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In the hullabaloo over the fluctuating fortunes of the Rafale fighter aircraft during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France, little attention has been given to the developments in the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project. Inked in 2010, the project inched forward during the state visit after the French nuclear concern, Areva, signed an agreement with the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and a memorandum of understanding with Larsen & Toubro related to the construction of the power plants. The JNPP is estimated to cost $18 billion and host six Generation III+ EPR reactors of 1,650 MW each. With a total power generation capacity of 9,900 MW when complete, Jaitapur will trump Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (8,200 MW) to become the world’s largest nuclear power plant.

The movement on Jaitapur signals that the logjam on the issue of nuclear liability has been resolved to the satisfaction of foreign nuclear vendors, however wasteful, self-defeating, and unnecessarily convoluted the idea of a nuclear suppliers’ insurance pool may be. The agreements signed between the Indian and the French sides will go towards resolving some of the difficulties in the negotiations so far. Areva has moved forward with a pre-engineering agreement with NPCIL that will allow India to assess and license the EPR reactor as per Indian laws and regulations. The commencement of the licensing procedure in parallel to the negotiations on cost, manufacturing, transfer of technology, and other matters will expedite the project when it comes time for the final agreement to be signed. Areva has also entered into an agreement with L&T to source heavy engineering components such as reactor pressure vessels and steam generators as well as electrical equipment, valves, and pipes. A technical team from Areva recently visited the L&T heavy forging facility at Hazira after which they developed confidence that these components could be manufactured in India. Progress between Areva and L&T will also reduce the lead time once construction starts full swing. Such localisation will not only lower costs but also enhance L&T’s existing capabilities. This is an important development which will give the company an edge in bidding for contracts in the 1,530 MW GE-Hitachi reactor complex planned for Srikakulam and the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Mithi Virdi. Furthermore, with the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation between India and Japan stalled, L&T’s expanded skill set will come very handy for the Indian nuclear industry.

Despite several reasons to be pleased with the progress on Jaitapur, one substantial question remain unanswered – that of the EPR reactor itself. Initially called the European Pressurised Reactor but then internationalised to Evolutionary Power Reactor and now finally just the ‘EPR,’ the reactor was jointly designed by Areva (then Framatome), Electricité de France, and Siemens AG. The design is substantially safer than most commercial power reactors that are presently operational in the world – it can withstand seismic disturbances and has the ability to tolerate a direct plane crash. Furthermore, it has 400 per cent redundancy in its safety and cooling systems as well as a core catcher in case of a meltdown. The reactor generates 15 per cent less long-life radioactive waste products and operates on several types of fuel – enriched uranium, mixed oxide fuel, and reprocessed uranium – and does so at a better efficiency than previous generation reactors. This makes the EPR cheaper to operate and maintain. What makes pressurised water reactors like the EPR attractive to India is that the country maintains a small fleet of CANDU reactors which can accommodate spent PWR fuel as its primary fuel in what is known as the DUPIC (Direct Use of PWR fuel In CANDU) fuel cycle with only physical reprocessing and skipping the more expensive chemical processes.

This bag of goodies, however, has a large question mark hanging over it – no one has managed to successfully construct and operate an EPR reactor yet. In fact, the tales of delay from construction sites around the world where EPRs are being erected – Olkiluoto, Flamanville, and Taishan – should deter anyone from choosing the French reactor. The projects in Finland and France are severely behind schedule and in China, Areva is concerned that safety procedures may not have been assiduously followed. One wonders if countries such as France that are synonymous with the success of nuclear power, advanced industrial states like Finland, and manufacturing powerhouses like China are struggling to build an EPR to safety standards, what chance does a novice in nuclear construction and lightweight in industrial manufacturing like India have to build the reactor on time and on specification?

None of the problems with the EPR construction have been due to faulty design. In fact, India can rest easier after the many lessons that have been learned from the other sites. There are none that cannot be overcome and most are fairly simple though with expensive consequences. At Olkiluoto, for example, trouble started with the pouring of concrete for the base slab itself. There were several non-conformities that came to the attention of the safety inspectors and eventually, the concrete batching plant itself had to be redesigned. The reasons for this, an investigation revealed, were manifold. First, there was no “appointed responsible manager at the site unambiguously in charge of the base slab fabrication, with authority to issue orders that are binding to all parties.” Second, the crew at different phases of fabrication did not have a common understanding of nuclear safety. Third, the concrete supplier was not made explicitly aware of the requirements of nuclear-grade concrete at the time of tender invitations. Four, the fabrication staff was not trained in special methods and quality standards required in manufacturing nuclear-grade concrete. Five, the problems observed in concreting operations were not always immediately addressed. Six, there was a communication problem on quality assurance, fabrication of material, and the design of the mix composition. Seven, in quality control, too much trust was placed on the responsible attitude of the parties in the elimination of the detected problems. In the manufacture of the steel container lining, the welds between the various steel plates were found wanting; repairs were conducted using unapproved methods for nuclear construction; segments had to be redesigned and rebuilt; due to lack of communication, the design modifications at one phase were not accounted for in the next phase and modifications had to be made in the next phase as well.

Similar but fewer problems were faced at Flamanville and fewer still at Taishan. This was because of the enormous amount of learning that happened at Olkiluoto. While the project is routinely cited as an example of a disaster in nuclear engineering by the media, safety inspectors and regulators at Areva, EDF, and STUK, the Finnish safety regulator, are actually proud of all that has been learned and how incident discovery and resolution occurred in a highly professional manner. Teollisuuden Voima Oyj, the Finnish nuclear consortium, was made painfully aware that the nuclear industry had lost a lot of talent since the 1970s and 1980s to retirement and stagnation. Thirty years ago, vendors were large and experienced firms that could design and manufacture almost all parts of the nuclear power process in-house. This obviated the need for subcontractors and quality assurance was unified and easier. A moribund industry saw vendors downsize and bleed talent to other sectors. As a result, the recent nuclear renaissance is built on the backs of dozens of subcontractors who are not trained to understand the higher standards demanded by nuclear construction. This makes quality assurance and a collective safety culture difficult to implement and enforce.

The loss of skill has affected nuclear vendors in more ways than just through unqualified subcontractors – mistakes are made in routine tasks even in-house. The work at the Flamanville plant, for example, was recently overhauled for concentrations of carbon above the regulatory limit in the steel of the reactor pressure vessel. While the larger vessel was forged by Japan Steel Works, probably the only forge in the world that can process the ingots required for the EPR, the smaller plates in which flaws have been found were made by Areva itself at its plant in Le Creusot.

Olkiluoto has taught Areva that the earlier the licensee, regulator, and contractor start talking to each other, the better. The project should be mapped out as much as possible before work begins and everyone should know how they fit into the larger picture. This handholding is required especially of new subcontractors who have little experience in nuclear work and do not understand how modifications they might make can have severe consequences downstream. Furthermore, advanced construction and manufacturing techniques are difficult to perform if not regularly practiced. Areva should have ensured that the subcontractors understood the higher degree of workmanship that would be required of them before hiring them for the Oilkiluoto project. When working with such an inexperienced crew, Areva should have also been realistic about the time estimated to complete each stage of the project.

Some of these lessons have already been incorporated. At Taishan, for example, 50 per cent of the management and engineering staff and 90 per cent of the procurement officials from Areva’s side were Olkiluoto and Flamanville veterans. The site has had the least problems or delays as a result. Applying these lessons to Jaitapur will certainly ensure that the project does not run into interminable delays. The cooperation between L&T and Areva is good news but India also suffers from a small pool of relatively inexperienced nuclear contractors. The price for nuclear stagnation world over has been steep and to avoid paying it now would only make it steeper in the future.

The processes for manufacturing, construction, procurement of mechanical components, and quality and safety standards must be set in stone before work commences if India is to avoid another Olkiluoto. In an era where financing costs are higher than material costs, delays could wreck a project’s viability. At a time when India needs to be talking about hundreds of nuclear reactors and not dozens, a misstep like Olkiluoto or even Flamanville could grievously damage the reputation of the fledgling nuclear industry as well as the technology itself. India’s operator, regulator, and contractors must be vigilant, especially since a reactor of this type is yet to be successfully built.

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