NGNP Selects Areva advanced reactor design

An industry consortium is focused on process heat applications

The Next Generation Nuclear Plant Industry Alliance Ltd. (NGNP Industry Alliance) announced this week that it has selected the AREVA Generation IV reactor concept as the optimum design for next generation nuclear plants.  The AREVA design is a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) and would provide a source of nuclear energy with inherent safety features and zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“Commercialization of next-generation nuclear technology is a critical component of securing clean sources of energy for the future,” said Fred Moore, Executive Director of NGNP Industry Alliance.  “HTGR is the game changing technology for clean, safe nuclear energy production.” 

The AREVA HTGR technology’s capability and modular design would support a broad range of market sectors, providing highly-efficient energy to industries such as electrical power generation, petrochemicals, non-conventional oil recovery and synthetic fuel production (see NGNP list of member organizations).

Areva focus on customer requirements

In a simultaneous statement Feb 15, Areva COO Mike Rencheck said the industrial end-use requirements have been the primary consideration for selection of this advanced technology over other small reactors.  He said, “The co-generation aspects offer long-term predictable energy supply.”

In a conference call with nuclear energy bloggers held Friday Feb 17, Areva Chief Technology Officer Finis Southworth explained that the “NGNP Alliance wants a sharper focus on technology for process heat.”

He said that ten years ago the quest for a new design for a high temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR) has dual objectives – hydrogen production and process heat.  The reasons he said are that existing light water reactor (LWR) designs are not well suited to non-electric energy markets.

Since then R&D has gone down two somewhat separate paths divided by the materials sciences challenges associated with reactor outlet temperature.

For the NGNP Alliance, choice of the Areva design, a reactor outlet temperature of 750C provides sufficient heat to produce conventional steam temperatures of 400-550C for applications like oil refinery distillation and chemical processing.

Southworth said the primary heat is carried from the reactor in a closed loop by helium and the steam is super heated but not super critical.

He added that at temperatures above 750C the materials challenges become more significant and so do the costs. That’s why for now the current technology roadmap, conceptually speaking, uses the lower temperature. (For more details readers are referred to the NGNP Briefings on HTGR Technology)

Competitive advantages of NGNP

Members of the NGNP Alliance, including major petro-chemical manufacturers, are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for process heat. They have three long-term concerns – environment, energy security, and price volatility.

Southworth pointed out that about 20% of U.S. energy consumption goes into process heat applications.  He said that the effect of replacing fossil fuel with nuclear energy, for process heat applications, will make industry products that depend on them more competitive.  The key reasons are reduced regulatory risks in terms of environmental issues, increased dependability in terms of energy supply, and stable pricing of the energy to produce process heat.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, every 750 MWt of installed HTGR capacity will offset 1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year when compared to a similarly sized natural gas plant.

History of NGNP
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 called for development, construction, and operation of a prototype HTGR by 2021.  DOE set up a project office at the Idaho National Laboratory that included some of the R&D activities.  Based on and RFP, DOE selected three firms to conduct design and engineering studies – General Atomics, Westinghouse, and Areva.

Both the Idaho lab and the NGNP Alliance determined that the only practical differentiation among the designs is tied to capital costs.  The Alliance said the prismatic design offers a 30% cost savings over one using pebble bed technology.

Next Step – Licensing

The NGNP Alliance is developing a regulatory strategy to identify key issues related to getting a license from the NRC.  Southworth said the combination of licensing and building a first-of-a-kind unit could take 10-12 years to get one operating at a customer site.

He estimates that with start-up schedules, the first customer would be reaping benefits from the technology in the time frame of 2024-2027. it could be sooner depending on the outcomes of design and regulatory processes and actual construction of a first-of-a-kind unit.

Areva envisions that the HTGR will be installed at customer suites in clusters of up to four units.  A key regulatory issue will be whether the NRC will establish a rule that will authorize a single control room to manage multiple units. It all depends on how the agency sees this issue from the perspective of plant safety.

He added the Alliance and the NRC realize there is a need to develop a regulatory framework for some aspects of the technology such as ceramic core components and helium coolant.

“This is part of the open discussion with the NRC,” Southworth said. It is included in the Alliance’s pre-application dialog with the agency.

Fuel Cycle

The fuel for the HTGR uses TRISO fuel particles with 18 month cycles.

“The reactor uses a lot less fuel than a 1000 MW reactor, “Southworth said, and he added, “it’s about three tons compared to 100 tons.”

Spent fuel management will be carried out by putting the spent fuel into dry ground cooling after which it can be sent to a permanent disposal facility.  Unlike a conventional LWR, there is no water in the cooling system nor is there wet storage of spent fuel.

Comparative costs to build and operate one?

Areva told the nuclear bloggers the total cost, including R&D, for the first unit will be about $4 billion, but Southworth said the “nth unit” will have actual construction costs of about $1 billion.  Comparing process heat costs, he added that the “nth of a kind” HTGR will supply process heat at about $6-10/mbtu.

While natural gas prices in the U.S. are unusually low, about $3/mbtu, that isn’t always going to be the case and no one knows what the price will be by 2025.  Natural gas prices are much higher in Europe. Southworth said he’s seeing prices for natural gas in Europe and Asia as high as $12-15/mbtu.

According to a Bloomberg wire service report for 02/17/2012, the day of the nuclear blogger conference call, the price of natural gas in the U.K., which benefits from its North Sea resources, was $9.16/mbtu.  Crude oil rose to $103/barrel, the highest price since May 2011.  It’s clear from these data why energy price stability for chemical firms with 50-year planning horizons for capital projects is so important.

One potential customer, a member of the Alliance, is Dow Chemical.  Southworth noted the firm uses the energy equivalent of one million barrels of oil a day.  It wants to replace oil as the fuel with energy from an HTGR to produce process heat.

Another advantage is that at certain times related to changes in plant production cycles, surplus energy from the NGNP reactor can be converted to electricity, albiet at a 20% higher cost then conventional LWR.  Even so selling this electricity to the grid at market prices will help defray the cost of operations.

Success will be measured in terms of securing long-term energy supply with nuclear energy generated process heat located at the customer site and not from an oil well 8,000 miles away.

It will take some time to get there, but with the announcement this week, the NGNP Alliance says it is on its way.

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