Belgian nuclear operator to cut O&M costs by 5% by 2018

Engie's new maintenance strategy will use a component classification system to prioritize operations and reduce the risk of plant outages as low wholesale prices pressure margins, Mark Droesbeke, Head of Corporate Nuclear Department Reliability at Electrabel, Engie’s Belgian subsidiary, said.

Engie, formerly GDF Suez, launched in June a short term program to implement U.S. AP 913 performance standards at Electrabel’s seven Belgian nuclear power plants in order to improve equipment reliability and reduce maintenance costs.

The plants have a combined capacity of 5.9 GW, representing around half of Belgium's generation capacity.

The operator plans to complete a new Equipment Reliability Implementation Project (ERIP) by the end of 2018 in order to gain "performance improvements as fast as possible," Droesbeke told the Nuclear Power Plant Optimisation Summit Europe on June 7.

European nuclear power operators are under pressure to improve the economic performance of plants amid low wholesale prices and rising renewable energy capacity.

Under the ERIP program, Engie aims to increase availability levels by at least 1% and reduce Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs by 5%.

"We hope it will be's important to reduce O&M costs drastically," Droesbeke said. In comparison, the Nuclear Energy Institute has called on U.S. operators to cut operating costs by 30% by 2018 in response to slumping wholesale markets.

The chart below shows how rising renewable energy capacity in the last five years has helped to drive down power prices in Europe's main electricity markets. The four coloured lines represent average day-ahead prices in Belgium (BE), Netherlands (NL), France (FR) and Germany (DE), where surging wind and solar capacity has had the biggest impact on prices. Energy efficiency measures have also played a role.

                              European average day-ahead power prices

Source: CREG (Belgian energy regulator)

The lifetime load factors of Engie’s seven Belgian plants range between 79.2% for Doel-3 and 87.6% for Tihange 3, according to figures from the World Nuclear Association. Some of these output figures were impacted by long term outages in 2012-2015 for reactor pressure vessel tests.

These plant outages came on top of gas plant closures and prompted the Belgian government to implement a strategic capacity reserve to ensure supply over the winter. Reduced nuclear supply led to an 83% hike in Belgian net power imports between 2013 and 2014, highlighting the importance of nuclear power in the Belgian electricity market.

The nuclear plants were commissioned between 1975 and 1985 and Belgium’s current nuclear phase out plan will see all the reactors shut down between 2022 and 2025.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has said Belgium should reconsider its nuclear phase out plan in order to avoid hiking energy costs and allow time to deploy alternative power generation.

In a report published on May 19, the IEA warned the planned closures would "seriously challenge Belgium’s efforts to ensure security of supply and provide affordable low-carbon electricity."

Priority parts

Engie operates four plants at its Doel site in northern Belgium and three plants at its Tihange site in the south-east.

Under the ERIP, the classification of some 400,000 components will drive maintenance strategies and synergies will be maximised when working on similar components to ensure benefits are gained as early as possible. Site managers will be responsible for defining and putting in place the required resources.

The ERIP will first focus on the non-nuclear section of the plant, where issues account for around 30% of power availability losses, Droesbeke said.

Condenser, turbine and alternator sections will be the first areas of focus and experience gained in these sections can then be applied to work on the main safety systems and primary reactor equipment, he said.

Classification will use a four-tier system based on criticality. A key driver of performance improvements will be reducing failures of Single Point Vulnerability (SPV) components.

Engie will also perform an equipment qualification program to identify ageing equipment and obsolete components and data resources will be improved by identifying and retrieving missing data, Droesbeke said.

"That's important for the classification and for the maintenance optimization of our power plants," he said.

The operator has also performed a risk-based analysis of long-term component costs which has improved life-cycle management and reduced the number of regular outages over the long term.

"We saved 100 million euros [$110.2 million] from shifting our outages-- for the 10 years to come," Droesbeke said.

In addition to the ERIP work, Engie is to carry out major maintenance to extend the lifespans of the Doel 1 and 2 units and the Tihange 1 plant, all commissioned in 1975, until 2025.

The operator is to spend 700 million euros on lifespan extensions at Doel 1 and 2 and 600 million euros on the work at Tihange 1.

Engie is to also increase the “flexibility” of the nuclear fleet to adapt to rising renewable capacity, Droesbeke said.

Improved load following could see nuclear plant output factors fall to as low as 50% during periods of oversupply, he said.

Nuclear Energy Insider