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Re: [cdn-nucl-l] Energizing Aging Nuclear Plants
Surely Tom Christopher didn't say that TMI came within 30 minutes of a
meltdown. TMI melted in 34 minutes.
on 11/12/02 10:08 AM, Adam McLean at firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
> Posted in Business Week on November 12, 2002 and at:
> Energizing Aging Nuclear Plants
> Framatome CEO Tom Christopher explains how retrofitting is allowing
> utilities to squeeze more wattage from fewer reactors
> In March, 1979, leaking coolant at Three Mile Island Reactor Unit 2 in
> Pennsylvania brought the nuclear power plant within 30 minutes of a
> catastrophic meltdown. The accident was contained, and only small
> amounts of radioactive gas escaped from the damaged reactor.
> The near disaster marked the beginning of the end of America's romance
> with atomic fission. Yet it didn't curtail the growth of nuclear power.
> Indeed, ever since Three Mile Island, efficiency improvements have
> helped nuclear-power generation to grow steadily, even as the number of
> functioning commercial reactors in the U.S. has fallen to 103, from a
> peak of 109.
> And over the next decade, nuclear output will grow an additional 10%,
> says Tom Christopher, CEO of Framatome ANP Inc., the U.S. unit of
> Paris-based Framatome ANP, the world's largest provider of
> nuclear-engineering services. The result will be an additional 10,000
> megawatts' worth of electrical capacity -- the equivalent of 8 to 10 big
> nuclear facilities -- without requiring the construction of a single new
> The surge in capacity growth, Christopher says, is a result of the
> ongoing relicensing of the nation's commercial nuclear fleet. Today's
> power plants were commissioned to split atoms for not more than four
> decades. Starting in the late 1990s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
> (NRC) began to extend that term to 60 years on a plant-by-plant basis.
> The extensions have opened the door to major capital investment, much of
> which is funneled through Framatome. Plants pay the engineering company
> to upgrade their key systems, replacing clunky, '70s generators,
> mechanical switches, and manual gauges with high-efficiency motors and
> digital controls. The upshot is not just increased output but improved
> safety, says Christopher, a 29-year veteran of the nuclear-power
> BusinessWeek Industries Editor Adam Aston met with Christopher to learn
> more about the surprising growth of the nation's nuclear capacity.
> Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
> Q: Why have the operating extensions made such a difference to the
> A: Under NRC guidelines, the operators can submit an application for a
> renewed license within three years of a facility's 30th year. The
> renewal adds 20 years to the plant's original 40-year license. The life
> extensions open the door to capital improvements and make it possible
> for operators to take advantage of the lessons learned over the past 30
> years, and to retool and upgrade for another 30.
> Q: What kinds of changes are taking place?
> A: Every year, our ability to upgrade a plant improves. Productivity
> gains have been so high over the past 20 years that our costs to upgrade
> a plant have fallen by half. For instance, when a nuke [plant] refuels,
> which is every 15 to 18 months, it's required to do an intensive
> inspection. In the past, that was done by people -- even in high-risk
> radioactive areas. Now in practically every instance, we have a robot do
> the work. These machines can even do repairs -- they can weld and grind.
> So now, labor counts for only about 30% of the value we provide in an
> Q: What's the scale of these upgrades?
> A: It depends on what the operator is willing to spend. And that, in
> turn, depends on the average price of power over the plant's remaining
> years. If you assume a conservative price -- say $2.50 to $3.50 per
> megawatt hour -- a typical facility could justify $100 million to $200
> million in spending per reactor and still recover that over 20 years.
> These refits can be big operations. Picture a Navy ship that comes into
> a shipyard for a refitting, with hundreds of workers fixing and
> upgrading the ship. We do the reverse. We take the shipyard to the ship.
> During a fueling outage, it's not unusual for a plant to have 900
> contractors on site.
> Q: How do you decide what to replace?
> A: The majority of U.S. plants were designed in the late '60s and '70s.
> In many ways, they're crude by today's standards. But they were designed
> very conservatively, with lots of redundancy, so there are parts that
> don't need to be changed. Also, it varies with the unit. If the plant is
> on a lake and cannot increase its discharge of cooling water, then
> upgrading its generating capacity isn't an option. If a plant is able to
> boost its output, then we can replace the steam turbines and generators.
> A lot of little things can also increase efficiency -- and power output.
> Thousands of detectors in a nuclear plant measure things like
> temperature and pressure. Each is connected to an electromechanical
> control panel. You can replace those analog detectors and gauges with
> microprocessors that will do more. And you can integrate the controls
> into a simpler system that requires fewer engineers to monitor.
> We can also reduce the house load power -- the electricity the plant
> needs to operate. The cuts can be significant -- say, 40 to 60
> megawatts. It's not unusual for a plant to have 3,000 motor-operated
> valves. We can replace these valves and pumps with more efficient
> variable-speed motors, cutting the house load by 10%. And all that
> [saved] power can be sold to market.
> Q: What's the net effect of these upgrades?
> A: You will hear industry people say we've begun a period of
> pseudo-construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. On average, we'll
> see a 10% capacity increase from the nuclear plants here, so you're
> talking 10,000 megawatts in the next 10 years.
> Q: What sorts of efficiency gains have we already seen?
> A: Think of it in terms of capacity factor, which is the industry's
> actual production as a percentage of its potential maximum. The average
> for the U.S.'s 103 nuclear plants is 91%, the highest such rating in the
> world. It means that a typical plant is down only 9% of the year, or 33
> to 35 days. That's remarkable, especially since, in the early '70s, that
> measure was 60% or so -- around eighth place compared with other
> national nuclear fleets. The improvement began before the current round
> of relicensing. It's due partly to the efforts of the industry
> associations to share operating practices.
> Q: Yet U.S. investment in new nuclear plants and technology has all but
> stalled. So where are these updated systems coming from?
> A: The U.S. industry designed and constructed its plants in the '60s and
> '70s. At the time, the Germans and particularly the French took the U.S.
> plant designs, modified them, and then began the creation of this large
> French fleet. But they built their units using mostly late '70s and
> early '80s technology.
> Since then, France has religiously been going back and backfitting those
> plants. So when Framatome talks to a U.S. customer today, we say,
> "Before you rebuild, we will be your window on the world." We can take
> U.S. customers to a European plant that started with American designs
> and then optimized them.
> Q: Will the U.S. build any new nuclear plants?
> A: Given the volatility of power prices, nuclear operators look at the
> near term -- say, three to five years. In that time, is anybody going to
> need a big base-load nuclear plant [i.e., a large-capacity facility that
> is run continuously]? Not likely. In 5 to 10 years, there may be a
> window. If so, the decision will probably be driven by other issues,
> such as environmental constraints. You might see the value of nuclear
> facilities rise if the world moves toward some sort of carbon tax.
> Since nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases, it could be used to
> offset dirtier sources. It's impossible to predict what sort of energy
> technology will be available then. Perhaps we'll have a hydrogen
> economy, where nuclear power will be used to split water into hydrogen
> Q: What are your thoughts on radioactive waste?
> A: It's important to put the problem in context. I've seen data that say
> if you take all of the spent fuel rods generated in nuclear plants in
> the U.S. and stack them up, you'll have a pile that's 10 yards high and
> fits inside a football field. That's it.
> Now, the issue is how do we deal with it. To us, Yucca Mountain [a
> waste-storage facility in Nevada] is the ideal solution. And frankly,
> the tax that's currently in the electricity rates -- two-tenths of a
> cent per kilowatt hour -- would be more than enough to build and operate
> Yucca Mountain.
> Q: In 1998, Germany voted to phase out its existing nuclear plants. Does
> this mean few nukes will be built abroad?
> A: Some countries are backing away from nuclear energy. But the news is
> more positive than negative. Finland just approved a public referendum
> to build a new nuclear plant. And in the former Soviet Union, they are
> determined to go back and complete a number of their plants that were
> never finished.
> Framatome is completing work on two plants in China. South Korea, of
> course, also continues to build nuclear plants. And Japan has a robust
> construction program -- maybe six or eight more plants are planned over
> the next decade.
> Edited by Patricia O'Connell
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