SONE Newsletter 297 – May 2024

Posted by Wade Allison on 29 May 2024 in Newsletters

Tagged with: HALEU, Sellafield, Sheffield, Sheffield Forgemasters, Sizewell, Teesside, Urenco, Wylfa Newydd.

This month

Nuclear Skills

What do you need to build a nuclear power station?
Land – not much.
Scarce minerals – not much compared to renewables [see a new report]
A design – there is a multitude to choose from.
Bankers, civil servants – no, what would they do! They have no idea.

What you do need is a skilled work force that does know what to do – and enough backing to let them get on with the job while the nay-sayers are held at bay. That calls for an exciting collaboration of enthusiasm and knowledge between young and old.

An insightful article from the Financial Times talks of the ‘silver tsunami’ of retirees coming back to nuclear. Perhaps some not-quite-so-old members of SONE would consider re-engaging! The message runs

That’s why #destinationnuclear is so important for the sector. New talent is vital to ensuring a new skilled generation of the workforce is ready to take on the next challenge supported by the experienced professionals already in nuclear. Do you want to find out more about nuclear or do you want to re-enter the workforce? Check out the live opportunities in the sector today in the comments.

Any takers?

Nuclear fuel developments in UK

The US has run down its nuclear fuel supply chain and enrichments facilities in recent decades. However, there is now much activity as the expected requirements for new nuclear become clear. Neville has learnt that Sizewell B is being refuelled with uranium from Russia! Today such reliance should no longer be politically acceptable and many existing plants are converting to western designed fuel. Furthermore, many SMR and Generation4 designs require fuel enriched to 20% U-235, the so-called HALEU fuel.

World Nuclear News reported on 8 May that the UK Government has awarded £196 million to Urenco to build an enrichment facility at Capenhurst with the capacity to produce up to 10 tonnes of high-assay low-enriched uranium per year by 2031. Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “This investment will enable the UK to fuel advanced reactors around the world, building on our existing capabilities to strengthen energy security for our allies.” Urenco is one third owned by the UK government, one third by the Dutch government and one third by two German utilities, E.ON S.E. and RWE AG.

The USA is also developing a domestic supply of HALEU. In November last year, Centrus Energy delivered the first HALEU produced at its American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, to the US Department of Energy (DOE). Construction of the 16-centrifuge demonstration cascade plant began in 2019, under contract with the DOE. The delivery by Centrus of more than 20 kilograms of HALEU to the DOE means that phase one of the contract has now been completed and Centrus can move ahead with the second phase: a full year of HALEU production at the 900 kilograms per year plant.

In September, Orano revealed plans to extend enrichment capacity at its Georges Besse II (GB-II) uranium enrichment plant in France and said that it had begun the regulatory process to produce HALEU there.

Phillip Greatorex has posted an account of the long and interesting history of British work on fuel and enrichment:

Britain has been at the forefront of uranium enrichment technology for over 80 years, beginning, not in April 1947 with the development of diffusion prototype stages at Springfields for scaling up and use in the vast Capenhurst enrichment plant, but five years earlier in April 1942 at a highly secret munitions site close to the Wirral, as Britain sought to develop an A-Bomb by the end of 1943.

In September 1940, Churchill gave the go-ahead for a military-industrial project, which was code-named Project ‘X’. It was agreed that only ICI possessed the broad span of scientific and industrial expertise to coordinate the project, although it would be given all the help that it needed by other firms, notably Metro-Vickers Electrical Co. of Manchester.

Various options for a site were reviewed in late 1941. It had to be remote from the threat of aerial bombing, possess good communications infrastructure, be within easy reach by Metro-Vickers and allow for swift transfers of essential personnel and equipment. It also had to offer a suitable electricity and water supplies, as well as taking large machines, cranes and other bulky equipment. The machinery envisaged by then was one 2-stage and two 10-stage uranium separation units.
By the end of January 1942, the Rhydymwyn Valley munitions site had been identified as the best option. It provided ample space, rail links to Manchester and excellent facilities, so good that up to two months could be saved from the programme schedule. It also included skilled staff used to discretion. One area of the site was required for the ultra-secret atomic work which, for security reasons, would go on without the chemical weapons people being aware of its true nature. Building P6, deemed surplus to requirements, was selected for this purpose.

By August 1943, the Valley work on diffusion membranes had become the main focus among the Allies. It was concluded that the British diffusion process offered a better chance of success than any of the four American methods under investigation by the ‘Manhattan Project’ and the Americans had come to accept this fact. However, the construction of a full scale atomic weapons production plant was recognised to be beyond the means of wartime Britain. It would have to be built in the US and the only way in which satisfactory progress could be made was for the British X Team’s work to be transferred to the US, where they could experiment with over 100 machines. On 18 September 1943, a decision was taken by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference to concentrate the atomic effort in the USA.

The story is told in The X Site by Tim Jones.

Nuclear safety – a disagreement with the Director General of the IAEA

I accept that Grossi has an extraordinarily difficult job and is markedly more successful at it than his predecessors. Nonetheless, I took issue with him on LinkedIn when he resorted to over-playing the safety card. My objection attracted a knowledgeable following, though no reply from Grossi himself:

Rafael Grossi “The need for stringent security in the face of increased nuclear activity—from energy production to medical applications—cannot be overstated. Nuclear security is not a barrier but a facilitator of safe nuclear applications and we owe it to our societies to get it right.”

Wade Allison “I disagree. Nuclear safety can be overstated and usually is. The need for extreme caution is unjustified as the evidence demonstrates
Fear of nuclear technology does great damage to mental health and encourages socio-economic policies injurious to the future and the environment. Those who try to use such fear for political ends are dangerous, - but such people are dangerous with any form of energy.”

Activity at Sheffield

As reported in Newsletter 295 Sheffield Forgemasters have established a new Local Electron-Beam Welding (LEBW) technique for fast nuclear-grade welds. This has now gained ASME accreditation.
The company has now expanded its site with an extra 21 acres and signed memorandums of understanding with a number of SMR developers in the UK, including Rolls-Royce SMR, NuScale, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Holtec Britain and X-energy.
In addition, Rolls-Royce SMR announced this month that they will manufacture and test prototype modules for its SMRs at a new facility being set up at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

Sizewell, Wylfa and Teesside

For Sizewell C the news is that the Office for Nuclear Regulation has now granted a site licence for two EPRs, copies of those at Hinkley C. That may sound good, but it does not represent money, so work cannot actually start. Although the provision of nuclear power is not politically contested in the UK, bureaucratic delay and obstruction by regulation does not need that. Perhaps we will now be told that progress is on hold until after the election.

Neville Chamberlain comments: The Government has announced a new fleet of gas-fired stations to help keep the lights on. The anti-nukes can now glory in the knowledge that their efforts have added to the projected UK CO2 emissions. This confirms our view that, rather than let the lights go out, governments will always abandon any commitment to CO2 emissions, a view that most citizens will share.
Wade Allison replies: Similar reactions are happening elsewhere. Governments seek votes for unrealistic short-term policies that promise jobs. The environment requires a long-term solution including full-scale nuclear. SONE should help the younger generation to see the long view, despite the political pressures. They should not inherit the mindset that has obstructed progress for the past 70 years.

While it remains to be seen which reactor design will be chosen by GBN, the UK government has at least now announced that Wylfa in Anglesey is its preferred site for the country’s third new large-scale nuclear plant. Of course we have been here before. Jo Stevens, UK Labour’s shadow Welsh secretary, said that “any progress is welcome” but that the people of Anglesey will “believe it when they see it. It’s been five years since ministers sat back and watched as the previous plans for Wylfa fell through… that project would have been 50% completed by now,” she said.

The nuclear power plant at Hartlepool on Teesside is among four of the UK’s seven AGR fleet which continue to generate electricity. It has been operating for 40 years and was due to end operations in March this year until a two-year extension was announced in March last year. As noted in SONE Newsletter 294 there are already plans to build a new nuclear plant on Teesside based on the Westinghouse AP300. Now, separately, X-energy and Cavendish Nuclear have commissioned Teesside University to undertake a study of the potential regional benefits and economic impacts of a plant based on X-energy’s Xe-100 high temperature gas-cooled reactor.

And talking of High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors, there was another announcement on 24th May. UK NNL is working with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency on a new reactor design for the U.K. market, with a focus on production of high temperature heat for industrial applications. The announcement said that Jacobs has been selected to help develop cost and schedule estimates as part of a broader investment case submission to HM Treasury; also to review market demand and end-use cases for HTGR technology. No details were given.

Nuclear developments around the world

In order to increase the share of nuclear in Japan’s energy mix from the current 5% to 20–22%, the country will need to restart 11.4 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear reactor capacity between 2025 and 2030. This assessment was provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) based on the analysis of the prospects for achieving the goals of nuclear energy development set out in Japan’s GX Decarbonisation Power Supply Bill, which came into force in 2024.

In the USA Georgia Power Company announced Unit 4, a Westinghouse AP1000, at Plant Vogtle is now in commercial service.
Then there is the proposal to restart Palisades Power Plant shut down on May 20, 2022, after 50 years of generating low-carbon electricity. But the plant’s new owner thinks economic conditions have improved in the past few years and plans to reopen it by the end of 2025. This would be the first successful restart of a previously closed plant.

Italy operated a total of four nuclear power plants starting in the early 1960s but decided to phase out nuclear power in a referendum that followed the 1986 Chernobyl accident. It closed its last two operating plants, Caorso and Trino Vercellese, in 1990.
In late March 2011, following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the Italian government approved a moratorium of at least one year on construction of nuclear power plants in the country, which had been looking to restart its long-abandoned nuclear programme.
A communique released at the end of the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Climate, Energy and Environment in Turin in April 2024 committed support for the use of nuclear energy in those countries that opt to use it. Without naming Germany, it was said “Obviously, we are aware that in the G7 there is a country that currently does not want to pursue the development of nuclear energy.” Nonetheless, the ministers’ statement came following a call by the G7 nuclear industry to embrace nuclear deployment as a strategic priority, a call that included the Associazione Italiana Nucleare for Italy.

The web has been doing a fine job of supporting extensive international discussion about nuclear power for Australia where it is still excluded by law. A subject to be explored in another Newsletter.

More on Sellafield

Construction company Stobbarts has been awarded a 15-year framework deal, worth up to £40 million to help deliver major infrastructure projects at the UK’s Sellafield nuclear site. The company - based in Workington, Cumbria - will support key delivery partner Sir Robert McAlpine on groundworks and concrete (civils). Since mobilising in 2019, Programme and Project Partners has awarded contracts with a potential value of £3 billion. The partnership is now working with around 200 suppliers from across the UK, with 40% based in the north-west and almost 70% being SMEs.
As usual the sums of money seem to eclipse any details of the task to be done.

Wade Allison
28 May 2024