China’s plans for nuclear growth may exceed its grasp

There are limits to ambitions even in a state-owned nuclear construction program and nuclear safety functions have to develop at the same pace as plants

chinese-dragon-mosaicPerhaps not coincidentally, following on the heels of the historic climate change agreement between the U.S. and China, that country published an Energy Strategy Action Plan for the remainder of this decade. It cuts development with coal and emphasizes development of nuclear reactors.

The energy plan calls for the deployment of an additional 40 GWe of nuclear power by 2020 building on the current base of about 19 GWe to reach a target of about 58 GWe. Even as it brings these units online, the plan calls for another 30 GWe of nuclear plan construction to follow.

Significantly, China is placing multiple bets on reactor technology with two of its own light water designs, high temperature gas-cooled reactors, and fast reactors.

These are enormous commitments and will require China to mobilize vast networks of institutions for education and training to produce the engineers and skilled trades necessary to build and operate the plants.

China is headed towards self-sufficiency on reactor component manufacturing, but has had problems with quality of parts and with systems integration during plant construction. A new build of the size described in the energy plan will need a major boost in nuclear reactor pressure vessel foundry capacity as well as manufacturing of other long lead time components such as steam generators and turbines.

Also, China will have to significantly ramp up its nuclear safety and regulatory agency, and it is going to have to exercise independent authority over plant design, construction and operation. This is going to be a big deal for a country with a long history of top down political direction. Currently, the nuclear safety agency is not independent, but lives under the mantle of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection which itself is relatively new established in 2008.

The wire service Reuters reported on Nov 21 that Guo Chengzhan, the number two man in charge of China’s National Nuclear Safety Safety Administration, said that his agency recognizes the priority the country has to swap out coal for nuclear. However, he pointed out that in 2011 the agency halted all new construction starts following the Fukushima crisis.

One of the outcomes of the more than a year long review was to stop approving new construction of China’s domestic Gen II light water reactor designs, and to upgrade the safety mechanisms of these plants already being built. New project approvals are now expected by the end of this year according to Chengzhan.

In terms of what projects will start first, the China Daily reported Nov 7 that the nuclear safety administration is working on the environmental impact assessment and safety inspection of three nuclear projects, including units 5 and 6 of the Hongyan River nuclear project in Liao-ning province, the Shidao Bay nuclear demonstration project in Shandong province, and units 5 and 6 of the Fuqing nuclear power plant in Fujian province.

The future of new nuclear builds in China depends on the completion of a two Westinghouse 1150 MW AP1000s being built at Sanmen on the county’s east coast. The project was scheduled to be completed this year, but safety concerns related to the Fukushima review have led to delays. The two reactors are now on a schedule for completion by the end of 2015.

Once China is satisfied that the AP1000s, a Gen III design with passive safety design features, will be completed,  it is expected to quickly deploy new construction starts of similar units and a larger design, the CAP1400, which, while based on the AP1000, will deliver 1400 MW per unit. Under its technology transfer agreement with Westinghouse, China is not required to pay for adaptations of the AP1000 design which are larger than 1350 MW.

Another issue China faces is where to locate all the new domestic reactors.  A new build of 40 reactors will like involve some inland sites. China has been reluctant to start new reactors away from the coast, in part, because of the need to significantly invest in roads and power lines that would be needed for the plants. So far almost all of China’s new nuclear construction has been at coastal sites where large components can be delivered by water. So far only a few inland sites have been officially designated for construction.

Li Ning, a nuclear energy expert at China’s Xiamen University, told Reuters that he is skeptical the country can build 40 GW of power in a relatively short period of time.  Too many projects will lead to bottlenecks he says.

In addition to the Westinghouse projects, which involve two sites of two units each. China has also contracted to build two Areva 1650 MW EPRs and with Russia for additional VVER light water reactors. Areva is currently in financial negotiations with China to build a spent fuel reprocessing center at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

Even as domestic construction plans strain the country’s capacity to delivery, it is also looking at global markets. China is looking at export of its reactor designs, but also is interested in the heavy water Candu-6. It has recently inked deals with Romania and Argentina to function as the EPC to build Candu-6 reactors in these countries with SNC Lavalin, which now owns the reactor division of AECL, as the vendor. China has two Candu reactors at the Qinshan nuclear plant in Zhejiang province. These units expected to be modified to use recycled uranium fuel in 2015.

The domestic priority remains that China has to move away from coal. Pollution from fossil plants is blanketing its cities with poisons resulting in significantly higher levels of respiratory disease and reduced quality of life.

For a complete profile of China’s nuclear energy plans see this profile by the World Nuclear Organization. The profile goes into detail on China’s nuclear fuel cycle and also has descriptions of its work on HTGRs and fast reactor designs.

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3 Responses to China’s plans for nuclear growth may exceed its grasp

  1. SteveK9 says:

    What is the source for this information. I’ve read that the supply chain could supply more plants, but the slowdown after Fukushima affected those plans. China is completely the 1GW plants of their own design at about 1 every couple of months lately. They seem to be coming in on time, and working fine … so problems with parts, and construction? I don’t see it. The first AP1000 is somewhat delayed … don’t know whose fault that is (would not surprise me if most of that was Shaw (now CB&I)), although as the first plant of its kind in the World, it’s not surprising in any case.

    China is not developed the way France was in the 70’s, but their ability in large construction projects, is probably unmatched in the World now … look at highways, high-speed trains, buildings, bridges. I think when the leadership decides to go all in on nuclear, the pace is going to be amazing.


  2. SteveK9 says:

    Sorry for the typos, would edit them if I could.


  3. djysrv says:

    China has a history of supply chain issues for its domestic design nuclear plants, which are Gen II designs, and no history, other than the Westinghouse units, with long lead time procurement for Gen III designs.

    Also, China’s high speed trains suffered a horrendous crash in July 2011 which was hushed up by the Chinese media, but which resulted from design issues and shoddy construction of the signals equipment. Also, there was corruption involving construction contracts, and, significantly, safety inspections. No industry, including nuclear energy, in China, is immune from these flaws in their big capital projects.

    See NYT report below for a report on the train crash which was not hushed up. This is mostly due to the public outrage from the families who had relatives killed in the accident.


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