United States and Russia moving forward on a civilian nuclear agreement

Russia and the United States have signed a civilian nuclear agreement which still has to pass the US House, Senate and the Russian parliament. In other nuclear news, there is progress on unblocking supply chain bottlenecks for building more nuclear reactors.

The U.S. is especially interested in developments in areas including fast-neutron reactors and recycling nuclear fuel. The Russians have one operating fast-neutron reactor (BN-600, since the 1980’s) and are completing a second BN-800.

The deal could also help Russia in its efforts to establish an international nuclear fuel storage facility by importing and storing spent fuel. It cannot achieve that goal without signing the deal, since the U.S. controls the vast majority of the world’s nuclear fuel.

The fuel storage plans have caused outrage among environmentalists and ordinary Russians, who fear that such a project would turn the country into the world’s nuclear dump. Russian officials would have to overcome those objections to go ahead with the plans.

Kiriyenko, meanwhile, insisted that the deal does not mean Russia would be importing nuclear fuel: “Russia is not importing and will not import nuclear fuel,” he said.

Background on nuclear issues in regards to Russia

National Academy of Sciences (300+ page 2005 report) An International Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility — Exploring a Russian Site as a Prototype: Proceedings of an International Workshop

Toronto Star discusses the steel forgings needed for nuclear reactors: France’s Areva NP and U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC are closely monitoring the forgings bottleneck and working quickly to ease the crunch.

Armand Laferrere, president of Areva Canada Ltd., said its parent company purchased France’s Sfarsteel in 2006 to give it more control.

“This gave us in-house capacity for forgings manufacturing,” said Laferrere. “We are still dependent on Japan Steel for one forging per reactor but can manufacture all others.”

Westinghouse appears most dependent on Japan Steel. It needs 23 forgings in total for each of its next-generation reactors.

“Of these, we believe 10 to 15 could be purchased from suppliers other than JSW,” said spokesperson Gilbert Vaughn. “We are currently evaluating potential suppliers for these forgings.”

There’s also hope that market forces will ease the supply-demand crunch.

Other makers of large forgings, including South Korean’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Co. and Japan Casting & Forgings Corp., are spending big to expand their capacity.

“Doosan will have the capability to make all of (our required) 23 forgings in late 2009 or 2010,” said Vaughn.

China First Heavy Industries Company Ltd. recently said it is investing $2.3 billion to increase its capacity to supply 600 tonne ingots for ultra-large forgings.

Even the British are getting into the game. Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd. said last month it will seeking financing to build a massive press for ultra-large forging – by 2011 it is hoped.

Peter Birtles, group director of Sheffield, told industry publication Nucleonics Week that the potential ultra-large forgings shortfall is “so enormous” that many are rushing to bridge the gap.

But it won’t happen overnight. The question is whether the provincial government will put its faith in the market by choosing Areva or Westinghouse.

Or, alternatively, will it give AECL another shot in Ontario and avoid a bottleneck that could cause major delays on a project in which being on time is perhaps more critical than being on budget.

Bloomberg news also has coverage of the steel forging market.

Each year the Tokyo-based company can turn out just four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor. Even after it doubles capacity in the next two years, there won’t be enough production to meet building plans. Japan Steel caters to all nuclear reactor makers except in Russia, which makes its own heavy forgings. Plus Canada’s CANDU reactor do not need these forgings. Areva, the world’s biggest reactor builder, is considering modifying its newest design to be able to make the central reactor-vessel part from a 350-ton ingot instead of more than 500 tons as required today. Another alternative is to turn back the technological clock and weld together two smaller forgings, said John Fees, CEO of McDermott International Inc.’s Babcock & Wilcox Co., which built the Three Mile Island reactor. That technique was used over the past 40 years in the U.S. and France and is still applied in China.

Canada’s Atomic Energy company couldn’t find a Canadian manufacturer that could produce such large forgings, so they came up with an entirely different design that uses hundreds of six-metre long pressure tubes, each holding 13 fuel bundles that run horizontally through the reactor core.

Not only are the pressure tubes easier to make, they already come from more than one supplier, said Coffin. Candu reactors do need large forgings for steam generators, but they don’t have to be as thick and there are other steel makers that can supply them. Japan Steel, for example, is currently equipped to supply only five reactor forging sets each year, with each set including an ultra-large forging. These forged parts, made from steel ingots weighing up to 600 tonnes, – equivalent to 100 African elephants – have 30-centimetre-thick steel walls able to withstand the immense pressures inside a nuclear reactor’s core. Adding more uncertainty is the fact Japan Steel also makes large forgings for industrial components in petrochemical plants and fossil-fuelled power plants, so its attention is divided.