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Bulgarian companies may become part of a global supply chain
prof. Howard J. Bruschi, Westinghouse Electric Company
AUTHOR: Atanas Georgiev & Utilities magazine editor Atanas Georgiev met with prof. Howard Bruschi right after his lecture at the Technical University - Sofia to discuss the characteristics of the AP1000 design and the prospects for nuclear energy.

Prof. Bruschi, the AP1000 plant design is considered one of the best possible options for new reactors. What are the main advantages of this design?

I think we can summarize in three steps. The first is the superior safety. The next is the constructability. And the third – we worked very hard to ensure that the plants we build are standardized.

The safety aspect – there are differentiators of this plant from today’s plants and the newer designs. The most striking is that we have the so called “passive safety”. This means that we do not depend on any AC power for the safety systems – motors, pumps, motor-operated valves, but only on natural forces. That is a big change from the past. The object in doing this is that there is no operator action needed in the event of an emergency situation. The operator can have the hands off for 72 hours. Tanks will deliver water by gravity, the plant will cool itself down. The plant can cope with an accident situation even longer – for 7 days, but some operator action will be necessary. Tanks with water may have to be refilled. And even then it may even go on like this indefinitely.

A good example of the reason for no AC power is the Fukushima accident. Our design was analyzed to see how it would survive an accident like Fukushima. It would have coped with the situation very well. Had an AP1000 been in the place of the Fukushima plants, we would not have “Fukushima” in our vocabulary, because it would have survived. Why? It wasn’t the earthquake, it was the tsunami that wiped out the diesel generators, needed for AC power to cool the plant. AP1000 does not have diesel generators, it does not need emergency generators. It needs a few batteries to operate the valves and that is it. So its safety systems are such that it can survive a Fukushima-like event very well.

There are newer plants that are partially passive and similar to AP1000. They also can claim they would survive Fukushima and I believe they can. I think that the difference there is the so called “severe accident scenario”. For some reason, if there is no water coming to the reactor to cool the fuel, it will heat up and start to melt. Some of today’s more modern plants would say – if that fuel melts, we are going to allow it to melt through the reactor vessel and drop in what is called a “core catcher”. Then this core catcher will disperse it and this heat and energy would be absorbed and that should stop it – it would stay inside the containment. What Westinghouse proposes is three barriers to stop the melting – the first is the nuclear fuel cladding, the reactor vessel is the second barrier, and the containment building is the third one. We do not sacrifice the second barrier, we preserve the reactor vessel by using water to cool it and to circulate by natural forces around it so that the hot core inside never comes through. Some people doubt whether this would work – we have done testing as well as a lot of analysis. Here is a test you can do at home, but be careful. If you take a paper cup and put it on the stove, the paper is going to burn. If you put water in it and turn on the stove, the water will boil and the cup will not burn, because the water is cooling it. This is a big distinction from other new designs that use core catcher. They are safe, but we take a different approach – let not make the reactor vessel breach.

Regarding constructability, we build in modules. We can construct a module of pipes or pumps in a factory, where the high-quality conditions are very good and then ship the whole module in site and put it in place. In China, they are showing the world that these things can be done in a much shorter time than in the past.

In terms of standardization, the advantage for the customer is that the plant to be built in Bulgaria would be the same as the ones built in the USA – you can establish a relationship with them to learn the lessons learned, i.e. to make the construction sequence a little different. This already happens between China and the USA. The standardization also helps the industry here, because if we establish a supply chain in Bulgaria, the lessons from suppliers could also be learned. And the Bulgarian suppliers may become suppliers for a plant, which is built somewhere else in the world.

What are the benefits and setbacks of such “open” supply chain?

There was a supplier summit in Sofia last month. As we said, “We buy where we build”. Westinghouse supplies some parts of the plant, but unlike France with AREVA, who supply a lot of the equipment themselves, what we try to do is to help the local economy by establishing a supply from the indigenous country. There are certain parts like the reactor coolant pump which are pretty tricky and they still come from the US. But regarding the modules – if you have the ability to build pipe, bend steel, and weld steel, you have got capabilities that can be used for the nuclear plant.

The downside is that in a nuclear plant all has to meet very high standards. So we work with the local suppliers to make sure that they understand the requirements, we help for training, so I would not call it a downside, but a challenge to make sure that the quality is there.

Further upside is that the qualified supplier could be a supplier outside Bulgaria. It is a standardized plant design and if Bulgarian suppliers get to a neighboring country first, the plant there could use Bulgarian supplies. We would look for a regionalized supply, particularly for the modules, and this is helping the economy. Besides that, local concrete, steel, and a lot of other commodities, with the proper quality, can be used.

Many people in Bulgaria expect from a new nuclear unit to provide cheap electricity, similar to the already operating nuclear plant here. Do you think that a new nuclear plant may provide a competitive price compared to the other available sources in the country and the region?

This is also a challenge, because the capital cost of a nuclear plant is very high compared to other choices. The benefit though is that when the plant is built, the cost to generate electricity, i.e. for fuel, operations and maintenance, is very, very low – better than anything, except maybe solar and wind, but the footnote there is that they do not always operate. Wind is available up to 40% of the time, and nuclear is there until you want to shut it down for maintenance or refueling. One offsets the other.

When we were looking at the passive safety design, I though that we must be competitive not only with other nuclear designs, but also with natural gas. And it was rather inexpensive 10-15 years ago and the projections for its prices creeping up were still valid. Then the Marcellus shale happened and natural gas is now very low in price. So right now, there is a challenge in the USA with cheap gas. Well, I will tell you that nuclear is better for the environment in terms of CO2. And in Bulgaria, for example, natural gas is not cheap. So I think our plant will be competitive with natural gas on a total cost basis. If natural gas drops in price, it may be difficult to justify a nuclear plant, unless you look at the benefits to the environment, the benefits to the industry economics of a place, etc. We personally want to be competitive across the board.

Further on, to help offset the high capital cost, Bulgaria is looking to have Westinghouse and Toshiba Group own part of the plant with an equity stake. I like this. Once the plant is built, if we own a stake, it is in Westinghouse’s best interest that this plant is well operated. We will help with the servicing, the maintaining, the fueling, because we want to see it operating for our sake. It will offset the high cost in Bulgaria. Then there is the option for export financing through the exim banks of USA and Japan.

In the USA there are loan guarantees. It is interesting for me, because the government came up with the idea: “What if we give you loan guarantees?”. It would be great, because for a utility to borrow the money for a new nuclear plant would be a financial risk. If the government backs it up, this lowers the interest rate and helps tremendously. And the reason for the USA to want to do this is because the plant is pre-engineered, pre-designed, pre-licensed right through operation and the risk is minimum. If things slow down and interveners like Greenpeace or any other person or organization come, trying to stop the operation of the plant, they will be escorted off-site, because according to the law they could have stopped the plant when we designed it, when we got the construction permit and the operating license. If they come in the last minute, the government would not listen to them.

And the nuclear fuel is abundant and cheap per megawatt-hour. In the USA, in the last 10-15 years the cost of generation from nuclear plants has been less expensive than from coal plants taking into consideration capital cost for a life-span of 20 years, even though the actual life-span is quite longer. Natural gas will be interesting, if its price continues to be low. But if gas demand rises, its price will also go up.

Amory Lovins claims in his book “Small is profitable” that the unit price of new-built nuclear capacities rises in the last decades. How would you comment on that?

The capital costs have risen and the main reason is because the commodities have become more expensive. So if a utility decides to build a coal plant in stead of a nuclear one, they are going to find out that the costs of steel and concrete are still going to affect them. Not that it would take the same amount of steel and concrete, but the prices of these commodities have gone up. The cost of copper is 4 times higher than when we designed the plant. It is amazing how these prices have gone up.

Many countries witness a trend that smaller, distributed generating capacities come online faster than large single units. Do you think that this will endanger the development of new large nuclear plants?

No, I don’t. Nor do I think that large nuclear plants will endanger the smaller alternatives. I think that there is a huge potential market for small nuclear plants like small modular reactors in countries that do not have a larger grid. I think there will always be the need for base load power and once a nuclear plant is built, it is the least expensive generating cost, taking into consideration its availability and capacity.

In theory, wind and solar should be least expensive because the fuel is free, but they do not operate all the time. They should fill a niche, but I do not believe they will replace base load generation. There is not enough land in Bulgaria to build solar to replace the nuclear power. The pressures to keep electricity clean will continue, and taxes on CO2 can become real.

Nuclear energy was hit hard because of the Fukushima disaster. Do you see an opposite trend now, several years later, and a surge in new plants demand?

I do, slowly. When Fukushima happened, Angela Merkel in a week decided to shut down nuclear in Germany, as she had pressure from the coalition. Switzerland and Japan said “no” to everything. Today, Japan is singing a different tune. They realize the importance of nuclear for electricity generation with accent on safety and standards.

If you look at the tsunami in Japan – there was a 5-meter wall, but there has been a history of larger tsunamis in that area and they knew that. How about the diesel generators – if they have been raised? The plant was not supposed to be that low – it was supposed to be on the mountain, but they excavated in order to take it lower. Why? Because it would have been much more expensive to pump the cooling water from the sea. Had that plant been higher, it would have survived. The plant was not wiped down – the electrical gear got flooded. I think Japan is going to slowly change and now they are coming back.

After Chernobyl, in Sweden they decided to shut down all nuclear, but they are still operating them. One of the reasons is that they understood the standards at Chernobyl were different. Things slowed in the USA because there were new requirements for existing plants, for operating plants, and for new plants after Fukushima. China slowed down quite a bit. They did not want to slow down, but they wanted to be responsible on safety.

Things have been very quiet in Europe. The Czech Republic got a tender, Bulgaria and Hungary have plans as well, but the French are not building. The Italians shut down their program. England is moving ahead, they did not miss a beat. They want to be independent from coal and their history with nuclear is good.

Is it possible to build new nuclear only with guarantees like in England – for capacity payments?

It is very desirable from the utilities point of view, it is almost a necessity. Because if they are required to invest big time, they want to be sure that there will be return on investment in terms of a price floor, guaranteed by the government. It is a big discussion, because if you believe in a free market, why should you do it? The answer is that you want a huge investment and the price of electricity is not controlled by utilities. They have come to an agreement, which is a sound way to go.

In the USA there is a possibility to obtain a combined construction and operating license for new nuclear plants from a single body. Is it necessary to change the EU legislation in this direction in order to speed up new nuclear in Europe as well?

In my perspective, it is better to have one standard licensing body to go through. It is little hard to imagine, because each country has its own needs and desires. It would be nice to have a combined license from start to the operating, but this takes a very long time, much longer than we expected. It took us 6 years to get the initial design approval in the USA from NRC. It took another year to get the design certification, because they had to prepare the legislation. Then the combined license for construction and operation was prepared.

The operating license, if it is for a different utility, is also a separate process. The NRC tried to standardize the approach, which makes it easier for utilities. What will happen as they go along is that NRC will review if they meet the standards, but the standards are clear.

What is the future of small modular reactors (SMRs)? Recently Westinghouse Electric Company announced that it will divert resources from its SMR development. Does this mean that it is still early for this technology?

We think we hit the sweet spot with AP1000. The French will market their 1600 MW plant and countries like USA, Japan, and France can fit this design. But you cannot go into a smaller country with this. Also in Brazil, which said they do not have the need and the grid structure for this.

The smaller the plant is, the more danger that it will remain economical on a cost per megawatt-hour basis. And if you build many of them, they have to be standard, you have to come down the learning scale to be economical. For small plants like SMRs from 100 to 300 MW you still need operators, you still need the guards, etc. and the infrastructure is almost the same as a 1000 or 2000 MW plant. So it has got to overcome the economy of scale of the size in megawatts. I think there is a niche, and some more time is needed to show that SMRs can compete. They are very safe plants, i.e. eliminating pipes, which lowers the probability for breaches.

For our SMR design, it is a multidimensional issue. We have 8 AP1000 plants to deliver and we want to make sure that this goes well. Using resources for this is important for us. Second, we were in competition with others to get funding from the US government, which is how we developed the AP600 and the AP1000. We managed to not be selected for SMRs. I would not say that we lost, we just were not selected. There were some criteria that we did not understand, for example the last requirement that they wanted very innovative plants, with really revolutionary and inventive designs. The design we submitted was the one of the AP1000 and these systems are proven through testing and analyses. They wanted other designs. Fifteen years from now we can see how the other designs will work, as they need a lot of R&D. The point is, now we lack the funding we wanted in order to go forward with SMRs, so we turned our attention to AP1000. We shrunk the staff for our SMR design and now we will slow the procedure for licensing it. And, this would not work economically, if we do not have a whole bunch of customers. If you are only building 3 or 4 of these things, the economics will not be favorable. You will need a lot of help from the government. So we are also working on customers development, identifying who they may be.

Prof. Howard Bruschi is an Executive Consultant on matters of advanced nuclear plant strategy, design, licensing, business development, communication, and project implementation. He received a bachelor and master of electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1964, and holds a master of business administration from the University of Pittsburgh, awarded in 1968, and completed the Executive Program for Management Development at the Harvard Business School in 1976.

Mr. Bruschi retired from Westinghouse Electric Company from the position of Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer in 2002. His responsibilities included the technology, development, commercialization, and project execution of major nuclear projects for Westinghouse. A key achievement was Mr. Bruschi’s leadership in obtaining design certification for the AP600 from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1998, becoming the world’s first nuclear passive plant design to be approved by a regulatory authority. This was followed by the AP1000 nuclear plant design.

Previously he was Project Manager for Westinghouse of Brazil’s Angra nuclear project. He directed the engineering, procurement, and component delivery for the nuclear steam supply system of that country’s first nuclear power plant, and also was the executive responsible for joint research and development between Westinghouse and French nuclear industry organizations.

Mr. Bruschi was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2008 and inducted into the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering in 2010. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society, and is the recipient of the Society’s Walter H. Zinn Award for outstanding contributions and leadership in advancing the nuclear power industry. He is a visiting professor at China’s SNPTC University, and is the recipient of the first ever Westinghouse Lifetime Achievement Award.

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