Competition to build UAE's first nuclear reactors

Analysis: The massive contract, due to be awarded on Sept 16, is described as one of the biggest opportunities in the global nuclear market

The Electricite de France, or EDF, Cattenom nuclear power plant operates near Cattenom, France, on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008. The plant spilled water with a higher-than-allowed concentration of iron into the Moselle river in northeast France last year, EDF said. Photographer: Wolfgang von Brauchitsch/Bloomberg News
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"It's going to be a very long summer," says an executive of one of the companies short-listed for a contract to build the UAE's first nuclear reactors.
The massive contract, due to be awarded on Sept 16, is described as one of the biggest opportunities in the global nuclear market, as it is likely to be the first in a series to build a fleet of reactors worth tens of billions of dollars over the next two decades.
A tight three-way race has emerged among consortiums of firms from four countries. The bidding process is confidential, but industry sources say Korea Electric Power Company is heading one group of bidders, while the French have submitted a bid through an influential combination of Areva, GDF Suez, Total and Électricité de France. Sources declined to discuss the composition of the third consortium, a combination of a US and a Japanese firm, but MEED, a London-based business publication, reported earlier this month that it is a partnership of General Electric and Hitachi. The other possible Japanese-US combinations include Toshiba with GE technology, and Mitsubishi with Westinghouse technology.
"The choice is not about politics," a government source says. "We are looking at what is best from a technical, commercial and partnership perspective. We want competitive tension between the teams to ensure quality in terms of design and people."
The Government is considering two classes of reactor design: "Generation III+" reactors, examples of which are under construction but not yet in operation, and "Generation III" models, which have been built in Asia over the past two decades.
The designs on the table are additionally split into two broad technical categories: boiling water reactors (BWRs), offered by GE-Hitachi or GE-Toshiba, and pressurised water reactors (PWRs), sold by the French, Koreans and Mitsubishi.
In a boiling water reactor, water fed through the reactor is heated into steam and directly powers a generating turbine, while in a pressurised water reactor the water that passes through the reactor is kept in a liquid state under very high pressure in a closed loop. The pressurised water warms a second loop of water into steam for the turbine through a conductive metal wall called a heat exchanger.
None of the designs requires the use of enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons, and the companies say all the models are equipped with a number of safety features to make a meltdown or explosion highly unlikely.
The cost of the designs is likely to be highly contentious and difficult to predict, judging by recent experiences with the construction of reactors, according to experts.
As a yardstick, the industry uses the "overnight cost", which refers to the cost of the reactor and an initial supply of fuel divided by the number of kilowatts of power-generating capacity. It does not include the cost of loans or other financing. The World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry group funded by nuclear companies, quotes overnight figures for the French design and the most advanced Korean model as US$2,900 (Dh10,650) per kilowatt (kw) and $1,840 per kw, respectively. It quotes an estimate of about $3,000 per kw for the two GE-Hitachi models under consideration.
But Ian Hore-Lacy, the director of public communication for the WNA, cautions against making comparisons between the different cost estimates, since companies include different items in their estimates.
A number of experts say the final cost of building a reactor today could well be more than double the stated overnight costs. Steve Thomas, a professor of energy studies at the University of Greenwich in the UK and a frequent critic of the industry's cost estimates, points to sharply increased estimates for projects in Finland, France and the US as examples of how modern nuclear reactors are far more expensive than the initial price tag.
"It's bewildering why they're so high," he says. "My guess is that the reasons estimated costs have gone up five-fold in only a decade are skills shortages, shortages of manufacturing capacity, but most important, the fact that utilities are doing the job more seriously now because they know that if they get it wrong, it will be their money at risk."
Mr Thomas's advice is for the UAE to "wait until someone else has built a few of these things".
However, the Federal Government, eyeing the rapid rate of increase in electricity demand across the country, has indicated that it wants a reactor operating in as little as eight years, leaving no time for delay.
It will need to weigh the pros and cons of each choice carefully.
The bid from an alliance of Japanese and US companies received an important boost on May 20 when Barack Obama, the US president, approved an agreement to allow the sale of American technology to the UAE.
The partnership between GE and Hitachi was formed in 2006 after orders were placed in Japan for a number of advanced boiling water reactors (ABWRs), the design offered by GE. The ABWR generates between 1,350 and 1,460 megawatts of power and has been operating in Japan since 1996. A second line of ABWRs has been built in the country by Toshiba, also using GE technology. This reactor design has momentum on its side: GE says that the ABWR is the only type of Generation III reactor in operation, and it is safer and cheaper than previous BWR models. But UAE officials have emphasised that they want to build the most modern reactor possible, and by the time an ABWR reactor was constructed, the technology would be 30 years old.
GE Hitachi is also offering an updated version of the reactor, the so-called "economic simplified boiling water reactor" (ESBWR), which is designed with fewer mechanical parts to make it safer and more cost-effective. The ESBWR would represent a significant advance in reactor technology, but some customers in the US believe it could be a step too far.
American utilities initially expressed interest in building six of the reactors, but in recent months, two have asked the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend consideration of their proposals for four ESBWRs.
Exelon Nuclear, which was considering two of the reactors for a site in Texas, said it would look to other designs after its proposal failed to gain priority for government financial aid "because of the uncertainty of the ESBWR design", according to Reuters.
A second option from Japan is the advanced pressurised water reactor, developed by Mitsubishi with Westinghouse technology. Two units are at an early stage of construction in Japan.
South Korea is a relative newcomer to the international market for nuclear reactors, but a building spree of Korean PWRs based on a US design has produced plants at some of the lowest costs to date. South Korea operates 20 commercial reactors and has started construction or is in the advanced stages of planning for eight more, including two Generation III+ models. The reactor is called the APR-1400, and is based on an American design but will soon be built solely with Korean components. The reactors under construction are estimated to cost $6.3 billion, according to the WNA. That works out to $2,333 per kw. The Koreans have also offered to export an older design, called the OPR-1000, which is already operating in South Korea.
But South Korea is also the biggest unknown of the three potential suppliers to the UAE, since none of its designs has been built abroad, giving little clue to how quickly and cost-effectively they could be established here. The Korean design has also never been evaluated by any regulatory body outside its home country, Mr Thomas said, which will present special challenges to the UAE, where the regulatory structure for the nascent nuclear power industry has just been created under the stewardship of a former top official at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"It may be a good design but it has never been through a proven and strict regulatory process," Mr Thomas said. "Given the UAE has no regulatory body worth talking about and no experience at all, it needs as much support as it can get and that means a design fully evaluated in the US or a country with equivalent credibility."
The French have been confident of a victory in the UAE nuclear race since January last year, when they prematurely said they had been selected to build two European pressurised reactors (EPRs) in Abu Dhabi, to the consternation of officials in the UAE. The consortium of Areva, Total and GDF Suez received an additional boost last week when French officials said Électricité de France, the French utility, had joined the group. Experts say the consortium has many reasons to be confident.
"The EPR represents the peak of European design and it's evolved from the best of the European reactors now operating," Mr Hore-Lacy said.
However, the first two experiences with the reactor, in Finland and France, could undermine the group's bid. In Finland, the Olkiluoto EPR is years behind schedule and several billion dollars over budget. Faulty cement and steelwork at the plant forced Areva and Siemens, the partner in the project, to rebuild parts of the basic structure. The companies blamed the Finnish regulator, while the Finns blamed the companies. The result was that the estimated price for the reactor increased by 50 per cent, to about $4,000 per kw today, according to Mr Thomas's estimate. In France, the cost of the Flamanville reactor is now at ?4 billion (Dh20.79bn), which works out to $3,177 per kw. The cost could easily increase further, since construction is still far from complete.
cstanton@thenational.ae