By Richard Johnson
More than eighteen months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 in Japan, China continues to exercise caution in returning to building new nuclear power plants. After an executive meeting, the State Council or China’s cabinet, presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, has decided not to set up any atomic plants in inland regions, but only build a few in coastal areas that have gone through adequate justification.
Within days of Fukushima accident, the Council had decided to halt approvals and licensing for new reactors until a safety plan was in place, and there was assurance that existing plants were adequately designed, sited, protected and managed.
But power generation continued at reactors in operation at the time, as did construction of the 25 units then approved. Two of those have since been completed and come into operation, bringing China’s total number of operating nuclear power reactors to 15.
According to Xinhua, the Council endorsed on October 24 several plans for the development of China’s energy sector and nuclear power safety over the next five years.
A statement released after the meeting stresses that the 12th Five-Year Plan on Energy Development (2011-2015) will accelerate the transformation of energy production and utilization patterns and reinforce energy conservation priorities.
It also emphasizes the need to raise the efficiency of energy exploitation, conversion and utilization, as well as control total energy consumption and establish a safe, stable, economic and clean modern energy system.
According to the statement, China’s major tasks in the energy sector include promoting domestic energy exploitation, pushing forward efficient and clean energy conversion, reforming its energy supply pattern and accelerating the construction of energy storage and transportation facilities.
China will also strive to provide equal energy services in urban and rural areas, rationally control total energy consumption, promote reforms in key fields, rationalize energy source pricing mechanisms and encourage private capital to enter the energy sector.
Nuclear power safety
The Council also approved of the Nuclear Power Safety Plan (2011-2020) as well as the Mid- and Long-term Development Plan for Nuclear Power (2011-2020).
The State Council has discussed the two plans twice since March 2011 based on comprehensive security inspections of nuclear power units both in operation and under construction, and it is “extremely serious and cautious in handling issues concerning safety and development.”
In the next few years, China will return to normal nuclear power construction by maintaining a rational construction pace and pushing forward construction in a steady and orderly manner. The country will also create a scientific layout for nuclear power projects, says the statement.
During the 2011-2015 period, it will not set up any nuclear projects in inland regions, but only construct a few projects in coastal areas that have gone through adequate justification processes, the Chinese cabinet decided.
China will also apply the world’s highest safety requirements to new nuclear power projects and adhere to third-generation nuclear safety standards in constructing new projects. “Safety is the lifeline of nuclear power,” the statement says.
The Chinese cabinet decided that the country must follow the general requirement of ensuring environmental safety, public health and social harmony in developing nuclear power projects. “The principle of putting safety first must be implemented throughout the planning, construction, operation, retirement and other related processes.”
China will constantly carry out safety upgrades on currently operating reactors and use the most advanced mature technologies. The country will also intensify safety management, step up research and development for safety-related technology and equipment and establish a system of laws and regulations on nuclear power safety standards, as well as enhance its emergency management and response capabilities in case of a nuclear accident, according to the statement.
On October 24, China also issued the 2012 edition of its energy policy white paper, elaborating on its energy development policies, energy conservation and the promotion of renewable power sources. The white paper said the country will develop nuclear power in a safe and highly efficient way in a bid to optimize the nation’s energy structure and ensure national energy security.
At present, nuclear power only accounts for 1.8% of China’s total power output, far below the world average of 14%, the white paper says. The country’s installed nuclear power capacity is expected to reach 40 million kilowatts by 2015, according to the paper.
Key elements of nuclear energy policy
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), China considers the following points as key elements of its nuclear energy policy: Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) will be the mainstream but not sole reactor type; nuclear fuel assemblies are fabricated and supplied indigenously; domestic manufacturing of plant and equipment will be maximised, with self-reliance in design and project management but international cooperation is nevertheless encouraged.
The technology base for future reactors remains officially undefined, says WNA, though two designs are currently predominant in construction plans: CPR-1000 and AP1000 Beyond them, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors and fast reactors appear to be the main priorities.
CPR-1000 (improved Chinese PWR) is a Generation II+ pressurized water reactor, based on the French 900 MWe (megawatt electrical) three cooling loop design imported in the 1990s, improved to have a net power output of 1,000 MWe (1080 MWe gross) and a 60 year design life.
The Westinghouse AP1000 is the main basis of China’s move to Generation III technology, and involves a major technology transfer agreement. It is a 1250 MWe gross reactor with two coolant loops. The first four AP1000 reactors are being built at Sanmen and Haiyang, for China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) respectively. According to WNA, At least eight more at four sites are firmly planned after them, and about 30 more are proposed to follow.
The reactors are built from modules fabricated adjacent to each site. The timeline is 50 months from first concrete to fuel loading, followed by six months to grid connection for the first four units, with that duration expected to be reduced significantly for the following units. The cost of the first four is expected to be less than $2000/kW, with this reducing to $1600 for further units.