Saturday, 2 January 2010

Options for Australia's first NPP

Should Australia decide to price carbon emissions at a level where power producers begin to shift significantly away from fossil fuels, nuclear power will become economically competitive in Australia. Assuming this shift begins within the next five years and Australia does opt for nuclear power, we will construct an established Gen-III/III+ design, imported from a long time ally.

Why import?

For the same reason the HIFAR research reactor was imported fifty-some years ago (British DIDO design), the OPAL reactor was imported about ten years ago (INVAP / Argentina) and ANSTO's PETNET design was imported more recently. Australia does not have large-scale nuclear (NSSS, and nuclear A&E) design capability. Such capabilities are developed over decades. It could be done in Australia (or most other countries for that matter), but if energy supply and emissions reductions are the goal - such development is not on the optimised path.

However, Australia has recently and repeatedly demonstrated our ability to manage and implement large-ish nuclear projects with regard to project implementation and independent regulatory oversight. We have also demonstrated our ability to safely, reliably and efficiently operate and maintain nuclear facilities.


When nuclear power is cost competitive with other generation options, our uniquely Australian political challenges will remain. Opting for a design that has been built and operated several times in different countries provides a necessary degree of assurance against politically motivated claims of unknown costs, safety risks, or questions about operational reliability. Attempting to develop an unproven design here would expose would be investors to the associated unknowns of schedule delays, cost overruns or performance uncertainties. It is for this reason that nuclear design endeavours are usually scaled up through a series of increasingly larger demonstration projects.

An established design also brings with it prior regulatory approvals. This is not to imply a guarantee of Australian approval, but does provide added confidence in the review process.

Why an ally?

Consider the political baggage if Australia selected a Russian reactor design. Add to this the history of Russia using energy security as an instrument of foreign policy (every reactor requires a secure supply of highly technical spare parts for decades).

Furthermore, regulatory review and approval experience with a given design in the USA, Canada, the UK, Japan, Korea, etc. could reassure potential investors of our ability to adequately manage project implementation risks (i.e. schedule and cost control).

Why Gen-III/III+?

First, I've listed it as "III/III+" because the line between the two can be blurred depending on where you look. The designs I refer to include (not meant to be exhaustive and listed alphabetically by company):

Some are operating today, others are being built and the rest are being marketed. The list may grow as other companies / countries enter the international nuclear power plant supply market (AECL's ACR-1000, B&W's mPower, China's CAP-1000, etc.); but these GenIII/III+ newcomers will take some time to pass the 'established' test and therefore are beyond the scope of this post.

Next, as I've explained above, the design must be established. I fully support advanced nuclear research and development. I believe Australia should waste no time increasing its involvement in such efforts. However, the scope of this post is directed and the near-term displacement of fossil energy generation. And therefore, established, shovel-ready designs are required.

With respect to fast / Gen-IV reactors; the OECD produced an excellent report - Nuclear Development Strategic and Policy Issues Raised by the Transition from Thermal to Fast Nuclear Systems (88 pages, ISBN 9789264060654). In this report and several others, 2040 is projected as an estimated time frame of fast reactor deployment. The report details other challenges such as prerequisite infrastructure requirements that make Australia seem unlikely as a location for early Gen-IV deployment.

Gen-IV's likely time-line strengthens Australia's case for Gen-III/III+.


  1. OPAL has been a complete disaster all round. HIFAR was a workhorse for 50 years. OPEL has so many faults and design faults: it will be lucky to be operating for another 10 years. The leak in the D2O tank is such a problem that it is now affecting the flux, making the irradiation of target unreliable. The beam facility are excellent however, without a reliable source of neutrons are underused.
    Is ANSTO capable of the purchase of a power reactor on ANSTO's performance in purchasing OPAL.

  2. OPAL has had some early operational issues. But these are typical of the early stages of a design lifetime (such as AREVA's current experience in Finland). At least OPAL is operating. Consider the fate of the Canadian MAPLE reactors (canceled in May 2008 after being fully built and partially commissioned).

    Your comment seems to be more critical of INVAP/CNEA than of ANSTO. And it adds justification for a well established (demonstrated) NPP design. OPAL was an evolutionary design based on only a limited number of other reactors. It's closest predecessor is in Egypt. Looking objectively at that reactor's performance (utilization in research reactor terms), would not give a high degree of confidence. It will be very interesting to see what the Dutch do with INVPA's proposal for a new research reactor there (PALLAS). Jordan apparently passed; opting for Korea's even younger RR design.

    However, the Australian team responsible for the OPAL project's implementation performed well: very close to the projected budget and schedule (after accounting for the unanticipated discovery of the long dormant geologic fault).

    The OPAL project was and continues to be a font of valuable lessons related to nuclear facility construction, commissioning, operation and maintenance. Many countries are hungry for this experience and a few high profile poaches have already occurred.

  3. What did Jordan actually opt for?
    We have:In December 2009 the JAEC selected a consortium headed by the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) with Daewoo to build a 5 MW research reactor at the Jordan University for Science & Technology by 2014.
    But isnt this likely a Maple type? S Korea has a:
    30 MW thermal research reactor based on the Canadian Maple design called HANARO, which started up in 1995. In contrast to Canada's experience with Maple, this apparently works very well.

  4. Ian, I can't say since the Koreans have not built a research reactor outside of Korea. But I am excited to see them try.

    I agree about the operating (Korea) vs abandoned (Canada) MAPLE design. The devil's in the detail and I'm just not that tuned in to this specific design. But it is evidence of Korea's analytical / technical capabilities. AECL is certainly no second-rate nuclear organisation.

    A Korean bid is also being reviewed for the PALLAS project in the Netherlands.

    I suspect they are banking on a steady, indigenous, engineering development programme that added features and improved performance at HANARO since it commenced operation; as well as the engineering contract recently won to implement improvements to a research reactor in Greece.

    I think it's worthwhile to step back and consider the context. No doubt, Korea has been a raising nuclear star for some time now. The nuclear organisations and industry there have a youthful, vibrant energy with a respectable degree of depth and recent, practical experience, in a word... capable. Not many organisations are in such an enviable position.

    My own experiences tell me they have a few lessons yet to learn - the size and severity of which will depend on the actual capabilities they demonstrate in the years to come. I wish them well.