In a totalitarian state, the presence of thousands of anti-nuclear demonstrators in the streets for several days is not only a surprise, it also represents the deep unease people there have about a nuclear energy facility that hasn’t even broken ground.
A massive $15 billion effort to build a facility to make MOX fuel was last week the subject of protests involving thousands of people in the city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province located about 300 miles (480km) north of Shanghai (YouTube Video). The city is one of six potential sites for the spent fuel reprocessing center to be built in a partnership between China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) and Areva. The plant would be built based on the same technology used by Areva at a MOX fuel plant in France.
The demonstrators disregarded warnings from the government and police to stop. Protest groups flooded Chinese social media with anti-nuclear slogans. The protests in the streets and online stem from a growing unease over industrial pollution and other environmental issues linked in a part to corrupt practices.
The plan for the nuclear reprocessing facility site at this stage involves site selection and no decision has been made yet. Lianyungang city officials short-circuited a response from CNNC by telling the demonstrators they would not allow the plant to be built there.
The apparent loss of the site in Lianyungang does not mean the project is on the ropes. There are five other sites in other parts of the country still under consideration. The other sites include locations in the provinces of Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, and Gansu. All have existing nuclear facilities and are located at coastal sites.
There are two Russian built VVER commercial nuclear reactors at the Tainwan power station in Lianyungang. Two more units are under construction which will be commissioned in 2018 and there are plans on paper to add yet two more units to them. Their presence does not seem to have been a factor in the protests.
Legacy of the Tainjin Explosion
The protests in Lianyungang occurred on the anniversary of a massive chemical explosion that took place at the Ruihai International Chemical warehouse in the city of Tainjin on August 12, 2015. A reported 173 people were killed and over 800 injured by the blast caused by hundreds of tons of dangerous chemicals illegally stored in the warehouse. The subsequent investigation revealed a complex web of corruption, negligence, lax regulatory oversight, and poor emergency responses services.
Cleanup of the site has stalled due to the complex and toxic nature of the residual chemicals and their combustion byproducts. An estimated 470,000 cubic meters of material needs to be removed from the site, but there are few places to put it.
This is not the first time protests in China have led to reconsideration of a proposal for a new nuclear facility. In 2013 protests erupted involving over 1,000 people over plans to build a commercial nuclear fuel plant in Heshan in Guangdong province resulted in the government cancelling that particular site but with plans to relocate it. Coincidentally, the nuclear fuel plant that was the subject of these protests includes planned production of commercial fuel assemblies for the VVER units at Lianyungang.
Scope of the MOX Fuel Facility Operation
The initial plan for the reprocessing plant was first set in motion in 2007 as part of a deal that also resulted in Areva building two 1650 MW EPR reactors in Taishan, China, just west of Hong Kong. Once a site is selected for the reprocessing facility, construction of the 800 tonne per year plant is suppose to start in 2020 and be completed by 2030.
Technical details about the plant are more or less complete. During a visit to France in June 2015, China’s premier Li Keqiang called for financial and contractual details to be completed by the end of this year. The La Hague, France, MOX plant, on which the 800 tonne per year Chinese plant will be based, is much larger and is capable of handling 2,700 tonnes per year.
As a practical matter, the 800 tonne per year plant is not going to, in the short term, make a serious dent in the inventory of spent nuclear fuel in China. By 2020 China is expected to have 12,300 tonnes of spent fuel in mostly wet storage though there is some ongoing transition to dry casks.
With a service life of about 60 years, the plant could handle at least 40,000-50,000 tonnes of spent fuel. However, China has ambitious plans to build more nuclear power plants which will significantly increase the amount of spent fuel it will have to manage as part of its policy of re-using the fuel.
Within the first ten years of operation, by 2040, a second reprocessing plant with at least the same capacity would have to be built to handle the load. In the meantime, China may decide to move its spent fuel from wet storage at reactors to an interim site involving dry casks mostly likely located near the first MOX plant.
According to the World Nuclear Association, mainland China has 34 nuclear power reactors in operation, 20 under construction, and more about to start construction. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give a doubling of nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020-21, then up to 150 GWe by 2030, and much more by 2050.
Technical Staff Shortages are a Growing Problem for China’s Ambitious Nuclear Energy Plans
An English language report published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) last week indicates that China has an acute shortage of experienced nuclear plant technical staff and that the problem will get worse before it gets better.
The SCMP report cites a Chinese language report in China Business News which quotes Prof. Ai Deshang, Dean of Graduate Programs, in the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology, at Tsinghua University, who says China will need 30,000 to 40,000 trained nuclear technicians by the end of the 2020s, but that currently the nation’s universities are only capable of graduating a few hundred individuals per year.
The China Business News report also quotes He Yu, President of China General Nuclear (CGN) who said that China plans to build over 100 new reactors by 2030 to meet energy needs and to reduce pollution from coal fired power plants. Staffing of there new reactors will required 50,000 to 80,000 trained staff.
The extraordinary pressures on existing experienced reactor staffs are also cited in the report indicating that in at least one instance self-reporting of safety incidents were covered up. A March 2015 pump failure at the Yangiiang Nuclear Power Station in Guangdong province was not made public until May 2016. The environmental ministry reportedly cited four plant operators over the incident.
A spokesman for CGN, which owns and operates the plant, said that it only found out about the failed pump during a inspection which took place this year.
The power station is composed of four CPR-1000 reactors three of which have been commissioned and a fourth unit that will come online in 2017. Construction of units 5 & 6, which are slated to be the new Hualong One 1000 MW PWRs, is set to start in 2018.
The lack of skilled staff may also impact China’s plans to export its nuclear reactors. China has a pending deal with Argentina to build its new Hualong One reactor there and another deal, which is under review in the UK, to build up to three of them at the Bradwell site near London.
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