SCMP - Tuesday, October 5, 2004
China leading world in next generation of nuclear plants


ROBERT J. SAIGET of Agence France-Presse in Beijing

Facing enormous demand for electricity, China is to build dozens of nuclear plants in the next half century and is at the forefront of efforts to develop the next generation of safer, more efficient reactors.

With China set to become the world’s biggest market for atomic power in the future, top nuclear scientists from around the world gathered in Beijing during the end of September to discuss the development of the sector.

Due to huge energy needs spurred by its booming economy and an environment choking on fossil fuels like coal, China has ambitious plans to build up to 30 nuclear reactors using existing technology by 2020.

In the longer-term, up to 2050, China hopes to have up to 300 gigawatts of nuclear-generated capacity that will largely usher in a fourth generation reactor design that on paper is safer, more efficient and more secure against proliferation, scientists at the symposium sponsored by Tsinghua University said.

China and South Africa are leading the world in the development of the next generation of reactors, with both nations enjoying full government backing and tremendous cooperation with international nuclear engineers.

Both have plans to build 160 megawatt demonstration pebble bed modular reactors — high temperature gas reactors — by 2010 in the hopes of eventually commercialising the technology and bring electricity and modern lifestyles to communities throughout China and Africa.

“China’s plans for nuclear power are very ambitious and very aggressive,” Andrew Kadak, former president of the American Nuclear Society and a leading nuclear researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.

“China desperately needs energy. If the pebble bed reactor can fill this tremendous need and demonstrate that it is safe, this will be very significant for the future of nuclear power.”

The reactor is theoretically “meltdown proof” which means that accidents like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could be avoided, while the cost of the reactors should fall significantly as multiple safety systems and expensive pressure domes will not have to be built, he said.

The “inherent safety” of the reactors stems from the helium gas coolant used in the reactors and the fuel, which is formed by encasing uranium oxide in round balls or pebble-shaped silicon carbide and graphite shells.

The spent fuel will be much harder to process into weapons-grade uranium and will be much easier to dispose of than the traditional-style water-cooled reactor fuel rods, Mr Kadak said.

“People are very excited to finally have this kind of technology, now we need to see if it can be built on an industrial scale.”

“If this technology proves to be economically efficient and safe, then China will be on track to set up a standardised cookie-cutter-type production process where they could build as many as they need,” Mr Kadak said.

As China and South Africa forge ahead, Western nations like the United States and Germany are hampered by regulations on building new reactors, while France and Japan have already met their electrical needs through existing reactors, scientists said.

China and Japan currently operate the world’s only two experimental high temperature gas reactors.

“Nuclear power development in China is very rapid. In Japan we had similar development 30 or 40 years ago and we had many problems. China will meet similar problems,” Nozumu Fujimoto, senior researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Institute, said.

“To build a big pebble bed reactor, there are no fundamental problems, but other problems could arrive.

“This is the same for every technology, especially as you scale up in size... There are a lot of areas where problems could arise.”

The safe production of the fuel spheres and their storage or disposal will also pose challenges for China, Fujimoto said.

China would have to build at least three 160 megawatt pebble bed reactors and the fuel needed for them before the technology could fully prove itself as economically efficient and safe, he said.

The modular structure of the pebble bed reactor further means that the reactors will be produced in a factory and not on site as with traditional light and heavy water reactors, said Regis Matzie, a Westinghouse engineer.

“The pebble bed modular reactor will be built in a stable environment in a factory, with highly trained workers,” meaning that errors in construction will be reduced and construction costs reduced.

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