How do you get 6,000MW of new nuclear energy without building a single reactor? For the answer, look to the US market: that is the amount of power operators have generated as a result of 135 up-rates to existing facilities, according to World Nuclear Association figures.
True, up-rating existing plants is not quite as fancy as unveiling a new-build programme, no matter how modest. Nor does it have the same implications for local job creation.
But as many nuclear countries grapple with the question of whether to build or not to build, up-rating holds a number of attractions.
Attractive return on investment
The most obvious, of course, is that it allows an operator to improve the return from its existing investment. Furthermore, it is a much less contentious issue than permitting new reactors, which makes it easier to carry out without opposition.
And Fukushima, which caused many countries to take a second look at proposed new-build programmes, may now give operators a good excuse to engage in up-rates as part of voluntary or regulatory-driven moves to strengthen and improve facilities.
The US, which leads the world market for up-rates by far, has shown up-rating can add significant capacity to existing nuclear facilities.
Extra demand calls for extra power
As well as the extra power that has already been brought online, the World Nuclear Association states a further 3,200MW could be added through some 67 projects subject to US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.
Exelon, America’s top nuclear operator, added 1,100MW, the equivalent of an entire new reactor, to the power output of its existing fleet in the decade to 2008.
It is currently working on an up-rate programme that will add a further 1,300MW to 1,500MW by 2017, for half the cost of a new-build project, and with no incremental operating costs.
Elsewhere around the world, however, the prospects for up-rate work are more difficult to discern. Some basic requirements are “energy need and sufficient upside for the private sector,” states Hamish Lal, partner and head of construction at Jones Day, the law firm.
Energy policy and the nature of existing installations also play a role, however. Nobody now expects Japan to embark on an up-rate programme any time soon, for example. And some types of reactors may be more difficult to up-rate than others.
A further key factor is licence extensions, since it makes no sense to uprate a plant that will soon be decommissioned.
That is why Russia has the most active up-rate programme of any country outside of the US: over the last decade the country has granted lifetime extensions to a whole raft of plants, and most of its reactors are being up-rated by 4% or 5%.
France, meanwhile, has dabbled with up-rates in recent years and the outlook for further projects there could improve in the future.
Despite new president François Hollande being voted in with a pledge to cut nuclear power’s contribution to the French energy pool, a mooted decision to extend the lifespan of the nuclear fleet to 60 years looks likely, given the importance of the country’s nuclear industry.
That could trigger a round of up-rates, particularly as operator Électricité de France tries to recoup the €10 billion cost of having to carry out post-Fukushima safety upgrades to its installations.
According to sources consulted by Nuclear Energy Insider, other potential future up-rate markets could include Spain, which is currently awaiting a pronouncement on energy policy; power-hungry South Africa; and Argentina and Brazil in Latin America.
Other significant nuclear markets, such as China and Korea, are more preoccupied with building new reactors rather than up-rating old ones, says Adrian Heymer, executive director of strategic programmes at the US Nuclear Energy Institute.
“I’m not so sure about Canada or Sweden,” he adds. “I think they would like to but I think they’ve got some regulatory issues to resolve. Canada may get there, but going through a programme like we have in the United States may be a bit more of a challenge for them.”
And another country that represents something of a conundrum as far as up-rates are concerned is the UK.
On one hand, there could be technical challenges in trying to up-rate the country’s advanced gas-cooled reactors, two of which are already restricted to about 70% of their nominal output because of boiler problems. And the age of the reactor estate is not ideal for up-rating.
Against that, though, there have been questions over government commitment to the UK’s ambitious new-build plans, and delays to the construction programme are not out of the question. Meanwhile the country is committed to strict carbon reduction targets.
Dr Simon Harrison, of the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology, notes: “If you can up-rate or life-extend nuclear power plants it is an extremely cost-effective solution to low-carbon energy.”
If so, perhaps up-rating deserves a second look in the UK.
Source: Nuclear Energy Insider