Blame Ralph Lapp. As far as China’s nuclear authorities are concerned, the American physicist’s introduction of the term “China Syndrome” to describe an uncontrollable meltdown in the reactor core must now be a little irritating.
That was in 1971. Eight years later Hollywood made things worse with a thriller of the same name, in which a reporter (Jane Fonda) gets caught up in a conspiracy to cover up breaches in nuclear safety.
The film was dangerously topical, released just 12 days before news of the real life crisis at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. And now it is back in the headlines again, as Japanese authorities struggle to contain a meltdown at a reactor of their own. That has brought China’s own nuclear ambitions back into the spotlight too, with questions being asked about its plans for the future.
Is China reliant on nuclear power?
Not too much at the moment. The stats: 13 nuclear facilities currently operating (out of 441 nuclear plants globally), with 25 in construction, and many more at proposal stage.
In fact, nuclear’s share of power generation in China is very low at less than 2% of the total (compared to 75% in nuclear-junkie France). But there are plans to more than double that contribution, even as energy demand increases significantly. And that means a lot of new projects. According to the World Nuclear Association, China accounts for almost half of current nuclear construction worldwide.
Initially, nuclear plants have been concentrated in the provinces of Zhejiang and Guangdong, the two manufacturing heavyweights and the first to demand more power for their industrial base.
But others have been putting together their own proposals with reactor vendors, and then submitting them to the central government for approval. At least 16 provinces, regions and municipalities have announced intentions to build nuclear power plants under the 12th Five Year Plan. Most of the current group have secured preliminary approval but their projects are not necessarily scheduled for construction.
So a major halt looks unlikely?
Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the State Council called a moratorium on approvals for new plants, ordering inspections of operational ones, as well as those being constructed.
The emphasis was very much on reinforcing safety guidelines, and seemed a response to growing public unease at the news from Japan, most notable in the run on national salt supply.
But almost concurrently, officials were being wheeled out to assure that long term plans for the industry were unchanged.
“There is a guarantee for the safety of China’s nuclear power facilities and [China] will not abandon [its nuclear power plan] for fear of slight risks,” a spokesman for the Ministry for Environmental Protection told the China Daily, in a representative (if somewhat contradictory) statement.
A confident stance…
It could hardly be otherwise. In fact, China is relatively new to nuclear power, with its first reactor connected to the grid as recently as 1991. That means that the two worst nuclear accidents of the past – Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979 – both struck before it had any nuclear power of its own. This time, as the Fukushima crisis rumbles on, the psychology is a little different.
But being a latecomer also allows the nuclear planners to argue that Chinese technology is newer and safer than the Japanese reactors.
Of China’s 13 operational reactors, 11 are of pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, different to the boiling water reactors in Japan.
PWR technology relies on a three-water-loop system rather than the single loop used in Fukushima. The extra loops, which do not contain radioactive substances, can leak out steam if pressure builds up, reducing the chances of explosion in the containment vessel.
According to China’s National Energy Administration, the majority of the country’s reactors (built under CPR-1000 design, a Chinese adaptation of second-generation French technology) also uses equipment that can convert hydrogen into water, making blasts like those at the Fukushima plant impossible.
Still, Chen Jianxin, vice director of the Department of Nuclear Science at Fudan University, warned the Shanghai Daily that CPR-1000 reactors still need a power supply to make their cooling systems work. A natural disaster such as the one in Japan means that full failure can never be completely ruled out.
How best to avoid this? Four of the Chinese reactors currently under construction will employ Westinghouse’s AP1000 technology, a third generation of pressurised water reactor design, which has a ‘passive system’ approach in event of power failure. That means that the laws of physics, such as gravity or pressure differentials, are used for emergency cooling, rather electric-driven water pumps to move coolant water.
Why not build more of the AP1000 reactors?
That seems to have been the advice in a State Council Research Office (SCRO) study in January this year. But the SCRO, which makes independent policy recommendations to the State Council on strategic matters, reported that plans for more AP1000s were running into difficulties due to quality control issues in the supply chain.
This is linked to internal rivalries within the industry, as well as policy priorities for domestic manufacture of plant and equipment. Goals for self-reliant construction mean that China is currently developing its own version of AP1000 design too, dubbed the CAP-1000, from thousands of pages of documents Westinghouse handed over as part of the licensing deal.
But bottlenecks among local suppliers mean that more of the Chinese CPR-1000s will instead be in operation or on order for the foreseeable future. The drawback is that no one else is planning to build quite so many second-generation reactors and, with an operational life of 60 years, that could lead to dependence on outdated technology.
One way to manage future safety risks is to rely more on the AP1000 technology, the SCRO said.
Concern from the State Council’s own advisory team?
It hedged its bets. “The situation for the development of more nuclear power is good,” the report concluded, “[but] we should keep a clear head. Not only seeing the favourable factors, but paying attention also to a variety of constraints to ensure steady progress”.
Another recommendation: that the target for nuclear energy’s contribution by 2020 should be restricted to 70GW of generating capacity so as to avoid placing undue stress on quality control in the supply chain.
And a further priority: sorting out shortages of experienced personnel in the sector. While staff can be technically trained in four to eight years, safety culture takes longer to embed at the operational level, the SCRO warned. Apparently, most countries also have a ratio of 30 to 40 regulatory staff per reactor, but the National Nuclear Safety Administration has only 1,000 employees, a figure that must more than quadruple by 2020.
And no building in earthquake zones?
Locating power plants as far away from fault lines as possible is also important, agrees Zheng Mingguang, director of Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute. Currently, all the operational reactors are in the eastern and southern coastal zones. Chai Guohan, chief engineer at the environment ministry’s Nuclear and Radiation Safety Centre, told Xinhua that this puts them some distance from seismic fault lines.
The reactors are also said to be capable of surviving earthquakes up to a magnitude of at least 8. Still, some newspapers have been discussing a potential ban on new construction in earthquake zones, arguing that China is big enough to limit construction to safer areas.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, cautions the Shanghai Daily, as China has 23 seismic belts, and accounts for about half of recorded quakes globally every year. Any ban would also run into opposition from inland cities, angering local governments keen to capture the spin-offs in investment and tax revenue from nuclear operations, as well as the guaranteed boost in electricity supply for their local economies.
But some may face disappointment. Caixin Online says it now looks more unlikely that nuclear facilities will be approved for Chongqing, for instance, given the city is only 200km from the area in Sichuan where the 2008 earthquake killed more than 90,000 people. Another plant proposed for rural Nanchong, also in earthquake-prone Sichuan, looks likely to be turned down, agrees Reuters.
But the Chinese track record is a good one?
That has been another theme in the domestic media in recent weeks: that China is among the safest operators of nuclear plants ranked by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
That doesn’t mean that the industry has been without incident. In 2008, the Tianwan facility in Jiangsu reported a fire, forcing the reactor to close temporarily. At the time, Caijing magazine said an insider disclosed a further five safety breaches that year. The following year there was a reactor fire at the Ling Ao plant near Shenzhen, according to China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC), although it insists that fire suppression systems extinguished the blaze with no adverse effects on the plant.
Then, in June last year, a further revelation from Hong Kong that a fuel rod at the nearby CGNPC-maintained Daya Bay had leaked traces of radioactive iodine into surrounding cooling fluid.
Again, CGNPC stressed that no radiation had escaped the building. But news of the incident came not from the operator itself, but from China Light and Power (now Power Assets), a Hong Kong utility with a minority stake in the Daya Bay plant. CLP told the South China Morning Post that the radiation leak was “small” and “fell below international standards for reporting it as a safety issue”. But without its admission, many doubt that the news would ever have come to light.
That does little to soothe anxiety about the regulatory regime, especially in a country struggling to enforce standards elsewhere (dairy comes to mind).
Nor are the ongoing revelations of problems within the high-speed railway network – another of the country’s flagship projects – especially heartening. The nuclear sector has already suffered its own share of corruption scandals. Kang Rixin, former president of China National Nuclear Corp, was sentenced to life in prison last November for taking bribes, and Jiang Xinsheng, head of nuclear reactor builder China National Technical Import and Export Corp, got 20 years in jail himself last July for corruption.
But the alternatives look limited…
Yes, this is the fundamental point. The events in Fukushima may have forced other governments around the world to look again at some of their nuclear plans. But this is probably less likely in China, where countervailing pressure from public opinion is absent, and state budgets will more easily absorb the additional costs likely to be incurred in post-Fukushima construction.
Much more than that, China is a country that cannot afford to give up on nuclear power. Desperate to reduce its reliance on coal, and committed to reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP by at least 40% by 2020 from 2005 levels, the country’s planners have few other options.
That might change if wind and solar prove themselves capable of taking on a much greater share of the load (and China is investing very heavily here too).
But until then, the nuclear option is very much full steam ahead. China Syndrome or not, plenty of new plants will be cropping up in the next 10 years.
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