Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Shopping for a Nuclear Power Reactor

I've been asked to explain why nuclear power plants come in such inconveniently large sizes.

The main reason is economies of scale. The huge costs associated with safety measures mean that the industry in the US and Europe has focussed on building progressively larger plants. In fact 1200MW is considered mid-size.

Now it is true, that many reactors, including smaller reactors, have in the past been built to various one-off designs often employing the nuclear engineering expertise retained by governments of nuclear weapons nations. If you're familiar with complicated one-off technical projects, like the baggage handling system at Heathrow say, you will know that things often go awry with delays and enormous cost overruns being commonplace.

With no great indigenous nuclear engineering expertise, New Zealand should certainly go with one of the established companies like Westinghouse, Areva or General Electric, and use one of their established designs. The great thing about the internet is that you can go shopping for nuclear power reactors in minutes! When you do you will find that the smallest off-the-shelf reactors currently mentioned on their sites are 1154MW, 1200MW and 1500MW respectively. (Areva has recently supplied a pair of 1000MW plants to China but these were actually constructed by the Chinese, so for better or worse I am not counting them.)

I believe that the 600MW figure quoted by the Electricity Comission comes from older designs. Several of these companies have built reactors this size but no longer seem to be doing so. In principle one could try to place orders but it's very unlikely they would rejig their current setup for a single reactor, and if they did it would be unlikely to be cheap.

Eagle-eyed followers of the IAEA's indispensible Power Reactor Information System will note that the Indians have been building a series of 200MW reactors. According to the Switkowski report this design was "appropriated" from the Canadians in the late 1960s. You may recall that there are many issues with the proper separation between civilian and military nuclear endevours in India, and that India is not a signatory of the NPT. So I doubt we will be pursuing this avenue. Sadly the Canadians are now apparently building 1200MW reactors, there goes that number again.

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