CHINA NATIONAL NUCLEAR CORP. (CNNC) has been experimenting with a neighbourhood nuclear power plant the size of an Olympic swimming pool designed to provide heating for about 200,000 homes.
A 400-megawatt low-pressure ‘Yanlong’ small modular reactor (SMR) has been heating CNNC’s buildings for about three years, and the state-owned company has just run a 168-hour trial of district heating in Beijing.
The mini-reactors will cost an estimated $225 million to build (a fraction of the cost of a full-scale plant, typically upwards of $10 billion) and can be fabricated off-site and delivered by lorry, cutting constructing to three years.
How readily citizens will accept that a swimming-pool-sized nuclear power plant in the backyard is safe is one key question. Another is the economics. Neighborhood nuclear could be cheaper than gas, but pricing nuclear is notoriously difficult to forecast.
If the cost and safety issues can be resolved, SMRs become an attractive alternative to fossil fuels for cities on clean energy and environmental grounds and would help China meet its goal of increasing its domestic nuclear capacity to 200 gigawatts by 2030, up from 35 gigawatts at the end of March.
Small-scale reactors such as the one CNNC is testing fit into a wider research drive to develop and commercialise SMRs not just for cities but also islands, ships and other forms of transport.
CNNC is testing a small-scale reactor dubbed Linglong or Nimble Dragon in Hainan, and reports in October said a prototype floating nuclear power plant would be deployed before 2020 at drilling platforms in the Bohai Sea. An offshore nuclear power plant programme had been confirmed in January. The South China Sea is the likely destination for some of them.
Such small-scale reactors are potentially commercial lifelines for the nuclear industry worldwide, which has struggled since the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor. Beijing suspended nuclear development in the wake of the disaster and only cautiously resumed it in October 2012.
China is not alone in seeing a large global market for small-scale reactors; so, too, does Russia and the United States, both of which are working on designs for them. Meanwhile, China intends for its nuclear power industry to go global, and has ambitions to sell 30 of its third-generation large nuclear power unit, the Hualong or China Dragon, by 2030 to countries involved with the Belt and Road Initiative.