No turning back in China's drive for clean energy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

State-owned China National Nuclear Corp signed an accord last November with France's Areva, a big provider of nuclear technology, that is key to Beijing's plans to to turn the mainland into a global nuclear powerhouse.

The preliminary agreement, sealed during a visit to Paris by President Hu Jintao, calls for France and China to jointly build a commercial plant to reprocess and recycle spent nuclear fuel from the mainland and elsewhere on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Reprocessed fuel can be used by so-called fast reactors, reducing the need for fresh uranium.

China has long held ambitions to become a big user of nuclear energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy, which is critical to maintaining social stability.

It also wants to become a major nuclear- power-equipment exporter by building plants, mostly in developing countries.

And while the nuclear crisis in Japan has prompted mainland officials to review the country's nuclear plans, energy experts say that because of a lack of viable energy alternatives, Beijing may have little choice but to pursue its nuclear power strategy.

'The global sociopolitical and economic conditions that appear to be driving the renaissance of civil nuclear power' are still there, said Richard Clegg, global nuclear director at Lloyd's Register, which is an industry standards certifier.

Among them, he said, are 'the price of oil, national demands for energy security and societal demands for carbon-alternate fuels to mitigate the effects of global warming'.

Nowhere are those factors more in play than in China, which has been laying plans for the world's biggest expansion in nuclear power capacity.

Just last week, in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, the National People's Congress approved Beijing's nuclear strategy as outlined in the 12th five-year plan. Sun Qin, general manager of the China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC), described the strategy timetable to the People's Daily.

He said 2011 to 2015 would be the 'active' expansion period, to be followed by a 'fast' development stage between 2016 and 2020.

As the threat of a nuclear meltdown grew in the days following the earthquake in northern Japan, Beijing opted to put its plans under review and suspend approvals for new nuclear plants.

But given Beijing's announced target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, 'we do not expect the government to slow the pace of nuclear development,' said Gary Chiu, head of utilities research at Samsung Securities in Hong Kong.

'I can't think of an effective and sufficient clean energy replacement for nuclear in China in the short to medium term.

'Wind power is restricted by a power-grid bottleneck, coal is not clean and solar is too expensive.'

China made its first foray into nuclear energy when a reactor in Zhejiang province went into operation in late 1991.

That was followed three years later by the first plant in Daya Bay.

Currently there are 13 reactors in operation in Zhejiang, Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. All are more modern than the quake-hit Fukushima facility in Japan.

Another 34 reactors are under construction or are already approved along the eastern seaboard.

More plans for nuclear projects are on the drawing board, including further inland, where energy consumption is growing fast in provinces such as Hunan , Hubei and Jiangxi and plants can draw on water supplies from various lakes and the Yangtze River.

Those projects are currently the subject of feasibility studies and approval applications. But all told, China now accounts for about 40 per cent of all nuclear power projects under way or planned around the world.

Today, 80 per cent of the mainland's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Hydropower accounts for another 16 per cent.

Last year, nuclear power accounted for a little over one per cent of the mainland's national power generating capacity.

And while that figure is projected to climb to just under 5 per cent in 2020, according to CNNC's Sun, it is still a small proportion of the mainland's energy mix.

By comparison, nuclear-generated power accounts for 76 per cent of France's electricity, nearly 35 per cent in Japan and 20 per cent in the US.

Beijing hopes to cut its reliance on coal to 55 per cent by 2035 and has been busy developing alternative energy sources.

Last year, China became the world's largest generator of wind power, accounting for about one per cent of its energy needs.

It has also become the biggest supplier of solar cells to the rest of the world.

And it has been ramping up its natural gas production, attempting to exploit its waterways for hydroelectricity and pursuing biomass, which generates electricity by burning plant material such as agricultural waste. But the mainland's economically recoverable gas resources are small relative to its population, so it relies on imports to meet demand. Hydroelectricity is considered harmful to the environment. And environmentally friendly sources such as wind, solar and biomass are expensive to produce and so far have required government subsidies to sustain their production.

Wind power is also hampered by a lack of lines built to feed into the country's electricity grids, creating bottlenecks.

Maintaining economic growth means the country will need even more energy.

Based on figures compiled by the International Energy Agency, the mainland's electricity demand is projected to triple between 2008 and 2035. It is expected to overtake the US as the largest global consumer of electricity by 2012.

Last year China's economy expanded a little over 10 per cent. The official target set for the next five years is 7 per cent annual growth.

China usually exceeds its growth targets. So assuming the economy grows at an average of 9 per cent a year between 2011 and 2015, Samsung Securities estimates the electricity consumption rate will have to grow at about the same pace.

Even taking into account increased user efficiency and that the economy slows to an average annual rate of 7 per cent from 2016 to 2020, that implies power consumption has to grow at about 5.6 per cent a year.

Making nuclear power a bigger part of China's electricity equation, though, has its own obstacles. Besides rising public concern on general safety grounds, lack of transparency remains an issue.

Last November, CNNC's former general manager Kang Rixin was convicted of taking bribes and abusing his position to enrich others, sparking concerns about the integrity of the country's largest developer of nuclear power plants.

China also lacks the skilled personnel to operate a large number of nuclear facilities.

To qualify as an 'experienced nuclear plant operator' requires eight to 10 years of on-the-job practice, compared with the five-year construction period for a plant, said Jerzy Grynblat, Lloyds Register's nuclear business director.

That means the industry needs to keep more engineers than required at its current fleet of nuclear plants so it can staff the projects yet to be built.

The location of the nuclear plants is controversial. Xu Mi, the China Institute of Atomic Energy's chief engineer for fast reactors development, was quoted last week by Xinhua as saying China's large land mass means authorities can be conservative when it comes to selecting where to put a nuclear project.

He said the mainland's nuclear projects were all far from seismic fault lines. Plus, he said, they had greater anti-earthquake and flooding capacity than is normally expected.

Still, some facilities are being built in or near zones prone to earthquakes, albeit mild ones such as those that have occurred in Fujian province.

In the interior, securing ample water to cool reactors could be a problem. That's because rivers and lakes there may be subject to drought.

And in the case of the Sino-French recycling plant to be built in Gansu province near the Gobi desert, environmentalists have raised concerns that the lack of water in the parched region could spell disaster, given spent-fuel reprocessing is a water-intensive industry.

According to Gu Zhongmao, a scientific adviser at the China Institute of Atomic Energy, fuel reprocessing is the domestic nuclear industry's weakest link.

The mainland's uranium deposits are low-grade and expensive to extract, hence the attraction of reprocessed fuel.

The reprocessed fuel can be used in fast reactors, one kind of fourth-generation reactor designed to be more fuel-efficient and safer than previous generations.

A small-scale pilot fast reactor - the mainland's first - came on stream in a Beijing suburb last year. But that type of reactor isn't likely to become commercially viable on a large scale until 2030.

At current uranium prices, using reprocessed fuel costs 17.6 per cent more than using fresh uranium once and disposing of it, usually by storing it underground, said Gu.

However, as demand for uranium rises with global nuclear power-generating capacity, higher uranium prices would make reprocessing fuel more economic.

Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University's Centre for China Energy Economics Research, said it was inevitable China would need to develop fuel reprocessing capabilities in order to meet its long-term nuclear power development goals, whether it acquires the technology from abroad or develops its own.

But he cautioned that 'it would be difficult to justify to the public processing spent-fuel for other countries given the hazards involved', such as a potential accident while transporting the spent fuel to the recycling site.

Dawning of a new era

China generates 80 per cent of its electricity from coal

But it is rapidly developing nuclear power stations. Of plants being built or planned worldwide, the proportion that are on the mainland is: 40%