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China waves caution flag on pace of nuclear new build

A government policy groups says the country should avoid building too many units too quickly

Keep options openThe Bloomberg wire service reported Jan 11 that the Chinese State Council Research Office published a policy paper in its Outlook Weekly that the country must avoid building too many new nuclear reactors too quickly.

This blog obtained a rough English translation of the source document.  This blog post is a review of the highlights of the English version of the report.

The paper calls for a ceiling on new construction to avoid shortfalls in nuclear fuel (uranium) and inability to build and operate the new plants safely due to a lack of qualified workers.

The paper also said the country should set aside its Generation II indigenous design for safety reasons and concentrate on building new reactors based on the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor.

China has astonished nuclear experts in the West with estimates it will build 80 GWe of new nuclear powered electricity generation capacity in the next ten years.  There has been a lot of debate about whether China can actually perform to these numbers and do it safely.  The ‘Outlook’ paper now puts the target for construction of new nuclear reactors at 40 GWe or half the number announced last Fall at an energy conference in Beijing.

The new State Council document should be taken with a grain of salt since it appears to be an advisory memo rather than the ratified policy of top government decision makers. It is important because it is a strong reality check on the large numbers for construction of new reactors that have been released in recent months.

A fearless prediction appears to gain credibility

China nuclear construction site This blog predicted in December 2010 that there would be a slowdown in China in terms of the pace of its new nuclear build.

The mandarins in Beijing will discover they’re outrunning their ability to build out their plans for 80 GWe of new reactors in ten years. There are limits to how much concrete, steel, and nuclear engineering talent can be put into play in that short a period of time. They might build 25 GWE in ten years.

The World Nuclear Organization has a briefing on China’s nuclear energy program along with maps and lists of current and planned new reactors. 

China’s new nuclear vision

Here are some highlights of the Outlook Weekly dated January 10, 2011. These highlights are a summary of the rough English translation obtained by this blog.  Readers who understand Chinese may click on the link at the top of this blog post to get to the original document.

Planning baseline – as of the end of 2010, the government has approved 40 GWe as a target for completion of new reactors by 2020. Attention is needed on constraints that will prevent utilities building them to attain these goals. Key issues are trained personnel, equipment manufacturing quality, and safety supervision. The long-term healthy develop of nuclear energy could be affected by these issues.

Reactor design – The country should stop building its indigenous design, a Gen II reactor, and use the Westinghouse AP1000, a Gen III design, for all new reactors. The reason is the numerous safety improvements in the Westinghouse model. The firm has executed a major technology transfer agreement with China to hand over technical documents for the AP1000.

Personnel – There is a serious shortage of human resources and inadequate capabilities to train them. A qualified nuclear engineer needs four-to-eight years of education and more to fully grasp the scope of a nuclear safety culture. The safe operation of new plants will be at risk if an adequate number of technical personnel are not available.

Manufacturing quality – Product quality is unstable. Getting complete systems assembled from multiple suppliers is getting more difficult. Due to the rush to get components, there is a problem with compliance to the requirements of the nuclear grade quality assurance system.

Safety & regulation – Organizational capacity needs to be strengthened soon. Staffing is not up to the required numbers for each new reactor. Pay and promotion for nuclear safety jobs lags behind other specialties. Legal authority is fragmented and needs to be codified under a single statute.

Fuel cycle – The infrastructure to handle the back end of the fuel cycle is weak. The recent hot start-up of a pilot plant does not mean industrial scale reprocessing is available. 

Separately, it will take at least a decade for China to start the large-scale industrial application of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technology according to a Jan 17 statement from the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

Financing – Capital requirements are putting a strain on the budget, perhaps requiring one trillion yuan ($152 billion). This will increase costs and the country has not seen the end of this trend as the peak of the construction period is still in the future.

Corrective actions

corrective actions The rest of the document contains a series of reasonable corrections to problems. For instance, the overriding recommendation is to adjust the scale of development to what is sustainable without compromising safety.

For instance, the report calls for independence of the National Nuclear Safety Administration and giving it the authority to do its job.

It calls for a national system of nuclear engineering education. Improvement of manufacturing quality must get a top priority. The document called for the government to “break the bottleneck” on delivery of quality components and systems.

An interesting recommendation is to establish an independent nuclear fuel authority to handle the complete fuel cycle from acquiring uranium, to enriching and fabricating fuel, and reprocessing and disposition on the back end.

China could still amaze the world with what they do accomplish. They are headed in the right direction with a focus on shorter delivery times and lower costs through modular construction. Eventually, Chinese utilities will become exporters of technology transferred to them by Westinghouse and Areva.

Note to readers World Nuclear News published a report on the Outlook Weekly document on January 11, 2011.


Dan Yurman's picture

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