As little as 10 years ago, conventional wisdom held that nuclear power generation had peaked in terms of the number of working reactors and their share of power generated in proportion to conventional fossil fueled power generation. Part of the reason for this was an onerous licensing process that made new nuclear power plant construction just too expensive compared to that of a conventional power plant. Moreover, even putting aside the time and cost considerations, public perception of nuclear power as unsafe and potentially explosive (even though it is technically impossible for a nuclear reactor to explode as if it were a nuclear bomb), rendered any prospect of new nuclear plant construction a non-starter.
Times change. Advancements in nuclear power plant technology that have made it safer and more cost-efficient, coupled with rising fuel prices and concern over dependency on foreign supply sources, have made nuclear power production, somewhat ironically given past environmental concerns, a “green” energy alternative. Indeed, according to Ohio University’s College of Engineering Graduate Programs, “These are very exciting and challenging times in the nuclear power industry. In response to the emerging crisis of an energy deficit associated with the global environmental impact from greenhouse gases and limits on petroleum availability, operating plants are being granted power uprates and life extensions, new reactor designs are obtaining regulatory certification, new site permits are being granted, a large number of new plant orders are expected over the next few years, and changes in the fuel cycle are being developed that will dramatically reduce the quantity of radioactive waste that will require long-term disposal.”
Bill Burns, president of PaR Nuclear, a Westinghouse Electric subsidiary that supplies material handling equipment to the nuclear power industry, says he is already seeing signs of what is being termed “a nuclear renaissance.” While the prospect of new nuclear power plant construction in the United States may still be in the preliminary stages, Burns points out, “It’s already happening in China, which currently has construction under way for new reactors for which we will be supplying product. We project that the potential market for new reactors in China is 70 units. In the U.S., the expectation is there will be 28 new reactors by 2030.”
Indeed, Shoreview, Minn.-headquartered PaR Nuclear is sufficiently optimistic about new prospects that it recently formed a new joint venture, NuCrane Manufacturing, to supply specialized cranes for the next generation of nuclear reactors. The name is both a play on “nuclear” and the spelling of the company’s owner. PaR Nuclear holds 70-percent ownership in partnering with custom contract manufacturer Hutchinson Manufacturing, Inc. (HMI). The new venture is located at HMI’s 120,000- square-foot plant in Hutchinson, Minn. and is expected to create at least 50 new jobs.
“The joint venture combines synergies between the two companies to achieve a dedicated manufacturing capability for a specific product, a polar lifting crane that can fully rotate 360 degrees within the Westinghouse AP1000™ nuclear reactor building,” Burns says. “This crane complies with all nuclear safety standards, is made from a million pounds of steel, is about 60 feet long with a lifting capacity of 250 to 300 tons. We intend to have the first crane in place on site in spring of 2011. Additional cranes ordered to support the AP1000 will follow the same design. However, as the design is more or less one-of-a-kind, there isn’t much prospect for any batch kind of manufacturing. Each crane has to be built as ordered and is a complicated piece of equipment for a unique use, which is why it’ll take about a year to deliver.”
The AP1000 is a pressurized water reactor that is the only Generation III+ reactor to receive design certification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It features a smaller, simpler plant design that requires less equipment, with lower operating and maintenance requirements and, hence, lower capital expense and long-term operational costs over previous technologies. Westinghouse has announced agreements with Progress Energy Florida, a subsidiary of Progress Energy, to provide two AP1000 nuclear power units at its Levy County, Fla. Site to be operational by 2016. In addition, Westinghouse earlier in 2008 signed contracts with Georgia Power to provide two AP1000 power plants at the Alvin W. Vogtle site near Waynesboro, Ga., and the other with South Carolina Electric & Gas Company (SCE&G), principal subsidiary of SCANA Corporation and Santee Cooper to provide two AP1000 units at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. According to a company press release, no other contracts to provide new nuclear power plants in the United States had been signed since before 1978. In July 2007, Westinghouse signed contracts to provide four AP1000s in China, where initial construction is now underway.
Westinghouse technology is currently in use in about half of the world’s current operating nuclear plants, and about 60 percent of those in the United States. As a Westinghouse subsidiary, this provides a significant advantage to PaR Nuclear. “We’re a well-recognized company in a narrow niche industry supplying products that support a larger product made by our parent company. That makes marketing and sales somewhat easier and simpler for us,” Burns says. Consequently, PaR Nuclear enjoys a large share and leadership position in supplying the specialized fuel handling and crane equipment to the current installed based of nuclear power plants.
The company began in 1961 as Programmed and Remote (eventually shortened to PaR) Systems, a spin-off of from General Mills by a group of four engineers and public investors. The company specialized in electro-mechanical manipulators, manual manipulators, and nuclear fuel-handling equipment. PaR provided the first large-scale fuel handling system and as the nuclear power industry grew, became a primary supplier. In 2003, PaR acquired Ederer, LLC, a manufacturer of special-purpose cranes designed specifically for use in commercial nuclear power plants.
PaR had worked with Westinghouse since the 1970s, and virtually all of its facilities foreign and domestic nuclear power plants had PaR fuel-handling equipment installed in them. In 2004, Westinghouse acquired the nuclear part of the business and PaR Systems and spun off its non-nuclear products into a separate dedicated business unit.
Even without new developments in the nuclear power industry, PaR Nuclear is firmly entrenched in providing fuel handling equipment and outage critical cranes for both boiling water reactors (BWR) and pressurized water reactors (PWR) used in existing nuclear power plants, as well as modernizations to facilitate the safe, reliable and efficient movement of fuel. These refueling machines are used primarily to load and off-load fuel from the reactor vessel and comprise a bridge and trolley structure, hoist, mast and often an auxiliary hoist. The machine is PLC (program logic controlled) and computer-controlled by an ergonomic touch-screen interface.
Related to this are transfer systems that transport fuel assemblies between the reactor vessel and the spent fuel pool in most PWR plants and some BWR plants. PaR Nuclear’s standard upender design uses a hydraulic center pivot upender to transition fuel assemblies between horizontal and vertical positions. PaR Nuclear also retrofits controls and drive systems for both center pivot and end pivot designs. Other products include spent fuel-handling machines that interface with the transfer system and new fuel elevators that move fuel assemblies within the fuel building.
PaR Nuclear supplies all types and sizes of cranes, with particular expertise and experience in outage-critical cranes. The performance of the crane is critical to the success of the outage, the term used for when a plant shuts down to refuel.
As existing nuclear plants progressively reduce refueling outage durations, crane performance increasingly affects critical-path outage time. In addition, in response to the aging of the existing nuclear fleet, PaR Nuclear provides upgrades that modernize and improve crane performance to achieve higher levels of safety, speed and reliability.
The company currently employs approximately 200 people in the Shoreview, Minn., area, where it maintains 54,000 square feet of manufacturing space. In addition, the company shares crane making capabilities and a team of 17 crane experts with sister company Ederer Nuclear, located in Lynnwood, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. “It’s a good synergy for us, as this facility is a number one manufacturer of specialized cranes. One example is work we have done as a supplier to NASA. We designed the crane that’s used in the space shuttle launches,” Burns says.
He adds, “We also expect similar synergies with our NuCrane partnership with HMI to provide additional capabilities to deliver modifications and replacements to our current nuclear fleet, in addition to the crane construction specifically for the AP1000.”
When it comes to the safe, reliable and efficient movement of fuel and fuel-related equipment in both today’s and tomorrow’s commercial nuclear power plants around the world, the nuclear power industry has come to rely on PaR for the course of its vital power generation activities.