Like many medieval towns in France, Belfort has its share of soaring church domes and spires. But the tallest structures here don’t serve any religion — they are temples of industry.
Rising from a large industrial park on the edge of town are huge blue and beige production halls several football fields long and more than 80 meters high — taller than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Inside, GE Power employees build and test steam turbines and generators, including a pair of colossal Arabelle steam turbines for Hinkley Point C in the U.K., which will be one of Europe’s largest nuclear power plants when it comes online in 2025.
This is crunch time for the Belfort team, thanks to nuclear energy’s resurgence in Europe, Asia and Africa. In addition to the U.K. project, their docket includes contracts for turbines and other equipment for new power plants in Hungary, Finland and Turkey. And their plate just got fuller. On Tuesday, GE announced that it won a deal to supply four turbine-generator sets, including four Arabelle turbines, to Egypt’s El Dabaa nuclear power plant. The plant will generate 4.8 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4 million Egyptian homes.
Nuclear power plants harness heat generated by controlled nuclear fission to boil water. The resulting steam travels through a series of turbines that spin a generator to create electricity. Linked together, each of the power-generation trains that GE designed for El Dabaa, Hinkley Point C and other projects contains four turbine modules and a generator. Topping out at more than 70 meters, each train is nearly as long as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. “All of the turbines and generators are made here in Belfort,” says Kevin Cogo, general manager of rotating equipment for GE Power’s Steam Power business. “This is the only factory in the world able to manufacture this kind of turbine. You need special tools and special foundations because of their weight.”
Nuclear power, which produces no carbon emissions, is experiencing a renaissance around the world. Power producers plan to add 100 gigawatts in nuclear-generation capacity over the next decade, about 5 percent of the total that’s expected to come online over the same period. Typically nuclear power plants provide what’s called base-load power. Unlike wind and solar farms, which produce variable output that hinges on the weather, base-load plants generate steady electricity to keep factories, subways, refrigerators and other systems running around the clock. Historically, coal-fired plants supplied base-load power. Nuclear power stations began shouldering the burden in the 1950s and are now becoming more popular as nations and corporations seek to shrink their carbon footprints.
GE plays an integral role in this shift to cleaner base-load energy: Its steam turbines are connected to half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Their total generation capacity equals more than 200 gigawatts, or nearly the entire current generation capacity of Germany. “I think that everybody agrees, at least in France, that we should increase the share of renewables in the French energy mix,” Cogo says. “But everybody also agrees that we need nuclear. If you want all of the cars in the country to go electrical, for example, you can’t have a plan without relying on nuclear power.”
The first Arabelle turbine came online 18 years ago in France, and the machines have since accumulated more than 400,000 operating hours, with a demonstrated reliability of 99.96 percent. GE acquired the turbine technology in 2015 with its purchase of energy assets from the French industrial company Alstom. The culmination of four decades of meticulous fine-tuning by Alstom’s engineers is designed to last 60 years.
Although the Arabelle weighs nearly 4,000 tons, it spins at a dizzying 1,500 rpm. Resembling a giant bow tie, its two sets of rotors with their blades measure 7 meters in diameter — the team in Belfort had to cut a new exit door into the side of the massive production hall to accommodate its girth. The blades work like levers and enable the Arabelle to extract energy from cooler, slower steam farther from the reactor. GE says the design allows the turbine to produce 2 percent more power than traditional models. “In a coal-fired power plant, the steam pressure and temperature are much higher,” says Frédéric Wiscart, Europe and Middle East projects execution leader at Steam Power. “That’s why we have to make the steam turbines for nuclear plants so big. We need to maximize the contact between the steam and the blade so that they harness all the remaining power.”
The whole turbine-generator setup requires another 4,000 tons of supporting steel structures and 1,000 tons of steam pumps, valves and pipes. “It’s really huge,” Wiscart says.
But the Arabelle’s size isn’t its only unique attribute. Equally remarkable is the way it’s put together. Although the precise process is a closely guarded secret, it involves workers fusing together huge steel discs the size of steam-locomotive wheels using an alien-looking welding machine, its long electrode blades like blazing chainsaws. This design allows the engineers to build the turbine from smaller modules and keep a close eye on the material properties of the parts. Smaller components are also easier to forge and have better mechanical and material properties such as toughness and resistance to corrosion.
Rosatom, at the moment the world’s largest supplier of nuclear reactors, will supply the reactors for the Egyptian plant. But the Arabelle can easily be connected to reactors from other producers, including France’s Framatome and GE Hitachi. “We have huge opportunities,” Wiscart says.
Wiscart adds: “This is literally an investment in the future. These plants will stay around for a long time.”