ROK-ing the nuclear world: is Ontario the first stop for new act’s North American tour?

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.

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15 years ago

I would be interested to know how you propose to add noble gas capture to any GNP reprocessing plants in the US? Capture and containment is the law and we are still waiting to see a DOE technical and cost proposal on that one. Also, could someone please explain in detail any private funding proposed for GNEP? All I see is one massive US government subsidy in which the plutonium boosters see a cash cow ready for the milking. Prediction is that Wall Street isn’t going to put up one cent and, unlike in all other reprocessing countries, taxpayers in the US aren’t going to “moo” for this boondoggle.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Private funding for GNEP? Good question. That’s why the fast-burner GNEP will, for the foreseeable future, be a research initiative more than anything else. NRC anticipates 32 applications for licenses in the next while, and ten bucks — no, make that twenty, Canadian — says none will have anything to do with reprocessing.

Nobody can lay out a case for making money by selling fast-burner-generated power because there are too many technical uncertainties all through the cycle. My point is that the $616/kg for DUPIC might be a good estimate. Unlike current fast burners, all of the post-Pickering CANDUs are cranking out reliable power. How to cover the 11 percent gap? Slapping a cost on carbon and allowing cross-sector emission-permit trading might be a start.

15 years ago

Good analysis. I’ve cited your work added some additional thoughts.

[…] makes it more proliferation-resistant, and less costly, than the methods proposed under GNEP (see article). The commercial potential is staggering. Best of all, Canada would lead the way in strengthening […]