Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

China’s race for nuclear energy

The Chinese economy is in desperate need for energy to keep it growing. With power shortages and blackouts as well as a growing demand for electricity, the Chinese government is looking for new energy sources and nuclear energy stands at the top of the list.

The rapid pace of China’s nuclear energy growth is emphasised by reports in the Chinese media that nuclear capacity targets for the year 2020 could be revised to 86 GWe.

China has 11 nuclear power reactors in commercial operation and 11 under construction. The country aims to become self-sufficent in reactor design as well as construction and other aspects of the fuel cycle.

Lately, China has started the construction of two new nuclear units at Ningde and Fuqing, both in the Fujian province. The plans are to build a total of six 1 000 MWe reactors at the site at the cost of $14.7 billion. The building of the first two CPR-1000 is scheduled to be completed by 2013 and 2014.

The CPR-1000 is an advanced pressurised water reactor (PWR) designed and developed by China from Areva-designed PWRs at the Daya Bay nuclear power station.

Most of China’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels, 80% mainly from coal and 18% hydro power. While coal is China’s main energy source. Most coal reserves are in the north or northwest of the country which is a logistical problem. Nuclear power has an important role, especially in the coastal areas remote from the coal fields and where the economy experiences rapid growth.

More than 16 provinces, regions and municipalities have announced their intention to build nuclear power plants in the 12th five-year plan 2011-2015. The provinces had to put together firm proposals with reactor vendors by the end of 2008 and submitted them to the central government’s National Development and Reform Commission for approval before 2010.

The Chinese have set themselves a priority list in regard to their nuclear policy. Among them, that PWR will be the mainstream but not sole reactor type.

Nuclear-fuel assemblies are produced and supplied indigenously. China will maximise its domestic manufacturing of nuclear plants and equipment with self-reliance in design and project management.

After developing its own nuclear-power technologies, China has since imported a range of power reactor types from global vendors. In October 2008, the French vendor and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) established an engineering joint venture and technology transfer tool for the development of EPR and other PWR plants in China and at a later date abroad.

The other nuclear technology is to be based on the US Westinghouse AP-1000. Four of those units will be completed in coming years, with Chinese technologists and manufacturers running its systems in order to move on to mass domestic deployment.

Chinese uranium resources amount to 70 000 tons of uranium which, on paper, should be sufficient to fill the needs in the short term, of its nuclear programme.

With the prospective need, China needs to import much more uranium and a steady supply of uranium is vital. Australia and China have signed a nuclear deal allowing China to import Australian uranium for power stations. Under the terms of the agreement, Australia will export 20 000 metric tons of uranium to China each year beginning in 2010.

China and Australia had failed previously to agree on a deal because of Australian concerns that China would use the uranium in its nuclear weapon programme.

On October 31, 2008, China and Kazakhstan signed an agreement on cooperation in uranium production and nuclear energy. The agreement foresees cooperation between KazaAtomProm and CGNPC on the joint development of uranium resources, production of nuclear fuel, the long-term trade of natural uranium, nuclear power generation as well as the construction of nuclear power plants.

Canada and South Africa are also seen as potential uranium suppliers to China and China is setting up a mine in Niger. Despite the scepticism of some observers and nuclear energy experts, the targets for 2020 have already been upwards revised several times.

The first figure was 40 GWe by 2020, which was later upscaled to 60 GWe and in April this year it was changed again to 70 GWe. The latest potential figure of 86 GWe would put the Chinese fleet second in the world ranking, behind the US’s current 100 GWe and ahead of France’s 63 GWe and Japan’s 46 GWe.

In order to reach the capacity of 86 GWe by 2020, China will have to build about 60 more reactors in 11 years. Given that 11 reactors are currently under construction since last year, the construction rate will have to continue or increase up to the year 2016.