On August 5, 2009 Time Magazine’s online arm published a story Areva’s Field of Dreams that begins with the following lede:
This should be Areva’s time in the sun. As governments search for clean, renewable energy sources and consumers worry about volatile oil prices, nuclear power is hot again.
I am certain that the response to that statement in some offices in Cambridge, MA, Washington, DC and Tacoma Park, MD will be the ever so articulate come back of “No it’s not”. Stand by for an onslaught of articles by energy supply competitors, professional anti-nuclear activists and their journalistic friends explaining why all of the orders, the new hiring, the groundbreakings, and the announced international partnerships do not indicate that there is any revival of nuclear energy success around the world.
There are definite reasons for caution and for investing the time, money and hard work necessary to implement the lessons that should have been learned from the first Atomic Age to make this one work better and last far longer. Nuclear focused companies need to listen to their potential customers to understand that costs and schedules are important, nuclear workers need to maintain their dedication to learning and improving their skills, and nuclear investors need to recognize that getting rich slowly and steadily is far more sustainable than big deal making with immediate overly generous payouts.
The Time.com story continues as follows with some of the answers and data with which to respond to the naysayers:
The fear of nuclear accidents like the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 or at Chernobyl in 1986 has begun to fade as nuclear’s backers make their case in a world growing warmer. Nuclear plants, goes their argument, provide a steady supply of relatively cheap energy with zero carbon emissions. The new enthusiasm for nuclear is measurable. Over the next decade, the world is expected to build 180 nuclear power plants, up from just 39 between 1999 and today.
There is good reason that the fear has finally begun dissipating after 20-30 years. No matter how hard the forces opposed to nuclear energy work to remind people and keep them in a state of fear, it is a real challenge to keep collective human memory fresh. That is especially true when there are events happening nearly every week or month that seem to be more painful, destructive and deadly.
There is one cautionary tale from the Time story that I want to emphasize. Areva, for all of the good press and the strong position that it has in the nuclear industry, put itself at a competitive disadvantage when it worked with Siemens and other partners to design the EPR. As we all know, that first of a kind for that reactor design is taking longer than expected and costing about 50% more than budgeted. Part of that schedule and cost challenge is explainable by normal FOAK challenges, but I believe part of it is caused by the fact that the plant has so many features, fail safes, and back-ups that it is always going to cost a bit more and take a bit longer than a plant designed with a simpler, more straightforward approach to safety and reliability. The main reason that the EPR is somewhat disadvantaged is that it was not designed to please electric power producers (its customers), but to satisfy the complaints of nuclear energy skeptics and doubters like the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Finnish project was supposed to showcase Areva’s third-generation earthquake- and missile-proof design, known as a European Pressurized Reactor (EPR). Areva beat out Westinghouse and General Electric-Hitachi in 2003 to win a contract with Finland’s main utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO) to build the plant. GE-Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Westinghouse all sell their own third-generation reactors, which are more efficient and safer than previous designs. But Areva’s EPR boasts innovations that led the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists to call its design the only one with “the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against attack than today’s reactors.” Areva spokesman Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier said the win was crucial to establishing the firm as the leader in advanced nuclear technology.”
Those complicating design innovations that made the reactor more acceptable to the UCS and perhaps helped the company break the ice again in the western market after more than a decade without a new reactor will always be there to add cost to the EPR. Even as the company gains experience in construction and its contractors learn how to pour concrete and set rebar better, the dual containment, the core catcher, and the quadruple redundant indications and safety systems will always add some cost to the budget and time to the schedule that just may not be worth it to cost-conscious customers when they realize that they do not improve safety in any real life situation.
Areva has competent leadership, some of whom must understand the value of simplicity. It is not standing still; it is already working on a number of more simple, easier to build designs that are aimed at markets that could never even consider building a 1600 MWe EPR.