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Trend favors pressurized over boiling water nuclear reactors: industry

By William Freebairn and Oliver Adelman

June 09, 2014 - The global nuclear fleet is tilting toward increased dominance by pressurized water reactors, as countries favoring that technology build aggressively while only a handful of boiling water reactors are scheduled to be built in the next 10 years.

The relative decline in the number of new boiling water reactors is not related to technical issues and only has an indirect connection to the Fukushima nuclear accident, which resulted in core melting at three first-generation BWR units, nuclear industry officials said.

Instead, they said it appears that commercial factors -- including the larger numbers of PWR vendors and decisions by those vendors to transfer technology -- have fueled the success of the technology.

One of the biggest factors is the decision by China, which has the fastest-growing nuclear fleet, to select PWR designs as the main focus of its aggressive program to expand nuclear generation.

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A forecast by Ux Consulting, a global nuclear energy and fuel consulting group, shows that between 2009and 2020, 84% of the new units being built would be PWRs, while only 3% would be BWRs. The remaining 13% are a mix of heavy water and fast reactors.

Of the world's 434 power reactors, 63% are PWRs and about 19% are BWRs,the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a survey of operating and planned reactors released May 30. Of the 69.4 GW of new nuclear capacity IAEA lists as being under construction, only 3.9 GW -- just 5.6% -- will come from BWRs.

The trend extends to units on the drawing boards as well, IAEA said. Of 88 units that are planned, which IAEA defines as having submitted a construction permit application but not started construction, about 10% are BWRs.

"The reality is that it appears to me that the pressurized reactors have a definite advantage, especially after Fukushima," with buyers increasingly focusing on reactor designs that incorporate additional passive safety measures and are already under construction somewhere, Nils Diaz, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a recent interview.

There is no inherent safety concern with BWRs, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked at a US BWR and is current head of the nuclear safety project of the Union of Concerned Scientists. BWRs boil water using nuclear fission and send the steam from that process through a turbine to generate electricity; PWRs operate under higher pressure and the water heated by fission is sent through steam generators which in turn make steam for power generation.

"While Fukushima kind of made it hard to market BWRs, had any reactor type been at that site, [it] probably would have fared the same," he said in an interview.

Next page: Fukushima disaster speeds move away from BWRs

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