A few years ago, the senior executive of a Western company travelled to the mainland to strike a deal for a batch of nuclear reactors. The executive spoke fluent Putonghua and had done business with state-owned enterprises before. The old bureaucrats would have little interest in technology but plenty of interest in the dinner offerings, he thought, so instead of preparing for negotiations, he spent his time choosing wines. He soon regretted it. 'The Chinese team were young - decision makers in their mid-30s,' he said. 'They all had excellent education overseas. They were highly motivated and worked extremely hard. 'What impressed me most was their professionalism. They put on the table tall stacks of documents that had all the technical details. In contrast, we brought wine. 'The Chinese certainly have an impressive amount of money, but their quality of talent is what really scares me.' High salaries, market competition and institutional reforms have created a vibrant mainland nuclear sector. Construction of a mid-sized thermal nuclear power plant costs more than 50 billion yuan (HK$56.81 billion). Once completed, its daily operation and maintenance require less than 100 full-time staff. Their jobs are regarded as the cream of the crop. Senior officials have mentioned on different occasions this year that the mainland is planning to more than double its nuclear capacity by 2020 to ease its increasing dependency on fossil fuels. Some mainland energy experts estimate that the total investment will be more than 1.5 trillion yuan. This would be divided between three companies that are licensed to build plants: China National Nuclear Corporation, China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holdings (GNP) and State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation. A GNP manager, who declined to be named, said the companies were trying to maximise their market share by offering the best technology and facilities at the lowest cost. 'It is common [for company staff] to work overtime, cancel vacations and spend a whole month studying in Paris without a chance to visit the Eiffel Tower,' he said. But two decades ago, the competition did not exist. Nuclear power plants were built and run by the military. Workers' salaries, medical treatment and retirement were all funded by Beijing. In 1988, the former ministry of nuclear industry became the China National Nuclear Corporation, serving the civilian and military sector. In the late 1990s, the company's civilian services were separated from the military. In the early 2000s, competition was introduced in the civilian sector and the three companies were licensed. The first commercial nuclear power plant, at Qinshan in Zhejiang province , was connected to the grid in 1991.