Struggling French engineering and construction management company AREVA said Tuesday that it had reached a significant milestone at the European Pressurized Reactor project in Olkiluoto, Finland, with the start of cold, functional testing for the long-delayed reactor.
Cold, functional tests involve putting the Main Primary System of the plant – systems that include the reactor coolant pumps – through a series of tests of increasing pressure levels. Regulatory technicians and AREVA-Siemens technicians are looking at the overall “tightness” of the system, while, at the same time, getting a look at some of the control functions of the plant’s nuclear island, the company said.
Moreover, the test is a run-up to the hot functional tests (HFT), which are expected in the fourth quarter of 2017. The HFT process involves similar tests under humid conditions, which leads up to fuel loading and a series of operational tests at minimal nuclear power, building up to 100 percent capacity. Once a new reactor can maintain 100 percent of the power for about four weeks, it is ready to switch from testing to commercial operations.
Despite delays – the reactor was initially expected to go commercial in 2009 – construction of the reactor, known as Olkiluoto Unit 3, is the most advanced of four EPR projects underway. An EPR reactor in Flamanville, France, is expected to begin operations in late 2018, while two reactors in China, Taishan Units 1 and 2, are also nearing completion with a start-up of Unit 1 close behind the Olkiluoto 3 project.
The projects in China are on a much more efficient timetable. Work at Taishan Unit 1 began in 2009. Work on the Flamanville unit was started in 2007.
The Olkiluoto unit has suffered the most delays with high budget overruns that go with that. The new Finnish reactor was first expected to cost about $4 billion. That price tag has more than doubled with the most recent estimates for what will be the country’s fifth nuclear reactor, is estimated at $9.53 billion.
Despite the delays and cost overruns, nuclear power remains popular in Finland with 70 percent of the country in favor of the power source that currently meets about a third of the country’s electricity demand.
Around the world, however, sentiment over nuclear power remains controversial and shifting. The most prominent factor first emerged with a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the shore of eastern Japan, which triggered a tsunami event that knocked out the backup power needed to keep the six-unit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Generating Station reactors cool. The ensuing incident involved a meltdown of three of that plant’s reactors, easily the worst nuclear power accident since the explosion at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in April 1986.
Coupled with the skyrocketing acceptance of much cheaper solar and wind power and the plummeting cost of natural gas and nuclear power has been losing ground while the rest of the world’s energy markets are changing.
Delays and cost overruns at projects like Olkiluoto have not helped the nuclear power industry, either. What’s the point in building a dangerous nuclear power plant if it costs billions and won’t be ready for a decade or more – longer counting regulatory hurdles a project faces – when a solar facility or wind farm can be erected within a year, costing far less and producing power in far less time?
The Olkiluoto Unit 3 was expected to be the model of safety and efficiency, proving the case for continued construction of large nuclear power plants. Instead, AREVA has lost billions of dollars on EPR projects and expected to sell AREVA NP, it’s nuclear division, to French Utility Electricite de France by the end of the year to rescue the company.
Meanwhile, Germany, Sweden, Japan and most recently South Korea have plans to cut back severely or eliminate any involvement with nuclear power. Olkiluoto looks modern and new, but the concept now seems like an anachronism, out of synch with recent times.