storehouse for it.
The president of the Washington Group Energy and Environment Division Preston Rahe said that if Washington do succeed in buying BNG it will reopen the THORP (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) at Sellafield. Now this will strike terror into those many hearts who protested vehemently against THORP being opened in the first place. It was closed last year following the discovery that radioactive material had somehow leaked from it. Washington also intend to continue production of MOX "mixed oxide". MOX is a mixture of Uranium Oxide (U3O8) and Plutonium Oxide (PuO2) fabricated into a fuel for use in nuclear power stations, which is derived from uranium and plutonium extracted from nuclear waste by "reprocessing".
In some respects, THORP is a good thing, since it literally consumes high level nuclear waste, and it can also be used to turn weapons grade uranium (90% uranium 235) and plutonium (239) derived from nuclear warheads into a fuel suitable for peaceful electricity generation. It would be one way to get rid of them all, if humankind wanted this agenda, rather than the U.S., Russia and U.K.'s intention to revamp their respective nuclear arsenals. I have been told that there is enough uranium and plutonium available in warheads in the U.K. to supply us with nuclear generated electricity (using breeder reactors) for 100 years.
Legislation was brought in during the Jimmy Carter period which prevents the export of nuclear waste from the U.S. on the grounds that to do so might encourage nuclear proliferation; however, it is expected that these constraints are likely to be relaxed. This raises the possibility of shipping nuclear waste from the U.S. over here for reprocessing, which Mr Rahe describes as "an interesting and creative idea". I doubt those opposed to THORP in the first place will share his views.
In terms of nuclear proliferation, the nuclear industry in China is rather interesting, and is a good example that the whole picture can't necessarily be viewed from statistics alone. Asia is a growth market for nuclear power, as it is for all other kinds of power required to quench its inexhaustable thirst for industrial growth. From 1996 to 2003, no new reactor was brought on-line in the U.S., nor was any such intention to do so been declared. In contrast, China brought 6 on line, plus another one in Pakistan during that same period. This should nonetheless be viewed in context, and the growth in the use of nuclear power is quite in line with the increased consumption of petroleum (gas has not traditionally featured heavily in China's energy-mix) and coal that has occurred. However, there are more ambitious nuclear plans afoot.
As China wrestles to diversify its energy industry, the consequent ecomonic and political reverberations will be felt around the world; notably in regard to securing an adequate supply of oil as the United States are also thrashing to achieve. Indeed, China's leaders think that using more nuclear power will reduce its reliance on imported foreign oil and help eliminate the palls of smog that burning the former fuel has left hanging over its cities. At present, 9 reactors provide 2% of China's electricity, which is just one eighth of the global average. However, the target is to raise this to 4 percent (40 Gigawatts) over the next 15 years by building 30 new reactors. This means building 2 new reactors every year (I know that's obvious but I thought I would stress the fact), which is quite an ambitious target.
Unlike most other countries, China has an especially mixed range of reactor technologies in operation within its borders, since it has used Canadian, French and Russian designs, and is considering buying another from the U.S. along with developing its own technology. For instance, at Tsinghua University, a "pebble-bed" reactor is being tested, which uses fuel "pebbles" - about the size of tennis balls and wrapped in graphite. It is believed impossible that the nuclear fuel could melt in this arrangement since graphite has a higher melting point than uranium oxide (I'm not sure graphite does actually "melt" in the conventional sense, but vapourises directly?) and acts as a shield over the oxide.
Despite the new research, the usual issues of radioactive waste and nuclear safety (Chernobyl) prevail, and the Chinese government may have trouble persuading utilities to help fund their putative nuclear expansion. To place this in context, a 2 Gigawatt nuclear power plant costs about $3 billion, which needs to be put up front (guaranteed anyway). Disposing of the 1000 tonnes per year of radioactive waste produced by the expanding industry is rather a headache but there are plans to expand a small facility in western Gansu province to deal with much of the spent fuel, although there are fears that in fact it will be the poorest areas that are forced to accommodate the waste in some form or another.
I note that the U.K. government's Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sir David King is intent that in this country we will have at least one more new generation of nuclear power stations. I have written about this before, but I read it more and more frequently and in various different publications, most lately in "Chemistry World", so it does rather look as though we will maintain our present capacity with new, even if there is no actual proliferation of nuclear power.

No comments: