Back in mid-December, the Asian press was abuzz with rumours that two of the major players in South Korea’s recently de-regulated power industry—KEPCO and KHNP—consider themselves serious contenders to sell nuclear reactors to Ontario. If this were to pan out, it would represent South Korea’s first foreign reactor sale. It would also be Ontario’s, and Canada’s, first light-water reactor.
If the rumours are true—and why wouldn’t they be, since the Koreans are also expected to offer reactors to Turkey, in competition with five other vendors including AECL—it adds a new dynamic to the North American nuclear scene. South Korea’s power reactor fleet is one-fifth CANDU and four-fifths light water, while CANDUs make up nearly 17 percent of the North American fleet. The isotopic content of spent light-water fuel makes it suitable for use in CANDUs; this is the whole idea of DUPIC.
Could DUPIC, or something similar, be a solution to the spent fuel disposal problem in the U.S.? South Korea is an ideal place to test answers to this question, and in collaboration with the U.S. and Canada, the Koreans have been studying it in detail for over a decade.
Which means their dreams of foreign sales may also involve the U.S., though they might not necessarily be thinking of light water reactors. Other competitors may have the inside track to the U.S. reactor market, but the Koreans, with their working-level experience with DUPIC, may have an ace in the hole. Their nuclear research organization, KAERI, spent a lot of time trying to convince KHNP to implement DUPIC in its fleet. (Apparently, de-regulation did not apply to the websites of KEPCO, KHNP, and KAERI.)
While KHNP recently decided not to pursue DUPIC because of the fuel fabrication costs (which, according to a Korean study, are $616 per kilogram), the Koreans’ experience with DUPIC over the past decade could prove invaluable in the U.S.
The current cost of direct disposal of spent fuel in the U.S. is about $551 per kilogram, according to Congressional Budget Office testimony to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last November. This makes DUPIC about 11 percent more expensive than direct disposal. Cost estimates for the reprocessing scheme currently envisioned in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which would use fast-neutron reactors to destroy chemically- or thermally-isolated elements in spent fuel, range from six percent to well over 100 percent over the cost of direct disposal.
So what will the GNEP’s fast-burners cost? In his testimony to the same committee, Matthew Bunn criticized the six percent estimate for assuming that the proposed fast burners would operate at capacity through their lives, and that their costs could be contained enough to make their power attractive in a competitive market. Both assumptions, he says, are dubious. The CBO thinks the fast burner option would cost at least 25 percent more.
With this kind of uncertainty, policymakers might be more willing to look at a process whose characteristics are better known. A U.S. official told Platts in 2006 that DUPIC could cut in half the number of fast reactors required under GNEP.