How to Build a Nuclear Plant

In Photo: A view of the nuclear power plant of Fessenheim in Eastern France on March 18, 2014.

The Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi never will attract the attention that the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in neighboring Dubai does, but it is an engineering feat nonetheless. It is using three times as much concrete as the world’s tallest building, and six times the amount of steel. Remarkably, its first reactor may start producing energy in the first half of this year—on schedule and, its South Korean developers insist, on budget. That would be a towering achievement.

In much of the world, building a nuclear-power plant looks like a terrible business prospect. Two recent additions to the world’s nuclear stock, in Argentina and America, took 33 and 44 years to erect. Of 55 plants under construction, the Global Nuclear Power database reckons, almost two-thirds are behind schedule. The delays lift costs and make nuclear less competitive with other sources of electricity such as gas, coal and renewables.

Not one of the two technologies that were supposed to revolutionize the supply of nuclear energy—the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) and the AP1000 from America’s Westinghouse—has yet been installed, despite being conceived early this century. In Finland, France and China, all the EPRs under construction are years behind schedule. The main hope for salvaging their reputation—and the nuclear business of EDF, the French utility that owns the technology—is the Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which by now looks a lot like a Hail Mary pass.

Meanwhile delays with the Westinghouse AP1000 have caused mayhem at Toshiba, its owner. In February the Japanese company may announce write-downs of as much as $6 billion on its American nuclear business. Because nuclear assets probably are unsellable, it is flogging parts of its core, microchip business instead.

Nonetheless, relative upstarts in South Korea and China show that large reactors, such as the four 1,400-megawatt ones in Abu Dhabi, can be built. Moreover, the business case for a new breed of small reactors below 300 megawatts is improving. This month the Oregon-based Nu-Scale Power became the first American company to apply for certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) design with America’s nuclear regulators.

“Clearly the momentum seems to be shifting away from traditional suppliers,” said William Magwood, director-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency.

Both small and large reactors are required. In places such as America and Europe, where electricity demand is growing slowly, there is rising interest in small, flexible ones. In fast-growing markets such as China, large nuclear plants make more economic sense.

If the South Koreans succeed with their first foreign nuclear program in Abu Dhabi, the reason is likely to be consistency. Nuclear accidents such as Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a long hiatus in nuclear construction in America and Europe. South Korea has invested in nuclear power for four decades, however, using its own technology since the 1990s, said Lee Yong-ho, an executive at Korea Electric Power (Kepco), which leads the consortium building Barakah. It does not suffer from the skills shortages that bedevil nuclear construction in the West.

Also, South Korea and China both keep nuclear building costs low through repetition and standardization, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. It estimates that South Korean capital costs have remained fairly stable in the past 20 years, while they have almost tripled in France and America.

America’s regulators expect to reach a decision on Nu-Scale’s application within 40 months. Safety will be the crucial issue: Both the reactor and the facilities where it will be fabricated need to pass muster.

If approved, the success of the technology will not be known until many have been produced. Even so, with the prospect of SMRs and the Abu Dhabi plant soon going into action, long-suffering backers of nuclear power at last have something to pin their hopes on.


© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (January 28). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Image Credits: Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images