By Alexander Geysman
Over the past several years we have heard a lot of news regarding the People’s Republic of China’s efforts in nuclear energy development, and individually they may seem quite praiseworthy, but altogether they form a stunning picture.
According to the IEA, since 2012 China’s installed power capacity is the largest in the world at 21% of the global total. Most of it has been built within the past 30 years, and it is continuing to grow very rapidly. The largest part of electricity generation is derived from coal, which is present in China in abundance, inevitably resulting in considerable air pollution. Economic growth has lifted most of the population out of poverty and thus raised more sophisticated questions about the quality of life in the internal discourse and then in the political agenda. Therefore, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has had to shift to extreme measures and command to change the course of the country’s energy development toward a cleaner future. Currently, China is investing in renewables more than any other country in the world, and already has the same amount of wind turbines as the rest of the world combined. Even more interesting is they are investing in nuclear Given the pragmatic nature of the Chinese people, and the CPC in particular, it is surprising that the Fukushima disaster did not impact their nuclear aspirations.
When looking at the history of nuclear energy development in China, one can see four distinct phases (see Figure 1). The PRC started its first nuclear reactor quite late (1994), and had not been overly enthusiastic about it until the mid-2000s. Then the aforementioned shift resulted in rapid construction to reach 36 reactors in operation by 2016 with 22 more under construction.
Figure 1. China’s NPP commissioning. Red = estimated completion date. Credit: Jesper Antonsson (data from PRIS) 2016.
China has been very good at developing economies of scale and here they are proving the case where no one ever dared to – with nuclear plants. Current construction prices for a nuclear plant, according to a study by Lovering, Yip and Nordhaus, are between $5-15 billion USD worldwide with a strong tendency to rise over the decades. But the most recent estimates in China are less than $3 billion.
With the current technology raising more and more questions about safety, waste disposal efficiency and steadily growing costs, Beijing aims at pioneering 4th generation technology, which could be a breakthrough on all these fronts. Several developments in this area are being conducted simultaneously.
The first molten salt reactor prototype ran on uranium in the US city of Oak Ridge at Chicago University in 1964-1969 with promising results, but since the program was closed in 1973 not many people had heard of it until recently the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics started close R&D cooperation with the technology pioneers. The goal is to power it with another radioactive element, Thorium. Unlike Uranium, Thorium cannot be used for nuclear weapons and more importantly is abundant all over the Earth, especially in India and China. The Molten Salt Reactor construction does not need costly external cooling and features several feedback loops making it almost fail-safe for the surroundings.
Some other characteristics include:
- When the temperature rises over the standpoint, the liquid mixture of salts and dissolved fission material expands, thus slowing the reaction (which eventually leads to another cycle of compression and speeding the reaction, till the balance is reached).
- If the temperature in the reactor exceeds critical level, it melts the plug at the bottom, thereby ‘flushing’ nuclear material to a safe underground storage area.
Comparing the amount of thorium needed with coal, Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), estimates that one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3,500,000 tons of coal.
In total, around $3 billion USD is invested in R&D engaging 700 scientists focused towards one goal – to make an operable reactor within 5 to 10 years. To put this in perspective, this sum makes up only 10% of the money spent on building the new football stadium here in St.Petersburg.
Another breakthrough technology-based reactor is in plan to be commissioned next year. China’s Nuclear Engineering Construction Corporation (CNECC) plans to start up a high-temperature (>950°C), gas-cooled pebble-bed nuclear plant next year in Shandong province south of Beijing. Originally based on German designs, helium blower cooling will make these reactors immune to Fukushima-type meltdowns and temperature resistant graphite coating of fuel “pebbles” allows both higher efficiency than traditional technologies and self-regulation. After the successful completion of the 210 MW plant, a 600 MW facility in Jiangxi province will follow.
The CPC is supporting other projects outside China as well. One more prominent direction is a partnership with Bill Gates’ TerraPower Company on a joint venture of their revolutionary 4th-gen fast reactor. It uses a “Travelling Wave” technological process and liquid-sodium cooling. Unfortunately, there are no further details, but there is a promise of easy scaling.
A systematic approach can be viewed in another area as well. For example, China commissioned Russia’s Rosatom to build a floating reactor and another one based on Westinghouse technology is being developed by China General Nuclear Power Group and the China National Nuclear Corp. Though a seemingly beneficial idea of bringing plug-and-play power to remote areas when needed such as remote islands during tourist season and offshore oil and gas rigs, it raises security concerns yet to be addressed.
China’s ultimate goal is to build 400 reactors by mid-century and it seems that nothing can stop them. If we take climate change seriously, not to mention more conventional energy challenges facing us in the not-so-distant future, the best way to address them in a universal and sustainable way is with nuclear energy as there are no close alternatives yet. Furthermore, it is beneficial for us all that at least one resourceful global actor, China, is focusing its efforts on bringing us there.
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