Slashing the Atom

If the nuclear power industry is headed into a renaissance, it’s going to need the help of a renowned Japanese samurai sword maker. It turns out Japan Steel Works Ltd., in addition to hand-forging swords, also has a near-total monopoly on the manufacture of the steel containment vessels for nuclear reactors.

But making the vessels is more of an art than a science, and Japan Steel’s production line currently tops off at four complete reactor vessels a year. With ten new nuke plants starting construction every year, that means the reactor vessels, which start as 600 tons of solid steel, are on back order until 2015.


As someone working inside said industry, I will say that for a long time, JSW was the only place that was needed to meet the supply. Now with a lot of people seriously looking into nuclear plant manufacture, that suddenly became a bottleneck. Alternate suppliers might step in, but the logistics are very difficult due to the high quality assurance required. The vendors have done their internal analyses and determined that they do not need to establish their own forges because JSW is investing in additional capability for pouring "ultra-large" ingots (350-400 mt).

The back orders may go out to 2015, but general estimates for the time it requires to construct a nuclear plant range from 4 to 5 years, so this is an effective backlog of a few years. (If a company were to decide to build a new plant in, say, the US, and started the process of finding a site, doing environmental impact studies, putting together a license application, going through the license approval process with the NRC, construction, etc, then they would most likely be starting operations in the 2017-2020 time frame. Plants slated for operation in 2015 or so (that would need the forgings by then) have already spent 2-3 years doing this type of work.)

If the need were to arise, the vendors do have the capability to explore other options. Also, it is worth noting that not all of the new nuclear plant design offerings (world-wide, that is) require forgings at that level.

Bottom line, there are certainly people keeping an eye on the situation.



If only ethanol actually solved more problems than it created.

Michael Lin

"Oh, great! Does that mean we don't have to worry about complete annihilation until 2015?"
Nuclear power is very safe and environmentally friendly.


There's an interesting essay by William Tucker on this very subject.


My experience so far as an engineer, is that when someone calls their work a "black art" or "more art than science" it's because they are the only person who does it and they are protecting their monopoly. And therefore they always represent a hurdle and not an asset to getting anything done. If you attempt to recreate their work to get around them, they will use their prestige - not any actual problem - to undercut your results. This applies equally to individuals and organizations.


Not so fast, Lyn. Man-made global warming will probably get you before then. If only there were some kind of energy source that didn't contribute to man-made global warming...ah well, I give up.


Interesting. One more example of how the many ideas to releive our dependence on oil and reduce CO2 emissions suffers from bottlenecks due to inadequacies in productive capacity.

Sean P.

Sounds like a prime time to enter the containment unit market. Anyone want to invest in my new venture?


That seems quite odd. Even for a niche market, if it's a product that valuable shouldn't there be other companies stepping in to claim a share?


I'll for nuclear power, but when it comes to the containment vessel ... I'd prefer more science than art.


I'm glad people are coming around to the usefulness of nuclear energy. The attacks on it have been roundly proven wrong, or manageable risks miniscule in comparison to alternatives we currently use (e.g. coal). It's sad to still see people irrationally fearful of nuclear power, but I suppose that's to be expected with the rampant misconceptions about it. If only US science education was stronger.

Regardless, looks like there's a rich market opportunity here since demand is only going to be headed up for at least the next decade.

Lyn LeJeune

Oh, great! Does that mean we don't have to worry about complete annihilation until 2015? If so, I'm going to go ahead a save my rebate check and accept the date from the guy three cubicles away.
Hey, anything is possible now!

Lyn LeJeune
come help New Orleans and get a free book!


so the terrorists control the oil and the samurais control nuclear- we need an energy superhero to save us all- Captain Corn! (ADM is releasing the first issue of this comic to Congressmen next week)

Stranger. F

Soon my friends, earth will be or be not be... probably be but we not be!


Another nuclear power post... another opportunity for a flame war between the advocates and critics.

I don't really buy the "more art than science" statement either. As an apostle of the nuclear navy, one thing I learned in my core characteristics class is that there is not a single aspect of that reactor that is not done without purpose - especially in the containment vessel.

There may be opportunities to balance end-of-life characteristics with performance characteristics, and sure, I guess that can be considered an 'art' of sort, but everything is built with an understanding of why. I completely agree with Dan (#9), calling it an 'art' is more of an attempt at protecting a niche than a statement of truth.


The current fleet of 104 commercial power reactors are going to start phasing out of service between 2025-2040, assuming that the reactor owners all apply for the 20 year license extensions. Around 25% of our power comes from nuclear power already, thus 104 power plants going off line within 15 years is going to devastate our electricity production unless we can at least replace those going off line. Because estimates are that only 3-5 pressure vessels can be produced per year, that would mean that it would take at least 20 years of constant construction, just to replace the current fleet, starting today without any growth in nuclear production. Sustainable growth in non-CO2/SO2 emission power production requires more reactors be produced per year. This has been claimed as quite a problem at most conferences in the nuclear industry for quite a while. I'm glad to see that this looming disaster is finally getting the press it deserves and seriously needs.



Who the waiting 28 buyers?


Do you think we should be encouraging R+D in nucleur energy through prizes and funding? What kind of areas should we be looking into?


Recently heard that a large amount of the accessible uranium ore in the world is in Australia. Kind of makes you chuckle when you think how the world would be different when our energy supply is controlled by the Australians instead of the Arabians, Russians, and Venezuelans. Incidentally, the time is long over for a resurgence of nuclear -- Luddites who don't see the big statistical picture regarding air pollution deaths, global warming, etc. are finally being outvoted.