Energy & Resources

China’s atomic age

New plants and new technology as China restarts reactor plans

Workers stand in front of a nuclear reactor under construction in Taishan, China

Core projects: construction begins anew at China’s nuclear power plants

On October 16th 1964, The New York Times reported that Chairman Mao had invited 1,000 young people to perform a song and dance routine called ‘The East Glows Red’ to commemorate China’s testing of a nuclear bomb earlier that day.

The symbolism might have been a little awkward, but it was celebration that was in the air that night, rather than radioactivity.

It was the height of the Cold War and China had defied the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to become the fifth member of the nuclear club after the Americans, the Russians, the UK and France.

Mao himself was sceptical about nuclear power at first, describing the atom bomb as “a paper tiger, which United States reactionaries use to scare people”.

Today, he would probably be astounded to learn that the world is not only embracing nuclear technology as a cleaner power source, but also that Western countries are starting to turn to the ‘reds’ in their efforts to go green.

Great Britain, which recently became the first Western country to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, looks likely to lead the way in purchasing Beijing’s homegrown nuclear technology, with two state-owned nuclear power companies now key players in Britain’s de-carbonisation efforts.

Central to this policy is the proposed £16 billion ($25 billion) Hinckley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset, which is scheduled to become Britain’s first new nuclear plant in 20 years, providing 7% of the country’s electricity needs if it becomes operational in 2023. Standing alongside French energy giants EDF and Areva in the project are China’s CGN (China General Nuclear Power Group) and CNNC (China National Nuclear Corporation). Together they will own about 40% of the project’s equity in return for providing a chunk of its financing.

In late April, China News Service said a formal agreement should be signed in the second half of 2015 now that the parties have reached consensus on “most of the core points”. And as part of the agreement, EDF is expected to help the Chinese with a second nuclear investment at Bradwell B (a partly-decommissioned plant in Essex, where the French company owns land).

Last year, Britain’s Sunday Times revealed that CGN and CNNC had submitted designs for a new plant at the location. China News Service says the two will have a controlling equity stake, deploying China’s homegrown nuclear reactor technology known as Hualong 1. Bradwell B will be based on CGN’s rollout of Hualong 1 at its Fangchenggang plant in Guanxi province, where there is preliminary approval to deploy the third generation technology in two of the units at the plant.

However, CGN looks to be lagging its archrival CNNC at home, since it recently won ‘formal’ approval to use Hualong 1 for units five and six at its Fuqing plant in Fujian province.

The mid-April announcement represents a significant milestone for the nuclear programme as Hualong 1 marks the first deployment of a third generation technology in China based on 100% domestically-derived IPR (intellectual property rights).

Indeed, the government has only just restarted the approval process for the construction of coastal nuclear plants following a four-year suspension triggered by Japan’s Fukushima meltdown in March 2011 (the moratorium remains in place for inland reactors).

This year will see the beginning of the greatest number of nuclear power projects in a single year since the 2011 crisis, with six to eight units being approved and eight units going online, says Zhang Huazhu, chairman of the China Nuclear Energy Association (CNEA).

Since Fukushima, safety standards have been reviewed, and the authorities have declared that all new plants are required to use third generation technology, which is deemed to be safer than the second generation version.

But China now has four different third generation technologies battling for dominance in a country which will account for 40% of the world’s new generating capacity through to 2030.

Two foreign technologies have had a head start, but both have run into problems. In Guangdong, CGN’s Taishan plant is using an Areva-designed third generation EPR pressurised water technology. However, in late April the plant was prevented from loading nuclear fuel following problems at an identical French facility where faults have been discovered in the steel safety casings surrounding the reactor.

It is the latest mishap to befall Areva, which has reported four consecutive years of losses and is currently being restructured. Le Journal du Dimanche says both CGN and CNNC have offered to purchase stakes of up to 10% in the French state-owned giant by way of rescue.

The second foreign-owned technology comes from Toshiba-owned Westinghouse. Working alongside China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp (SNPTC), it has been developing a Chinese third generation technology called CAP1400, based on its existing second generation, AP1000 technology. In 2009, China commissioned a plant in Sanmen, Zhejiang province, which should have become the world’s first generation three plant, opening in 2013. Some six years and various safety checks later, it may open at the end of this year.

Given the problems experienced by the French and Americans, analysts are sceptical that China can roll out its own third generation technology without similar cost and time overruns.

Compounding the issue is confusion about Hualong 1 itself. A recent article in the Financial Times suggested that the supposedly harmonised design is a “fig leaf” covering two different technologies, each of which has its own supply chains. When the government forced the two to start working together in 2011, CGN and CNNC had already used separate French technology transfers as the basis for the designs of their different third generation pressurised water reactors. In the end, the government opted for CNNC’s design as the standard, although CGN has been allowed to incorporate some of its features into a slightly different version.

In December, the International Atomic Energy Association certified Hualong 1’s core technology – another milestone that puts China on a more equal footing with foreign rivals in bidding for international projects. And in recent months, the Chinese have signed a number of agreements to build nuclear plants with Pakistan (won by CNNC), Argentina (again CNNC), Romania (won by CGN) and Turkey (won by SNPTC) to name but four.

Some estimate that the Chinese nuclear firms could win projects accounting for about 15% of global capacity expansion through to 2030 (valued at $80 billion). But there have also been concerns that CGN and CNNC could end up in the same self-defeating rivalry that hampered the train companies CSR and CNR in their efforts to win international contracts until they were recently forced to merge.

In December, Reuters said the government was contemplating a similar fate for CGN and CNNC. At that point, CGN had just listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and CNNC was planning to follow suit in Shanghai. News about an A-share IPO for CNNC has since gone quiet.

In the meantime, China is ploughing ahead with plans to develop a fourth generation ‘meltdown-proof’ technology using thorium molten salts – a by-product of rare earth mining. Heading the project at Shanghai’s Institute of Applied Physics is Jiang Mianheng, son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. And in a sign of how far diplomatic relations have thawed since the Cold War, the group has signed a cooperation agreement with America’s Oakridge Laboratories, which pioneered similar technology before US President Richard Nixon shut its project down in 1973.

Yet another SOE, China Nuclear Engineering Corp (CNEC), is exploring high temperature gas-cooled reactors as another fourth generation technology. Chairman Wang Shougun told recently that the technique would lead to “zero risk” reactors. CNEC hopes to begin construction on a fourth generation plant during the next Five-Year Plan, which will launch in 2016 and which it hopes to connect to the national grid by 2021.

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