Tag Archives: Fukushima

China’s Nuclear Power Program Gets Back On Track

Three policy documents concerning China’s nuclear power program surfaced last week: an energy white paper; the long-awaited new nuclear safety rules that come out of the review following the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster in Japan in March last year; and the mid-to-long-term development plan for nuclear power. The State Council discussed the latter two, having approved the new safety rules in principle in late May, and approved the final versions of both documents.

Yet for all that we haven’t learnt much if anything that is new about China’s ambitious nuclear power program. Officials have been flagging since early this year that work was resuming on reactors under construction before the moratorium on building and new approvals imposed in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima Dai-Ichi pending the safety review. That would cover 25 sites plus eight approved by not started, four of which were due to break ground last year. It is unclear how much of the construction undertaken this year was safety or remedial work as opposed to new building. The line in the white paper that a ‘few’ plants would be built between now and 2015, likely covers some or all of the eight already approved, and two or three penciled in for 2013, even if some might be delayed for reasons we’ll mention later.

It has also been clear for some months that China plans to moderate in the short term the pace of its ambitious plans for adding nuclear power generation capacity. The pre-Fukushima Dai-Ichi plan had called for the current 12GW of installed capacity to be expanded to 70GW by 2020. The white paper said the target was now 40GW by 2015, a number that we have heard before. After 2015, the white paper said, China would return to what it called a normal pace of construction.

This Bystander’s thumb-in-the-air estimate on the basis of that would be that installed capacity will get to 60GW by 2020, with half as much capacity again under construction. A slowing of the program, to be sure, but not a drastic one. (At no point has there been any suggestion that China would step back from nuclear power as Japan is doing.)

Moving to more advanced third generation reactors from the second-generation ones that account for the bulk of China’s installed reactors, was highlighted in the white paper as a safety measure. Yet this was already a policy priority before Fukushima Dai-Ichi, along with the foreign technology transfers that goes along with it. Nor is there any escaping the fact that the installed base of second-generation plants is going to be around for decades, even if their flood and earthquake defences are shored up. However, unstarted projects planned with second-generation reactors will likely be put on ice until they can be upgraded to third-generation plants. Germany and Japanese nuclear companies will, no doubt, be falling over themselves to bid for work to replace their disappearing domestic order books.

Nor is the continuation of the moratorium on building plants inland new. Most of China’s nuclear plants are along its coasts, where the  the population and power demand is, and the coal fields that feed the coal-fired power stations that generate 70% of China’s electricity are far away. There were plans to build reactors in Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi during the 2011-15 five year plan. All three were pushed back several years ago until after 2015, as has been a plant planned for Anhui. Other provinces such as Sichuan also want nuclear power plants, but haven’t got Beijing’s approval. Finance is an issue, but the main reason for the delays for all the inland reactors is concerns about the river pollution they could cause.

There is a another reason for slowing the pace of building new reactors. There aren’t enough trained nuclear workers and safety supervisors. China takes nuclear safety seriously, more so than, say, in the construction of its high-speed rail network, though the nuclear industry has had its corruption problems, too. Beijing has also taken note of what happens to political leaders to whom nuclear disasters befall.

While a nuclear workforce could be trained in relatively short order, developing a culture of safety in a country where industrial safety is only starting to take hold as a concept, will take time. It also takes at least four years to train nuclear regulators by world standards. The arithmetic says to meet even scaled-back goals China will need to quadruple the number it has by 2020. Financial capital is the easy part. Human capital is harder.


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China Gives Green Light To Resume Nuclear Power Program

The working staff work at a control room for China's experimental fast neutron reactor, July 21, 2011. China's first experimental fast neutron reactor began, for the first time, generating electricity that goes into the grid on Thursday. The development and spread of the new technology is helpful for China to develop a sustainable nuclear power industry and set up an advanced fuel-recycling system, according to experts. (Xinhua)

The State Council has signed off “in principle” on China’s new nuclear safety proposals and the development plan for the country’s ambitious nuclear power program. This provides the green light for work to resume formally on plants under construction and for approvals to be granted for new plants, which include some of the world’s most advanced. Beijing put its nuclear program on hold pending the safety review initiated in the wake of the tsunami that so devastatingly struck Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station in March last year.

China has 14 operating nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 12GW, including that generated by its first experimental fast neutron reactor whose control room is seen in the photo above. There are at least 25 plants under construction, expected to raise capacity to 40GW by 2015. By 2020, nuclear power generation capacity is expected to reach 70GW. China’s long-term plans call for 5% of the country’s power to be generated by nuclear by 2020 and 10% by 2030, up from 1.2% in 2007.

Unlike Japan and Europe, China has just delayed, not scaled back its nuclear plans in the wake of the Fukushima  accident. Last December, the National Energy Administration said nuclear energy would be the foundation of China’s power generation over the next “10 to 20 years”, adding as much as 300 GW of capacity over that period. (The World Nuclear Association has a list of existing and proposed plants here and a map of them here.)

Earlier this year, Ren Jungshen, a nuclear safety expert at China’s Ministry of Environment Protection, said that China’s nuclear industry was on track to hit its capacity targets for 2015 and 2020, one of a series of comments by Chinese officials suggesting the program was about to resume. Late last month, state media quoted an unnamed official saying that construction was already underway at 28 sites without giving details. This may include corrective work that was deemed necessary by the safety review at plants that fell short of the new earthquake and flood-control standards.

This Bystander expects that four or five new approvals for a further 5GW of capacity, costing 50 billion yuan ($7.8 billion) to build, will be given in short order, especially with the current desire to bring forward planned infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy. Some 20-30% of that sum could flow into order books this year.


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China’s Nuclear Program Post-Fukushima: Ready To Resume?

One year on from the tsunami that so devestatingly struck Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, a Chinese official has given the strongest hint to date that China will soon resume its own nuclear power program. Ren Junsheng, a nuclear safety expert at China’s Ministry of Environment Protection, told a conference in Hong Kong marking the first anniversary of the Fukushima accident that “the Chinese nuclear industry still feels confident to meet the installed capacity targets of 40 million and 70 million kilowatts by 2015 and 2020 respectively”.

Ren’s comments follow those by Huang Wei, China’s deputy envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who says that China had taken a series of measures to enhance nuclear safety, including safety management, in the wake of the Fukushima accident. At an IAEA meeting earlier this month, Wei said China now has 15 nuclear units in operation and 26 units in construction. Preliminary results released after comprehensive examinations ended last August showed the safety of these units were guaranteed, he said. Not, we pray, famous last words.

In January, Wang Binghua, board chairman of the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp., said that China’s first AP1000 nuclear power reactor, the Sanmen plant in Zhejiang, is expected to come into operation in 2013. That had been the clearest indication to date that China was planning to restart its nuclear power program. Ren and Wei’s comments suggest that the State Council’s review of China’s new nuclear safety proposals and the development program for the country’s ambitious nuclear program is imminent. Once the State Council has signed off, work will resume.


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China Cracks On With Nuclear Power Plant Construction

The pause for breath in China’s ambitious nuclear development program announced following the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plants appears to have been no more than a single intake of air. Barely a week after Beijing suspended approvals of all new nuclear power projects until a safety review is carried out, Bloomberg reports that work will start next month on a planned fourth-generation nuclear power plant at Rongcheng in Shandong.

Cui Shaozhang, deputy general manager at Huaneng Nuclear Power Development Co., a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group, China’s largest power group, said it would be the world’s first high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor.  The Rongcheng plant will use helium in its cooling system, and its reactor cores are said to be able to withstand temperatures exceeding 1,600℃ for several hundred hours without melting down. “Japan’s Fukushima plant was using old technology while Chinese reactors are more advanced,” Cai is quoted as saying–words, this Bystander hopes, that will never come back to haunt him.



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China’s Nuclear Energy Program Post-Fukushima

The crisis still unfolding at Japan’s devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors will have a huge impact on the global nuclear industry. That will not only be in terms of the running of existing reactors and the design and location of future ones, but also in the reevaluation of nuclear’s place in energy policies.

Europe has already started that process. Germany is shutting down reactors; Spain, Russia and the U.K. are ordering safety reviews. China has now followed the U.S. in suspending the approval process for new nuclear power stations so that safety standards can be reexamined. Beijing has also said it will revise its standards for the safety management of nuclear plants without giving any detail about what those revisions might entail.

Fukushima is unlike Chernobyl or even Three Mile Island in that the damage was caused by a natural disaster, whereas the other two were to varying degrees a result of human error. But seismic risks, including tsunamis, are highly relevant in many  parts of the world with expanding nuclear programs to satisfy growing energy needs such as southeastern Europe, India, Iran, Turkey, the U.S. and, of course, China, which accounts for 40% of the world’s nuclear power plants currently under construction. This Asian slice of a U.N.-sponsored seismic risk map, below, shows the most hazardous areas, in the dark red.

Caixin has a map of where China’s existing and planned nuclear power plants are here which you can easily overlay in your mind on the map above, while The Wall Street Journal has a map plotting them against China’s fault lines here.

Beijing has already said it doesn’t plan to alter its plans to build new reactors. The new five-year plan proposes a fourfold expansion of the country’s nuclear power generation capacity from 10 gigawatts (less than 2% of the country’s current electricity generation) to 40 gigawatts. Last year Beijing approved 34 new nuclear power plants to add 37 gigawatts of  capacity. Work has started on 26 six of those units, accounting for 78% of the planned new capacity. The newly announced safety review is likely to mean no more than a pause for breath.

Liu Tienan, chief of China’s National Energy Bureau, does say that China has much to learn from Japan’s crisis, particularly about safety. Modern reactors, so called Generation 3 reactors, are more safely designed than Generation 1 and 2 reactors, the type in use at Fukushima. Generation 3 reactors use a passive cooling system that does not require electricity to run. They may well have survived the Sendai earthquake and tsunami in tact. It was the loss of electric power needed to run the cooling system and its back-ups that put the reactors at risk, not the direct impact of the quake and tsunami. That said plenty of wars have been lost by generals refighting the last one.

China is pursuing home-grown nuclear power generation technology based on what it is transferring from American, French and Japanese nuclear companies (no one really knows what is going on in China’s military nuclear program). On the civilian side, the AP1000 reactors Beijing has chosen for construction on the east coast and plans to build further inland are a Generation III design. They are also being used for 14 proposed reactors in the U.S. The design has been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but there remain some concerns about its safety, particularly its capacity to survive being hit by an aircraft.

No power generation system will ever be 100% safe. When nuclear goes wrong, it tends to go catastrophically wrong. Predicting what could trigger that catastrophe will never be a 100% science, either. In 2003, the Japanese Nuclear Commission was set this safety target:

The mean value of acute fatality risk by radiation exposure resultant from an accident of a nuclear installation to individuals of the public, who live in the vicinity of the site boundary of the nuclear installation, should not exceed the probability of about 1×10^6 per year.

1×10^6 is a million. Japan’s once-in-a-million-years event happened just eight years later.

China’s nuclear program has had its safety issues in the past, and Fukushima will give more strength to the voices raising concerns about nuclear safety. But the country’s need to generate ever more power to fuel growth and to meet a self-imposed goal of generating 15% of its energy needs using non-fossil fuels by 2020 means it is unlikely to scale back its nuclear program, even if it slows the pace of development. Beijing can convince itself that the safety issues can be handled (even if convincing its citizens is another matter, and that may depend on how Fukushima turns out). Its biggest impediment is, as it is everywhere for nuclear, cost. Reactors are expensive to build and have histories of expensive project delays. The country is looking at a potential bill of $150 billion over the next decade for its nuclear program, more if the safety review imposes additional safety-related costs. Meanwhile, there are less expensive alternatives, such as gas, and in future renewables developing rapidly. The future pace of the development of China’s nuclear energy program won’t be decided on safety alone.


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