Energy & Resources

Russian roulette

Netizen concern over nuclear deal with Moscow


6GW of new capacity this year

When a reactor blew up at Chernobyl in April 1986, the Russian authorities sent in firemen with shovels to clear radioactive debris from the plant’s roof.

The men wore thin paper masks to protect themselves from the fallout. When their skin started to darken and they began vomiting, local doctors administered milk and diazepam to soothe their woes.

As Serhii Plokhy says in his new book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, the Soviet government was “bureaucratic, heartless and often bewildered by events”. It was even slower in releasing news about the infamous meltdown.

Since then, Russia has become one of the world’s foremost operators of nuclear energy and government-owned Russian State Atomic Energy Corp (Rosatom) says it was the first to call for nuclear fuel melt traps at power plants to prevent a repeat of Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.

However, try telling that to Chinese citizens after their government signed the “biggest package of contracts in the history of nuclear partnerships” according to Rosatom.

A multi-billion deal covering Russian designs for four Generation 3 nuclear reactors and one fast-neutron reactor was one of the main agreements resulting from Vladimir Putin’s latest visit in early June.

The fallout among social media commentators was uniformly critical about the safety implications. WiC cannot report many of their concerns as the clean-up operation from the censors was swift and effective – but one surviving comment noted Russia’s “lack of technology or high-end industries” and fears that “Russian nuclear power will harm the Chinese people”.

Most of the official newspaper reportage detailed how Xi Jinping considers Vladimir Putin his “best, most intimate friend” (see WiC413 for Putin’s comments on how Xi celebrated his birthday with him).

The two countries have much in common in nuclear energy too. At the end of 2017, China accounted for 8.6% of global installed capacity and Russia 6.5%, trailling the US, France and Japan. But as we wrote in WiC400, China has been open to utilising foreign technology as a pathway to developing its own nuclear expertise. In the past, this translated into a reliance on American, French and Japanese companies, including Areva and Westinghouse. However, some of these operators have stumbled or ended up in the bankruptcy courts after the Fukushima disaster prompted many countries to scale back or cancel their nuclear programmes. Since 2007, only five countries have recorded annual growth rates in installed nuclear power. China was the leader, followed by India, South Korea, Russia and Canada.

China and Russia have a history of working together in the sector. The Tianwan 1 and 2 plants in Jiangsu province, for example, were both built using Russian VVER-1000 reactors. China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) began construction on the former in 1999 and the latter in 2000. The two plants were both connected to the grid in 2007. A third plant was connected last December.

The new agreement covers Tianwan plants 7 and 8 and will deploy Rosatom’s VVER-1200 reactors. Theoretically, these third-generation reactors should be 100 times safer than second generation ones.

“Tianwan has been a testing ground for Russian nuclear technology,” Snowy Yao, an analyst at China Securities International Finance told Bloomberg. “China looks willing to try out all the latest designs before endorsing a winner.”

A further two VVER-1200 nuclear reactors will be installed at the Xudabao complex in Liaoning province, and the agreement also covers Russian supplies of equipment, fuel and services for CNNC’s CFR-600 sodium-cooled, fast-neutron nuclear pilot project. Rosatom says the package of nuclear deals could be worth in excess of $15 billion.

Separately China’s National Energy Administration has said six new plants will add 6GW of nuclear generation capacity this year, taking the country closer to its 2020 goal of 58GW. In 2016 China generated 34GW of nuclear power.

Last Friday CNNC also signed an agreement with the city of Tianjin to open a ‘nuclear university’ to address what it termed a “skills shortage” brought about by the rapid expansion of the industry.

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