Last November, DOE published its preliminary rankings of 19 proposed nuclear projects for the purpose of awarding the $18 billion in loan guarantees made available in the Energy Act of 2005.
General Electric’s ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor) came out in the second tier. Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear fleet owner, immediately dropped GE on its two Victoria County, Texas reactor projects. So much for America’s vaunted “nuclear industry.”
Of the 31 proposed new reactors now before the NRC, 15 are Westinghouse’s AP 1000, seven are Areva’s European Pressurized Reactor, four are General Electric’s ESBWR and one is the US-APWR, owned by Mitsubishi. (Exelon has not chosen a successor for Victoria 1&2.) Westinghouse was bought by Toshiba in 2006. Areva, of course, is the French giant. Even General Electric’s efforts are a 50-50 partnership with Hitachi. Babcock & Wilcox, the other American company that built reactors in the 1980s, while still servicing its existing plants, has no new designs. As Nuclear News, the journal of the American Nuclear Society, pointed out this month, there is no reactor company left in America that is not at least 50 percent owned by a foreign company.
The forging of reactor pressure vessels - the huge steel encasement that are the core of a nuclear plant - is now the monopoly of Japan Steel Works. The company is backlogged for four years. In November, JSW announced it was investing $350 million to triple its capacity by 2012 to meet demand. “While the recent world economic crisis has meant that business for some divisions of JSW is very sluggish, the nuclear energy division remains strong,” said Nuclear News. Riding its nuclear division, JSW’s profits reached a record $385 million for FY 2009, 10 percent above 2008. “This trend is continuing,” concluded the report.
Sensing the opportunity in nuclear, other countries are beginning to gear up. Russia already makes its own steel reactor vessels, although not for export. Sheffield Forgemasters is preparing to service new construction in Great Britain. Harbin Boiler Works, Dongfang Boiler Group and Shanghai Electric Group, all of China, are preparing to enter the very large forgings market, as is Larsen & Toubro of India. Areva is installing new forging capacity at Le Creusot. Meanwhile, the only new nuclear facilities in the U.S. - a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho and a parts manufacturer at Newport News - are being built by Areva.
The world nuclear revival is rapidly taking shape. This is big-time stuff - heavy industry of which the United States is no longer capable. Already there are worries in this country that a revival of nuclear construction would quickly run up against a shortage of specialty welders (although don’t bet there isn’t a Japanese or Indian contingent ready to come ashore and snatch up the jobs).
When I was at the Idaho National Laboratories in 2006 researching for my book, Terrestrial Energy, the Chinese nuclear delegation came through looking for advice on which technology to buy for its new construction. The Chinese eventually chose the Westinghouse AP 1000 (bought by Mitsubishi a year later). Those reactors will begin construction in 2009. Meanwhile we are probably five years from putting shovels in the ground.
The next time anyone consults about nuclear power it is going to be us seeking advice from the Chinese