- Nuclear energy expert Mark Hibbs has published a new book which gives a comprehensive view of China’s efforts to develop its commercial nuclear energy program including work on light water and advanced reactors.
- The Canadian National Laboratory has signed an MOU with CNNC to conduct joint efforts on new nuclear energy technologies. One of the opportunities could be in the area of thorium fueled molten salt reactors.
- Fuel Loading Has Begun At China’s Taishan-1 a 1660 MW EPR.
New Book On China’s Commercial Energy Industry
China is on course to lead the world in the deployment of nuclear power technology by 2030. Should it succeed, China will assume global leadership in nuclear technology development, industrial capacity, and nuclear energy governance.
The report, written by nuclear energy expert Mark Hibbs (right) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), says China’s ambitious plans for nuclear energy could see it operating several hundred power reactors by 2050, implementing a transition from pressurized water reactors (PWRs) to more advanced nuclear systems, and it has or will demonstrate a closed fuel cycle at industrial scale.
The impacts will be strategic and broad, affecting nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation, energy production, international trade, and climate mitigation. Especially critical is whether China achieves an industrial-scale transition from current nuclear technologies to advanced systems led by fast neutron reactors. (Executive summary here) (Download full report ~ PDF file here)
Opportunities and Risks in Advanced Technologies
A key section of the report covers China’s opportunities and risks in developing advanced nuclear technologies.
- China today is poised to make these investments but lacks deep industrial expertise for some technologies it has selected; to succeed it must effect transitions from R&D to commercial deployment.
- China’s current heavy nuclear R&D spending must be sustained to succeed since some systems may not be ready for commercial deployment before the 2030s.
- China’s nuclear industry must depend on state entrerprises to make its nuclear technology transition; Beijing must down-select technologies and decide whether to trust the market to make economic decisions especially in the area of exports.
Potential Impacts on the Global Nuclear Industry
Whether China succeeds or fails, the global repercussions will be significant.
- If China merely replicates others’ collective past experience, it will reinforce the view that fast reactors and their fuel cycles are too risky, complex, and expensive to generate large amounts of electricity.
- China has placed a lot of “bets” on various advanced nuclear reactors designs. Which ones will transition to commercial development remains to be seen.
- If, instead, China clearly succeeds in its ambitions, it may significantly raise the profile of nuclear power toward later in this century, but likely after 2050.
- If so, China will deeply influence global rules and understandings governing the risks associated with nuclear power systems.
China’s Massive Investment
in its Physical Infrastructure and a Technical Workforce
NucNet notes in its review of the book that China has “massively invested” in human and material resources needed to replicate the PWR-based systems that foreign countries had developed. According to the report, the nuclear share of China’s electricity supply could increase from 4.5% today towards 10% in the 2030s. China remains a leading user of coal fired electric generation plants which contribute to serious air pollution problems in some of its major cities.
China may become an important global supplier – perhaps the most important supplier – of civilian nuclear goods, including modern power reactors built at comparatively low costs.
However, the report says that for this to happen, China would have to overcome severe technical barriers and achieve significant scientific and engineering breakthroughs which are still in the future.
It must, for at least the next three decades, effectively support and control the flow of funds to and from nuclear organizations and assure that costs are manageable, predictable, and comparatively favorable. It must develop sufficient public trust and confidence to permit leaders to make decisions consistent with their plans for the nuclear industry. These objectives are equally applicable to other nations developing advanced reactors.
The report warns, “if China fails [to do these things], its nuclear energy program may not sustain itself through the second half of the century,”
Future Focus on Advanced Reactors
Until now, China’s nuclear development has relied on technologies invented by others. China has duplicated them or acquired them as it did with Westinghouse in building four AP1000s. During this century, China plans to replace light-water nuclear power plants with advanced systems including HTGRs and possibly thorium fueled reactors.
So far China has not invested as much effort in plutonium fueled reactors through that may change. Ten years after it announced a joint agreement with Areva to build an 800 tonne per year MOX fuel plant, it still hasn’t broken ground.
The primary focus of current negotiations is over costs which are estimated to be $15 billion. The failure of a construction consortium involving Areva to control costs at a MOX fuel plant being built in the US at a site in South Carolina may affect these negotiations.
Today, CEIP book notes the nuclear engineering sectors of companies in France, Japan, and the US, which supplied nearly three quarters of the world’s nuclear reactors, are in decline and their futures are uncertain. These firms are experiencing low-capacity utilization, rising costs, loss of expertise, and waning political support. In the US the low price of natural gas is proving to be a formidable competitive challenge to the existing fleet with predictions that even more plants in merchant markets may be forced to close.
China’s Competitive Challenge in the Global Nuclear Market
Hibbs warns that should China’s nuclear development remain on track, its industry’s anticipated massive economies of scale and high turnover will also put foreign competitors under even greater commercial pressure.
Regarding exports China is developing its global reach with a new 1000 MW PWR, the Hualong One, and has plans to market a 1400 MW version of the AP1000 called the CAP1400. Reference units of both designs are under construction in China., An HTRG is also being developed for export. China first two FOAK units are slated for commercial use later this year. Hibbs writes,
“China’s industry is poised to invade the world’s nuclear goods markets. Continued Chinese success in nuclear power will add to the challenges faced by a nuclear industry in the West that is in deep trouble. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs)—which were, until recently,expected to become “second tier” suppliers—may penetrate established nuclear power plant export markets.”
“China’s business model may give its SOEs supreme competitive advantage over all foreign private sector companies in the nuclear industry. If Chinese business practices prevail, China might eventually become the world’s leading provider of nuclear fuel, nuclear power plants, and nuclear engineering services.”
The book includes an section of technical notes on sources which include many interviews with experts in China on that country’s nuclear energy efforts.
Hibbs is a Germany-based senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
Canadian National Laboratory Signs Agreement
with China’s Largest Nuclear Organization
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), announced last week that it has entered into a cooperation agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) for nuclear energy science and technology to support the transition to a greener, low-carbon economy.
Both Canada and China have affirmed that action on climate change, including decisive steps towards low-carbon, sustainable development is crucial.
Potential for Work on Thorium Molten Salt Reactors
One of the potential work areas between the two organizations may be in development of thorium fueled molten salt reactors. In May 2017 Canada’s SNC-Lavalin signed an agreement with CNNC to build two next-generation CANDU nuclear reactors at a site about 60 miles southwest of Shanghai. One of the options for the project is to develop the capability of the CANDU units to burn thorium nuclear fuel.
Although the CNL press statement doesn’t refer to a specific scope of work, R&D and technology development related to CANDU thorium fuel specification, fabrication, and testing would be logical roles for CNL in cooperation with SNC-Lavalin and CNNC.
The SNL-Lavalin agreement is the latest in a series of MOUs with CNNC dating back to 2014. World Nuclear News reported at that time that the AFCR is described as “a 700 MW Class Generation III reactor based on the highly successful CANDU 6 and Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) reactors with a number of adaptations … [allowing] it to use recycled uranium or thorium as fuel.”
According to the WNA report in 2014, focus of the MOU is on uranium recycled from conventional used fuel (RU) blended with depleted uranium (DU) to give natural uranium equivalent. Following the successful trials at Qinshan, both those reactors will be modified to become full AFCRs. Then the AFCR joint venture plans to build new AFCR units in China and beyond. This is what the 2017 agreement hopes to deliver.
CANDU Reactor Slated to Use Advanced Fuels
According to the May 2017 wire service report, the CANDU reactors slated for the Qinshan nuclear site will be powered by advanced fuels: reprocessed uranium recycled from conventional reactors, and later, thorium, said Justin Hannah, Director of Marketing, Strategy and External Relations for SNC’s CANDU division.
Hannah told the wire service the fact that CANDUs could start using thorium, with China’s backing, “may put the world closer to what proponents call the thorium dream of safer, cleaner and more abundant nuclear power.”
However, not everyone is confident about thorium’s potential use in CANDU reactors. As for whether Canada could one day switch to thorium. Canada has large, high-quality uranium reserves so any effort to develop a domestic version of a thorium-powered AFCR will depend on both politics and economics.
“There’s no strong economic driver for it,” argued John Luxat, a nuclear safety expert at McMaster University, told the wire service. “The utilities don’t want to switch over, but it’s nice to know that we could.”
Nuclear fuel experts have pointed out that thorium is difficult to mine. Using it as a fuel is also complex. Reactor designs are still in development and supply chains aren’t ready. Fuel fabrication and disposition of spent fuel also also have to be worked out.
Other Thorium Molten Salt Projects in China
The Asia Nuclear Business Platform reported that in December 2017 the China Academy of Sciences and the government of Gansu Province signed a co-operation agreement to work together on China’s Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR) project and to have a demonstration or research reactor built in Gansu Province by 2020.
The total investment is reported to be $3 billion USD and build up a TMSR demonstration project there. This level of spending will likely take place over at least a decade. (IAEA Nov 2016 Briefing – PDF file – 56 slides)
The Chinese central government selected molten salt reactor as one of its R&D focus of the nuclear GEN IV technology. The China Academy of Sciences in January 2011 launched an R&D program on LFTRs, known there as the Thorium-Breeding Molten Salt Reactor (Th-MSR or TMSR), hoping to obtain full intellectual property rights on the technology.
SINAP has two streams of TMSR development – solid fuel with once-through fuel cycle, and liquid fuel with reprocessing and recycle. The TMSR-SF stream has only partial utilization of thorium, relying on some breeding as with U-238, and needing fissile uranium input as well. The TMSR-LF stream will use a full closed Th-U fuel cycle with breeding of U-233.
Also, SINAP has also signed a cooperation agreement in 2015 with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on developing the advanced technology using lithium-beryllium-fluoride salts for cooling.
Fuel Loading Has Begun At China’s Taishan-1
Fuel loading began in April Taishan-1, China’s first Generation III 1660 MW EPR unit which is under construction in the southeastern province of Guangdong, developer China General Nuclear Power (CGN) said in a statement.
CGN, which owns 70% of the project, said it was given formal approval to begin fuel loading at Taishan-1 by the National Nuclear Safety Commission.
The procedure takes several months, meaning the unit could be connected to the grid and begin commercial operation by the end of the year. Taishan-1 is likely to become the world’s first EPR to go into operation. Work began on the project in 2009.
In terms of other EPRs, WNA notes the first-of-a-kind EPR at Finland’s Olkiluoto plant has been under construction since 2005 and has seen several revisions to its start-up date, with grid connection now scheduled to take place in December and the start of regular electricity production in May next year.
Fuel loading at the Flamanville EPR in France, construction of which began in 2007, is expected to begin the fourth quarter of this year. Two further EPRs are under construction at Hinkley Point in the UK.
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