Nuclear Power Asia – Roundup 2, March 8, 2017, Kuala Lumpur

A small observation: there are a number of women in the nuclear industry, some occupying high-ranking positions in management, although none, so far, seem to be occupying the top post. However, that is also country-dependent. However, were one to go by the speakers, the ratio of men to women was almost equal. March 8 is also an International Women’s Day.

Programme available here.

The second day saw a number of presentations and panels that went much more deeply into some of the issues that could only be touched upon on the first day. The author arrived just as the director of the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation was about to start his presentation on the direction the region (being Southeast Asia) is going with the employment of nuclear power. At the moment, the  top ranking Southeast Asian countries who appear to be pursuing nuclear power in the near future are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and perhaps, Vietnam (although in the last case, it is uncertain as to when Vietnam would go into nuclear power given the cancellation of its already-launched NPP project in November 2016). From what we know of the natural disasters that had taken place in Indonesia and the Philippines stemming from their location in the ring of (volcanic) fire, the greatest challenge would be to select the best sites for locating the NPPs; for Indonesia, the original site at Muria has since been re-situated to Bangka. Below are bullet points on the five ‘leading’ ASEAN countries that might, in the next decade or so, implement nuclear power for real:

The next session was on a presentation from a representative of the Sri Lanka Atomic Energy board on the country’s relationship with nuclear power. Interestingly, thorium is one of the natural resources of Sri Lanka, in addition to graphite, titanium, and other gems (which probably puts it in a position of envy for most countries). The presenter spoke of what was left behind in the coastline and marine sediments collected from selected locations in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Fukushima-Daiici disaster which saw fallout concentrations of K-40, Ra-226, Th-232, Cs-137, and Cs-134. Just like in many countries, the original programme of implementing NPP after the feasibility study that was meant to be carried out between 2009-2011 was postponed while it was underway due to the Fukushima-Daiici disaster. This makes sense when we consider the map below

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Credit: Sri Lanka AEB, photo by Clarissa Lee

However, by the first four months of 2015, Sri Lanka has signed nuclear co-operation agreement with India (taking advantage of the latter’s nuclear capability) and an MoU with Pakistan (probably as a way of neutralizing potential geopolitical conflict).

Then came the awaited presentation (at least by the author) on small modular reactors (SMRs) by the vice president for SMART being the System Integrated Modular Advanced Reactor (‘smart’ is the new IT word) Development at the (South) Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). How reassuring would it be to the public to be told that there are currently 127,000 NPPs in operation right now (in the world), although more than 96% of them are small reactors (generating power at < 600 MW). Probably more scary would be the news that, given the new safety standards, about 18,400 reactor units are > 30 years old (even if we are told that most reactors have a long life-span that can be as much as our own sometimes). SMR is touted as being safer and more flexible (in that you do not need a major overhaul of surrounding infrastructure just to get it installed) for our urban lifestyle. Here are some of the SMRs in the market from other global vendors.

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Credit: KAERI, photo by Clarissa Lee

Among the features of the SMART SMR (with potential issues included in parentheses), which would make more sense to those already familiar with more conventional forms of reactors are, the elimination of rod ejection accidents (although the internal design of the control rod drive mechanism is pending validation), minimization of liquid waste (but the new water chemistry still has to be tested for potential corrosive side-effects), enhancement against terrorist attacks (which means more money has to be spent in the construction),  increased heat sink capacity (leading to a bigger transient zone between heating and cooling down), portable (but of course, compactness does not mean it’s less heavy). One of the things to remember is that the employment of nuclear reactor technology also includes a consideration of water reservoir (or how much water we have available) to maintain the power plants;  a supply of 40k tonnes of freshwater could not be overlooked.

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Credit: KAERI, photo by Clarissa Lee

Next up was recently retired director of the reactor studies unit at the Malaysian nuclear agency to give an overview of the developments and achievements of the unit.  Given that Malaysia currently only has one TRIGA research reactor operating at 1 MW (which was the power it has been operating in since the 1980s), much of the work came in the form of simulators, are theoretical computations, or involve collaboration with partners with more facilities. Malaysia is now involved in a probabilistic safety assessment (to quantify perceived risk) through simulation studies, stemming from its experience in working with TRIGA. As of now, it seems that the first level of PSA studies has been completed for evaluation of events caused by random component failures and human errors. The agency has also been involved in deterministic safety assessment (DSA) by developing a model for thermohydraulic assessment of the research reactor’s coolant; deterministic means dealing with the known whereas probabilistic assessment also consider speculative conditions; however, both are required to complement each other. Conversations with conference participants (from Malaysia) who are involved in nuclear technology development (and reactor operations) informed the author that safety studies inform a big part of their research and training at the moment. The reactor studies group is particularly proud that it has developed a reactor digital and instrumental control system (in co-operation with the aforementioned KAERI) that took place between 2012 and 2014, which the group has full control over (without being overly reliant on its collaborative partner). Given the minimal resources and facilities, much of the focus came to be on education and training which involved inter-ASEAN collaboration.

One of the interesting talks at the conference was on uranium trading (who doesn’t like talking about equities, hedging, and getting one’s hands on a big government’s stockpile surplus) involving the redistribution of readily available uranium resources between uranium-poor states who have NPPs and those non-NPP states with uranium mines. In brief, the uranium fuel cycle involved the mining of yellow cake (U3F8) which has to be converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) before it could be enriched for the fabrication of fuel for NPPs. After use, one has to contend with storage of the fuel rods, the reprocessing of spent fuel, and disposal. The unused portions of uranium and plutonium (the latter could be obtained through neutron capture by uranium-238 to produce plutonium-239) could then be reprocessed and enriched for use as future fuel or….nuclear warheads. The speaker, from TradeTech LLC, described how trade in uranium takes place between uranium producer and nuclear facilities (there is also a middle person who helps to facilitate the movement of excess uranium stockpiles in the US government ‘warehouse’ for deployment at NPPs).

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Credit: TradeTech LLC, photo by Clarissa Lee

Since we already know how many NPPs are operating, the numbers of the chart below should not be surprising:

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Credit: TradeTech LLC, photo by Clarissa Lee

The discussion of uranium reprocessing segues quite well with the next presentation on managing radioactive waste given by a representative of ANDRA, which is the national French agency for radioactive waste management and disposal. France justify its experience in this field as being one of the oldest players in nuclear energy and it now wants to peddle this experience and expertise to emerging NPP players. Among the types of waste that ANDRA has managed over the years included waste generated from fuel-processing, decommissioned facilities, and industrial leftovers. Below are two slides featuring the French classification for radioactive waste (a link to the agency’s website on the same topic is included in case the blog is requested to remove the graphics below)

NPPs produce about 1,050 tonnes of fuel p.a. out of the 1,200 tonnes of fresh fuel used, so one could just calculate what that amounts to over a decade or more – much of the waste are from decommissioned reactors, which should not be surprising. France/ANDRA is still building a deep geological disposal facility, the Cigéo project, for the disposal of high level waste, which appears to be ongoing and one of its proudest development. In preparation for the launch of the Cigéo facility, the agency is beginning to shift its agenda from basic research towards more technological and operational/applied research, although the facility is not going to be licensed before 2021 (one hears a lot about future timelines that gets shifted forward continuously when it comes to NPPs and facilities for nuclear waste disposals, but such is always the case with big and difficult projects). From the schematics shown in the slides, it appears that the waste would be contained within rod-like pellets. In further preparation, ANDRA is also working on its own radioactive waste acceptance programme to stimulate dialogue with public stakeholders to make discussion of the issue neither sensational nor taboo. Different scales are required in engagement from the long and short-term perspectives, with issues of safety, quality of life, and environmental well-being being the foremost topics tackled.

There was a session on the role of the association of Women in Nuclear towards formulating public engagement but the author missed the talk and is unable to commment on it. However, the continuous focus on public engagement and acceptance came to a focal point with a panel being convened on the topic, featuring two representatives from Malaysia (a nuclear energy advocate and MNPC respectively), one from South Korea (KAIST) and another from Japan (Hitachi-GE). The discussion centred around what the governments could do to engage the public while considering how more mature NPP states seemed to be successful in improving public acceptance – however, given that that there were no representatives from the universities in Japan (including from Fukushima), there was not too much discussion on the level of public acceptance post Fukushima although we get the idea that the vendors are trying to alleviate public fears.

The session after the panel was presented by the chairman of the Korea Nuclear Energy Agency (KNEA), with his assistant (who happened to be seated beside the author) keeping track of the presentation while taking pictures of the presentation at various moments. It was a well organized presentation that also provided an overview of the numerous nuclear-related agencies in South Korea charged with regulating issues ranging from safety to future planning to energy infrastructures – bearing in mind that the small country has gone from having almost no energy infrastructure in the aftermath of the division between the North and South to becoming a highly ranked (6th in the world, at last check) global player and partner in the energy market. The country currently has 25 NPPs in operation (providing energy to the scale of 23,116 MW), 5 more in construction (that would provide energy of 7,000 MW), and 4 units being planned (of 5,800 MW). The public acceptance programme targets were: the local community where they were able to engage in dialogues, civic groups where negotiation was used as a strategy, the general public (through popular engagement using education and social contribution – there was an ad shown but the author could not locate it online – if anyone knows of it, please comment below), and opinion leaders (the last group being the influencers). Town Hall meetings were also held for residents living close to the power plants, with representatives and participants brought in from the nuclear agencies and academia – even conflict resolution consultants were brought in to manage what could be very tense situations during the meetings. It is interesting that their nuclear acceptance programme put home-makers on the same level as students through the use of content-based strategy that tried to convince this group of how nuclear energy could be cost-effective, environmentally-friendly, as well as secure. The most important target for them are the opinion leaders (media people, MPs, policy-makers, and probably any one else with intellectual influence on the Korean society) seeing that these are the people that most of the other targets trust – this group were taken on field trips to nuclear facilities located domestically and abroad. Further, for all the K-entertainment consumers out there, there is actually a webtoon series (in the tradition of South Korean web-series).

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Credit: KNEA, photo by Clarissa Lee. Check it out if you can read Hangul.

All the previous discussions on public acceptance of nuclear power culminates in a session featuring two talks relating to human resource development for the operation of NPP infrastructures, given by CNNC and the International Institute of Nuclear Energy (I2EN). CNNC talks about how its package of NPP installation also include the development of public acceptance programmes, sponsored exhibitions and public outreach, and the training of future operators and skilled labour for the maintenance of the power plants. I2EN, on the other hand, talked about the structured training modules ranging from the provision of academic education to the training of NPP workforce (using the IAEA term of Human Capacity Building). The training programme in France has reached such a mature level that it is coming up with an app to  help emergent countries decide on the type and structure of training required. France is certainly marketing its expertise in developing nuclear programmes to emerging players in Asia.

The next session on nuclear supply chain localisation saw the presentation of an assessment that had been done regarding Malaysia’s industrial readiness in the preparation for supporting future NPPs. The presenter had published an article about two years ago, “Electricity Demand-Generation Balance: the Question of National Energy Security,” beginning on page 31 of the Oct-Dec 2014 issue of The Ingeniur that could be considered as a predecessor to the work done on infrastructural evaluation of industrial capability. Overall, the presenter suggested that there are some energy-based infrastructures already available in Malaysia, including the required skills and expertise to manage them, that could be redeployed for nuclear power plants. That include what the Malaysian industry is able to produce locally that could contribute to the construction and maintenance of the NPP. The slide below provides a breakdown of what the total capital cost for the plant would be like

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Credit: Amir Basha Ismail, photo by Clarissa Lee

And the scope for localisation.

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Credit: Amir Basha Ismail, photo by Clarissa Lee

Based on the chart below, do you think Malaysia has still a long way to go before it could properly manage a nuclear power plant?

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Credit: Amir Basha Ismail, photo by Clarissa Lee

The final presentation was from the China General Nuclear Power Group, which was basically a marketing pitch regarding the experience and achievement of the company in developing nuclear power plants in China. As the conference ran over time, the author had to leave earlier to run an errand, so was not able to stay to the end. But in all, the two-day experience had been eye-opening. What would be nice to have would be a more diverse group of presenters from the nuclear energy/security/power/technology sector but the programming could be constrained by who was able to attend (or could afford to attend). But that is certainly worth considering and planning for the next edition of the conference.

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