Energy & Resources

Atomic age

China tests innovations in nuclear power generation


New technology is being used at the Shidaowan project in Shandong

In 1970, China’s then prime minister Zhou Enlai kicked off the country’s civilian nuclear energy programme by announcing that, “nuclear power shouldn’t only be used for weapons. It should also serve China’s economic development”.

It took China another 21 years before the first nuclear power plant at Qinshan was connected to the electricity grid in 1991. In doing so, the Chinese finally became the world’s seventh civilian nuclear power but the government was also conscious that the two global powers it aspired to emulate had both suffered disasters in their nuclear energy sector: the United States at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Russia at Chernobyl in 1986.

There were concerns about the safety of the Chinese programme right from the start too. Holes were discovered in the concrete foundations, requiring the initial structure to be razed to the ground and re-built. But the Qinshan plant later secured a ringing endorsement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1989 when it was declared “safe and of good quality.”

Today a very different China stands at the forefront of developments in nuclear power, thanks to its breakthroughs in generation IV technology. Yet in some respects, China is still playing catch up. Nuclear energy accounted for just 4.9% of its energy mix in 2020, compared to a 10.1% global average. It is targeting 70 GW of capacity by 2025, up from 50 GW in 2020. But it is doing so at a time when other parts of the developed world are mothballing nuclear power in favour of other non-fossil fuel energy sources deemed to be safer to operate, such as wind and solar.

Overall, the contribution of global nuclear power generation fell 3.9 percentage points in 2020. And the decline would have been steeper still had it not been for the increasing contribution in China, where generation grew 4.4 percentage points.

The recently published World Nuclear Industry Status Report shows that nuclear energy has declined substantially from its peak 17.5% share of the global energy mix in 1996. There are currently 33 countries with nuclear reactors around the world, but only 14 have active development programmes, largely due to a series of well-publicised disasters, culminating in Japan’s Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

It won’t be long before China leapfrogs France in reactor numbers, for instance, despite a renewed push from the French to get the EU more supportive of a pro-nuclear strategy this week. At the end of September China held the third spot globally, with 52 reactors in operation, compared to 56 in France and 93 in the US.

China is also pushing ahead with new iterations of reactor design, reporting a couple of significant technical milestones in its bid to develop meltdown-proof generation IV nuclear technology. In WiC551, we discussed how it’s about to initiate a test run of its first molten salt reactor in Gansu province. The fuel will be a fissile isotope made from thorium, rather than uranium-235. The plant’s design lacks a containment dome as a safeguard against explosions. Instead, it incorporates a plug that will melt if the reactor starts to overheat. The nuclear fuel would then fall into an emergency dump, before the salts in the plug solidify around it.

In September China also achieved criticality (i.e. attaining a sustained chain reaction in normal operations) with its first high-temperature reactor in a pebble module (HTR-PM) plant.

This project is scheduled to be linked to the electricity grid later this year. The Shidaowan venture in Shandong is a three-way collaboration between Huaneng Power, China Nuclear Engineering Corp (CNEC) and Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology (INET). INET’s head is physicist Zhang Zuoyi, who’s done much to bring the HTR-PM concept to fruition in the country.

If this particular project succeeds, it will boost China’s chances of fulfilling its 2060 carbon neutral pledge by replacing coal-fired furnaces with HTR-PM powered ones. HTR-PM nuclear reactors are modular and based on a completely different technology to traditional water-cooled ones. Again, there’s supposed to be no need for expensive containment domes because the reactor is meltdown-proof.

Instead of using fuel rods, HTR-PM reactors rely on tennis ball-sized, fuel-filled pebbles. These are fed through the reactor, keeping the core at a marginally critical state and therefore operating at a lower and safer power density. The coolant is also different: high-pressurised helium gas rather than water.

Right now, a single HTR-PM reactor cannot achieve the super-critical temperatures required to replace a coal furnace. However, six units strapped together could reach the required temperatures and that’s what might come next via the concurrent HTR-PM600 project.

Feasibility studies on HTR-PM600 deployment are also underway elsewhere: Sanmen (in Zhejiang province), Ruijin (in Jiangxi), Xiapu and Wan’an (in Fujian) as well as Bai’an (in Guangdong).

Safety concerns haven’t gone away completely, especially from international observers. Similar to molten salt reactors, pebble-bed technology isn’t completely new either, having been trialled in various stages of development since the 1950s.

The most notorious attempt was Germany’s THTR pebble-bed reactor in the Ruhr. It was decommissioned after scientists monitoring the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster realised that the radioactivity levels they were detecting was coming from their own THTR plant. Its management had failed to report a leak caused by fuel cladding that had been damaged when operatives tried to remove a fuel pebble lodged in the pipe feeding it into the reactor.

Today, Germany is in the final stages of decommissioning all of its nuclear plants ahead of a 2022 target. In doing so, it finds itself on one side of the struggle over nuclear energy’s future within the EU, alongside Austria, Ireland and Italy. On the other side is France, which has just persuaded nine other European nations to sign up to an alliance advocating new rules to promote nuclear development on the continent.

No one disagrees that nuclear technology is cleaner and greener in how it operates than coal-fired power. But given the safety question, are there valid concerns about China’s push into new areas of generation IV technology?

Writing in the energy research journal Joule, German chemist Rainer Moormann advocates extensive operational testing before HTR-PM technology is rolled out commercially.

In particular he worries that fuel pebbles can form localised hot spots. He also believes that the spent fuel created in the energy generation process needs to be stored underground rather than in the proposed canisters because the graphite covering the fuel pebbles isn’t necessarily leak-proof.

Meanwhile at the other end of the development spectrum, China’s original Qinshan plant has just come to the end of its envisaged 30-year life.

However, in another milestone the government has given the plant a 20-year extension, paving the way for the country’s other nuclear plants to get similar treatment.

In granting the extra time to Qinshan, regulators in China are following a similar policy to their peers in other countries. At the end of June, there were 415 nuclear plants operational across the world. More than half had been in operation for more than 31 years and six of them had been operating for more than 50. The IAEA believes that extending the operational life of existing nuclear plants is one of the best ways to improve the availability and stability of low carbon power. Huaneng, the biggest shareholder of the Shandong pebble-bed reactor, agrees. Earlier this year, China’s second largest power producer announced ambitious energy transition goals away from coal. At the end of 2020, 37% of its overall capacity was classed as green but it hopes to lift the ratio above 50% by 2025 and 75% by 2035.

It’s a powerful statement of intent from the state-owned giant. S&P reports that 41% of China’s CO2 emissions currently emanate from the power sector. So the big five SOEs – CEIC, Huaneng, SPIC, Huadian and Datang – have a pivotal role to play ensuring that China can meet its climate change targets.

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