An Early Nuclear-Free Homeland

A fire drill at Taiwan's Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant (NPP3) in southern Taiwan. (Photo: CNA)

With both nuclear power plants in northern Taiwan soon to shut down, a significant gap in power supply is looming.

This is part Two of a three-part story on Taiwan’s energy situation:

Taiwan will get an early introduction to the dream of a “Nuclear-free Homeland” this summer when two-thirds of its nuclear power plants will be offline, years ahead of schedule. The cooling pools at both the Jinshan nuclear power plant (NPP1) and Kuosheng (NPP2) are nearly filled to capacity with spent fuel rods. Without capacity to store spent fuel, the nuclear reactors cannot be refueled and must stop operating.

Kuosheng, whose two units were not set to be retired until 2021-2023, will be shuttered as early as November 20, when the fuel rods must be changed for a new cycle. Taipower has submitted a plan to the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to convert the loading pools – normally used only during the replacement of spent fuel with fresh fuel – into temporary spent-fuel storage. The AEC has been reviewing the plan for the past three months and will likely need another three months to make its final assessment, according to Yeh Tsung-kuang, a professor of nuclear engineering at National Tsing Hua University and a consultant to Taipower on the project. Yeh is confident that the plan will be accepted, but notes that actually converting the loading pools into spent-fuel storage will require nearly a year of construction, during which time the Kuosheng plant will need to be offline.

Jinshan will be in the same situation soon afterward, according to the AEC website, which notes that the Jinshan plant’s cooling pools will be full and the plant out of operation by May 15, 2017. The Jinshan plant’s two reactors are not scheduled for retirement until 2018-2019.

The closure of the two plants before the peak season next year will potentially result in another summer of stressed reserve margins and possible energy shortages. Rising demand without any increase in energy supply has resulted in close shaves with power shortages over the past two summers. Several times electricity consumption came within less than 2% of operating reserves. Most notably, last May 31 it came within just 1.64%.

Taiwan’s high-tech industrial users say that power outages of even seconds can be devastating to their production lines, and an outage lasting more than a few hours can set them back for weeks because of the need to recalibrate sensitive equipment. To stave off power shortages, last summer Taipower was forced to pay heavy users as much as NT$10/kWh for power they voluntarily refrained from using. Taipower also switched on emergency generating equipment at the nuclear power plants to increase the total power generation, according to Yeh.

“During the summertime, with four units not running and electricity demand becoming higher and higher, next year will be a tough time for the people of Taiwan,” says Yeh.

Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in South Bay, Hengchun, Pingtung Photo by: M. Weitzel
Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in South Bay, Hengchun, Pingtung
Photo by: M. Weitzel

 

To bridge the gap in supply, Taipower is planning to import two portable natural-gas fired power plants, used in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, from Japan’s Tokyo Electric Co. (TEPCO). The cost of obtaining the two generators, which reportedly will be brought in on barges, is said to be NT$9 billion, while generating costs will run to NT$8.78/kWh. That compares to the average retail price in Taiwan of NT$2.8/kWh and Taipower’s cost of NT$1.09/kWh for generating power from nuclear plants. Further, insiders in the LNG industry note that during peak summer months, Taiwan’s LNG terminals – and especially its pipeline network – generally already operate at full capacity, raising questions as to whether there will be sufficient LNG supply for these portable power plants.

Cooling pools are intended to provide temporary storage for spent fuel waste for a period of up to five years, allowing the spent fuel rods to cool down sufficiently before being transferred to interim storage, usually in dry casks. As Mayor Eric Chu of New Taipei City, where both the Jinshan and Kuosheng plants are located, has banned the use of dry cask storage within city limits, however, interim storage has never been utilized. For the past three-plus decades, all of the power plants’ spent fuel has been stored in the cooling pools.

A proposal in 2015 to send 1,200 spent fuel bundles abroad for reprocessing similarly came to naught. The idea was abandoned in June last year, after anti-nuclear politicians objected that it was designed to prolong the use of nuclear power in Taiwan. Others complained that the NT$11.17 billion (US$356.4 million) budget was too high.

Along with the Maanshan facility (NPP3) in Pingtung County, the Jinshan and Kuosheng power plants generated some 16% of Taiwan’s total power in 2015, a number that has declined in recent years as nuclear reactors have been shut down and not restarted. Maanshan, the last of Taiwan’s nuclear plants to be built (its two units were commissioned in 1984 and 1985), is unlikely to run out of storage capacity in its cooling pools before its scheduled retirement in 2024-2025, after which Taiwan will be nuclear-free.

The Jinshan plant consists of twin 636MW units, but the Jinshan-1 reactor has been offline since December 2014 when a broken connecting bolt was discovered on a fuel assembly rod delivered by French multinational Areva. The fuel assembly was subsequently repaired to the AEC’s satisfaction, but the AEC has left the decision on restarting the reactor to the Legislative Yuan. As the legislature never took up the issue, the reactor has remained idle ever since.

Were the reactor to be restarted, there would be enough capacity in its cooling pool to run the plant for another 450 days, according to the AEC website. Premier Lin Chuan floated the idea of restarting Jinshan-1 early this past summer when power shortages seemed imminent, but he beat a hasty retreat in the face of an anti-nuclear public outcry.

Hengchun Taiwan Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant Photo by: Uwe Aranas
Hengchun Taiwan Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant
Photo by: Uwe Aranas

Kuosheng is comprised of two 985MW reactors, but Kuosheng-2 has also been offline for several months. Last May 16, after the plant was shut down for a month of routine maintenance, a fire broke out on the power generator’s lightning conductor, according to Yeh. When the fire caused a circuit breaker to trip, the operator manually shut down the reactor after it had powered up to only 16% of capacity. Kuosheng-2 has also been repaired to the AEC’s satisfaction, but it too seems unlikely ever to be restarted. The AEC says the unit has enough remaining cooling pool capacity to operate for another 390 days.

The loading pool conversion would include the installation of radiation-absorbing panels and enhanced cooling systems to handle prolonged storage of spent fuel. The conversion would be confined to Kuosheng-1 (each reactor has its own cooling and loading pools) and clear enough space to handle two fuel cycles, or three years of operation – which would still fall short of the original retirement date of December 2021.

Further, if the precedents established by the shutdowns of Jinshan-1 and Kuosheng-2 holds, the distinct possibility exists that the Kuosheng-1 reactor will never be restarted, even if the loading pool is successfully converted. Although Kuosheng-1 was taken offline for waste storage capacity expansion rather than because of incidents like the other two reactors, the passion surrounding nuclear energy in Taiwan is such that this distinction might not mean much to anti-nuclear legislators.

The loss of four out of six reactors would leave a 9% hole in Taiwan’s total power generation. Crucially, this loss would be in baseload power – power that is cheap, reliable, and always on. The government has stated that the portable natural-gas generators on order will be used only to meet peaks in demand, but that leaves open the question of how the 9% gap in baseload will be covered.

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