December 14, 2011

Russian View of China's Nuclear Power Expansion

For the longest time China was regarded as a younger brother by Russia [in the area of nuclear energy]. The Chinese have historically liked talking about the necessity of learning from others but the fact is that this situation is rapidly changing. One can easily distinguish between the Chinese approach towards nuclear power of ten years ago, when the country was eager to obtain any technology on any conditions, and today’s approach characterized as Napoleonic in its size and scope. Starting with a domestic reactor technology of CNP-300 (Chinese Nuclear Power unit), now the country’s strategic objective is to create a CAP-2100 (a reactor type with 2100 MW power capacity) on the basis of American advanced technologies within the next 10 years

France became the Peoples Republic of China’s first partner in the nuclear sphere. It has assisted China in constructing their so-called CPR-1000 power reactor. The older CPR-1000 technology cannot be exported from China and is considered to be less safe than newer reactor designs.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis brought lots of positive momentum for the roll-out AP-1000 reactors on the Chinese market. The reactor is third generation technology, and its characteristics make it the most advanced reactor technology available anywhere at present, yet this reactor technology is not without its own problems. Most important is the price issue. The cost of the American reactor is way above Chinese CPR, CNP or even Russian VVER technologies which may present hurdles for further AP-1000 technology export to countries which are embarking on nuclear power in order to cut budgetary expenses. In China this problem might be solved through Chinese involvement and the introduction of Chinese technologies in order to reduce the overall cost of the reactor. Another hurdle is on safety which seems less than optimal. The main point here is the absence of a so-called “melting fuel trap” This is a trap located under the active zone of a reactor and serves as a last barrier for preventing contamination in the event of an accident. This question was widely debated in the UAE where South Korea’s KEPCO enterprise is offering their own version of the American AP-1000 with similar design characteristics.

Another risk the Chinese are facing is their lack of the operating experience. The AP-1000 is an absolutely new technology and China is the first importer of this reactor in the world. The first reactor, the Sanmen nuclear power plant (NPP), will even be built three years sooner than in the US. This absolute trust by the Chinese in US reactor technology surprises many experts. Recently Westinghouse admitted that the reactor’s main circulation pumps are not working as expected.

China's big plans for the AP1000

China purchased several AP1000 reactors from Westinghouse and monitors their construction which is what is happening now in Haiyang and Sanmen. Then Chinese specialists and American engineers through a concerted efforts work on improving the technology and increasing its power capacity. Lastly the Chinese are granted all the intellectual rights and operate the new reactor themselves. With regards to power capacity improvements, according to the terms of the signed Sino-American contract, the Chinese will have the intellectual property rights on any reactor type with power at the level of 1400 MW or more. Accordingly, as countries will seek greater capacity reactors the Chinese are busy in building their own export reactors, based on US technology, which will be on the world’s nuclear market in the not too distant future.

Russia has been invited to construct two power units with BN-800 reactors type (In Russian BN – Bustrye Neitroni- are Fast Neutrons).

China‘s nuclear development is planned in conformity with the three steps suggested by Jiang Zemin. First, slow neutron energy is supposed to become the basis for China’s nuclear energy sector; second fast neutron technology should be introduced and take the lead role; finally thermonuclear (fusion) reactors are expected.

It appears that China‘s rise as a nuclear exporter is not feared by the US nor is its technological progress a threat to America’s technological nuclear capacity.

China is developing rapidly and will soon catch up with the world’s top nuclear exporting powers. The situation will get tougher within 10 years as China gains operational experience with its new technologies. Market will see new nuclear offers coming forward from this nation. China is not satisfied to stand still; the rest of the world should take note.
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