Dan Yurman summarises the regulatory, academic and press coverage of serious delays to South Korean nuclear reactors being built for the UAE. According to reports, these were caused by having to replace substandard components in reactors located in both South Korea and those planned for the UAE. There are problems with staff training too. South Korea recently completed the US NRC safety review process for its 1400 MW design. But the author asks whether this situation will affect South Korea’s ability to win new export work.
Delays in the startup of the first of four South Korean 1400 MW PWR type nuclear reactors being built for the Emirates Nuclear Energy Program in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have cascaded forward affecting the next three due to a combination of safety issues and quality assurance problems with components and systems.
The first unit was scheduled to begin the process of fuel loading and startup in 2018. However, that milestone has now been pushed back to late 2019 or early 2020. This is the second significant delay in startup of the first of four reactors being built at the site. A report published in MIT Technology Review in late April describes some of the nuclear plant issues.
These issues are not new. The New York Times (NYT) first reported the problems in 2013 with construction of three nuclear plants in South Korea in 2013. At the core of the issue are fabricated safety certificates for parts shipped to nuclear reactors under construction in South Korea and bribes paid by supplier chain firms to nuclear construction managers to accept the substandard components.
According to the NYT report, counterfeit parts, cables and possibly other components sidelined construction and startup of a key South Korean nuclear reactor in 2014 to 2016 which also setback training of UAE reactor operators at that plant.
The reference South Korean plant for the training work is the Shin Kori-3, an APR-1400, which is the same design as the units being built in the UAE. It was supposed to start up in 2013/2014. However, it didn’t have its first criticality until December 2015 and wasn’t connected to the grid for revenue service until December 2016. The delays were caused by the need to rip and replace counterfeit cables and other components installed in the plant.
Separately, the MIT Technology Review magazine article documents a long history of double dealing among firms supplying components and systems to be used in the construction of South Korean nuclear reactors.
Two kinds of problems are reported – first, substandard transformers for the switchyard, a reported 300 units in all, and second, and more significantly, counterfeit cables which impacted both PWR and CANDU type reactors being built in South Korea.
According to the magazine, some of the counterfeit parts made their way to the UAE units under construction which resulted in a loss of confidence by Emirati nuclear officials in the reliability of the South Korean supply chain.
The magazine’s report did not cite evidence that anyone in the UAE knowingly accepted parts with false safety certificates
“Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. ‘It’s still creating a problem to this day,’ Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told the magazine ‘They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.’”
Outcome of the Operational Readiness Review for Unit 1
Another cause of the delay in startup of Unit 1, which was the second postponement of the startup process, is that the unit had problems with a management process called an “Operational Readiness Review” or ORR.
The ORR is a standard check point or milestone in the startup of any new commercial nuclear reactors, and the process is more or less the same for any new commercial reactor globally. The basic intent of an ORR is to check that ALL of the equipment is installed properly, and that EVERY piece of equipment functions exactly as specified in terms of its function within the reactor system.
On the human factors side, an ORR checks that staff are fully trained and that they are following all of the procedures for safely operating the reactor. If deficiencies are found either in terms of equipment installation or operation, or in terms of staff correctly following procedures, a “finding” is documented and the plant operator has to take “corrective actions” to fix the problem.
The ability of the Emirates Energy utility to license the plant depends on a successful ORR with closure of all findings. The more serious the issue that is found, the longer it usually takes to fix it.
Organisational Readiness Inspections at Barakah 1
The ORR included multiple areas resulting in approximately 70 inspections which took place. Organisational issues are as important as technical concerns. In terms of safety culture, key items included;
- Control room crew readiness
- Training and qualification of all staff
- Staffing levels of the operating company
- Implementing procedures in all technical areas
Nawah Energy Company said it “has completed a comprehensive operational readiness review (ORR)” in April 2018 for an updated start-up schedule for the reactor, but in May as a result of over 400 “findings” from the ORR postponed the first reactor’s startup by 18-24 months.
Christer Viktorsson, director-general of UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), told Reuters that while the reactor was almost technically ready, the regulator could not yet issue an operating license to Nawah and could not say when the firm would get its license.
Implications of problems in UAE for South Korea’s nuclear future
These delays, and the problems with substandard parts, produced serious consternation at the UAE and the situation may eventually affect South Korea’s prospects for winning new export work with Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.
South Korea has had an aggressive posture in terms of seeking new export deals, and recently completed getting its 1400 MW design through the US NRC safety review process. South Korea has also been negotiating to sell its reactors to the UK, but has not yet started the equivalent safety review process there, called the Generic Design Assessment (GDA), for its products there.
The key reason is that it lost its “preferred bidder” status from Toshiba for the Moorside project after the two firms came to loggerheads over differences on costs and related finances.
In all, South Korea’s nuclear industry has some serious challenges ahead. The government doesn’t trust it, wants to shut it down, and its key foreign customer is bent out of shape over the delays in start up of the first unit. Digging out of this hole is going to take a lot of work.
A longer version of this article appeared at Neutron Bytes.
Dan Yurman is the author of Neutron Bytes and writes on nuclear matters.