Energy & Resources

The nuclear option

China’s faith is in the atom

The nuclear option

On a mission for fission

When premier Wen Jiabao took the podium at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month, he quoted the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A one-thousand-mile journey starts with the first step”. He was making the point that tackling climate change is as much about achieving near-term targets as it is envisioning long-term goals.

A few days later, and the international negotiations closed with an agreement deemed by most as a weak one, especially on the key issue of limiting carbon emissions.

In the finger-pointing that followed, China was portrayed in the Western press as having stymied any chance of a tougher deal.

But in nuclear power, at least, China remains committed to investing heavily in carbon-neutral power sources that will be up-and-running in a matter of years.

In December, construction started on a second reactor in Zhejiang’s Sanmen County. A total of six reactors will be built at the location by 2020, with a combined power capacity of 7.5GW.

China is depending on large projects like Sanmen to achieve a sixfold increase in nuclear power capacity before the new decade is up. The target for 2020 is for capacity to reach at least 60GW. In addition to the 11 reactors currently in operation, at least 20 more are being built. And work on other plants is expected to start soon.

China’s ambitions get bigger: as much as 160GW of nuclear-generated power by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The aim is to use nuclear energy, along with renewable sources such as hydropower, to reduce China’s heavy dependence on coal, which still generates 80% of the country’s electricity.

Harnessing the power of the atom is not cheap: the first two reactors in Sanmen will cost more than Rmb40 billion ($5.8 billion), according to State Nuclear Power Technology Corp (SNPTC), the company behind the project. They are expected to come online in 2013 and 2014.

The Sanmen project stands out not only because of its proposed scale, but also because its reactors will be among the first in China to utilise so-called “third-generation” nuclear technology under the AP1000 label. The pressurised water reactor design was developed by US-based company Westinghouse, and is supposed to make power plants cheaper to build, safer to operate, and longer lasting.

China’s enthusiasm for nuclear power is a blessing for companies like Westinghouse, as the building of new reactors in other markets has often by restricted by local opposition. New construction in the US ground to a near standstill more than 30 years ago. But the price for access to the Chinese market is a willingness to engage in technology transfer. Companies from France, Russia and Canada have all shared their expertise. And the problem is that the window of opportunity for the foreign firms then narrows. China is open about is ambitions to become self-reliant in the sector.

This aim could be realised as soon as 2017, the year in which Beijing hopes to see the completion of the first reactor equipped with homegrown technology (it will use a design based on Westinghouse’s AP1000). The showcase power plant, to be located in Weihai, Shandong province, and will be built by SNPTC and China Huaneng Group.

The Weihai project is in the earliest stage. Construction will not start until 2013 and still needs final government approval. But, if completed, the project could serve as a first step in China exporting its own technology to other countries.

For some, the prospects of a nuclear power station next door (and a Chinese one at that) don’t bear thinking about. But if the rest of the world starts taking nuclear power seriously as a means of cutting emissions, it could prove to be an extremely profitable business.

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