Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary….

…. and you’ll see a picture of Japan Steel Works Ltd — “the only plant in the world … capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak.

The bottleneck: In a single year, they can currently only make “four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor.” They may double capacity over the next two years, but that won’t allow the huge ramp up in nuclear power that some are projecting for the industry.

Given Japan Steel’s limited capacity, the math just doesn’t work, said Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear industry consultant near Paris. Japan Steel caters to all nuclear reactor makers except in Russia, which makes its own heavy forgings.

“I find it just amazing that so many people jumped on the bandwagon of this renaissance without ever looking at the industrial side of it,’’ Schneider said.

At the same time, that capacity increase represents a gamble that the nuclear renaissance is here to stay, even in the face of a US recession, safety concerns, and a historically volatile industry.

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Bloomberg has a very thorough article on the company, its potential competition, and “the precision and patience required to fashion a 600-ton steel ingot into a tube with walls 30 centimeters (12 inches) thick”:

To make the 600-ton ingot, workers heat steel scrap in an electric furnace to as high as 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,600 degrees Fahrenheit). Then they fill each of five giant ladles with 120 tons of the orange-hot molten metal. Argon gas is injected to eliminate impurities, and manganese, chromium and nickel are added to make the steel harder.

The mixture is poured into a blackened casing to form ingots 4.2 meters wide in the rough shape of a cylinder. Five times over three weeks, the ingots are pressed, reheated and re-pressed under 15,000 tons applied by a machine that rotates them gradually, making the floor tremble as it works.

The heavy forging is needed to make the steel uniformly strong by aligning the crystal lattices of atoms that make up the metal, known as the grain. In a casting, they would be jumbled.

“What they do is an art more than a science, and that’s why they’re the critical path,’’ said Steven Hucik, senior vice president for nuclear plant projects at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Just for the record, to even be 10% of the solution to global warming would require about 25 nukes built a year for the next 40 years.

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Interesting side note, JSW also makes wind turbines! Looks like they are trying to corner the zero-carbon electricity business.