China pips US in race to start the world’s first meltdown-proof nuclear power plant

China has 20 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country on earth. With Sanmen, the industry is hoping to get the nod to build more reactors at home, and even export the AP1000 technology.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:23pm

At a small peninsula facing the East China Sea in Sanmen county in Zhejiang province sits the world’s most advanced nuclear reactor, and China’s clarion call to the clean energy industry.

Some day over the next two weeks, the power plant will start loading more than 100 fuel assemblies into the honeycomb core of its AP1000 reactor with a pair of robotic arms, people at the site said.

The arms will move at a snail’s pace, not only because each assembly costs more than 10 million yuan, but their fine metal rods hold millions of thumb-size uranium pallets which together can emit enough heat for more than one gigawatt of electricity, enough to power Tibet’s entire grid.

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Many people are waiting with bated breath for Sanmen to go online, because the AP1000 “is a simple, genius solution to reduce the risk of nuclear meltdown,” said Xi’an Jiaotong University’s nuclear science professor Shan Jianqiang, the author of several university texts on reactor safety and operation. The commencement of Sanmen “can be a shot to the arm for the nuclear industry, which has been mired in trouble at home and abroad,” he said.

The AP1000, designed and made by Toshiba Corp’s Westinghouse Electric subsidiary, is equipped with an overhead water tank that can flush the reactor’s core and keep it cool even if every water pump ceases to function in a blackout. Hot water would rise as vapour, dissipating energy from the core’s chain reaction through a heat exchanger into the atmosphere, condense and return to the tank. As long as there is gravity, the cycle would continue without human intervention.

In plain language, the reactor is designed to be meltdown-proof.

Compared with current technology, the AP1000 reactor is theoretically 100 times safer, requires 80 per cent less piping, 85 per cent fewer control cables, and need a third fewer pumps.

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A competing design is Europe’s Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), which theoretically matches the AP1000’s safety standards as it uses a container to catch the melted core in an accident to prevent radioactive leaks. Two EPR reactors are under construction in Taishan in Guangdong province, with the first scheduled for commissioning before the end of 2017, and the second by the first half of next year.

The impending fuel loading in Zhejiang, the final step before the reactor begins operation, would put China on the map as the first country to begin running arguably the most advanced power plant, overtaking the reactor designer’s home turf, where work has ceased on two reactors in South Carolina. Work on two AP1000 reactors are still underway in the neighbouring state of Georgia.

Sanmen’s birth was a long time coming, and has probably earned the dubious honour as China’s most severely delayed energy project. Construction began with much fanfare in 2009 after a 40 billion yuan (US$6 billion) investment between the United States and China, with plans to fire up the first of two reactors in 2013.

But the building site sat idle for years, awaiting the US supplier to redesign the reactor’s main pump -- which features so-called dual-use technology found in American nuclear submarines -- and obtain US exports approval, according to people familiar with the project.

The 2011 nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture added to Sanmen’s delays, as it prompted the Chinese government to call an emergency halt on every power plant in China pending safety reviews, including Sanmen. Safety inspectors wanted Sanmen’s design to incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima’s meltdown, which added more delays.

Sanmen’s launch date was finally postponed from June to the end of this year, while Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March.

“We sincerely hope there will be no more delays,” a Westinghouse spokesperson in China said in response to the South China Morning Post. “The first AP1000 reactor is not only important to China, but the world.”

If the AP1000’s birth in China was difficult, its conception in its home country was almost doomed from the start. The US hadn’t built a new nuclear plant ever since an accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Westinghouse’s AP1000, approved by nuclear authorities in the mid 2000s, was seen as the key to a new age of safe, accident-proof nuclear power industry.

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The days of America’s “Nuclear Renaissance,” a term coined over a decade ago to describe a revival of cleaner alternatives to fossil fuel, were gone, said George Borovas, Tokyo-based partner and head of global nuclear group at Shearman & Sterling.

With a sharp drop in natural gas prices after the 2008 global financial crisis and surging supply of shale gas in the US, gas-fired power has become more competitive against nuclear power, he said.

At least some aspects of the dimming prospects of US nuclear energy are self inflicted. President Donald Trump’s Energy Independence Executive Order in March not only dismantled his predecessor’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, but also provide a disincentive to invest or develop any technology in clean energy, including nuclear power.

But America’s loss was China’s gain.

“The AP1000 technology has already been transferred to China and the Chinese projects are pretty close to commission, regardless of what the U.S project developers are going to do with their projects,” Borovas said.

China needs nuclear energy to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel imports, and to help the government meet its target of cutting emissions and pollution, he said.

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Adding to the allure is the large number of jobs created, and the prospect of a lucrative export business in nuclear expertise and hardware. It’s no surprise then, that China’s state-owned and state-managed nuclear industry has jumped on the bandwagon with gusto.

“The nuclear industry is to embrace the biggest opportunity in recent years,” said Wang Shoujun, president of Sanmen’s owner China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), wiring on his company’s website.

The Chinese state has given generous capital to not just nuclear power, but also small reactors, commercial reactors on floating platforms for offshore power generation, fast neutron reactors, molten salt reactors, accelerator-driven reactors, fusion power, and expects to create the world’s first stable-burning artificial sun for power generation within decades.

“In the nuclear power industry, you need long term stability, at least on project financing, which cannot be left entirely to the free market,” Borovas said. “China is developing the right model to support its long-term objective of clean, base-load power generation.”

China has 20 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country on earth. With the commissioning of Sanmen, the industry is hoping to get the nod to build more reactors at home, and even export the AP1000 technology.

Chinese researchers have even incorporated the best of AP1000 and EPR to conceive the Hualong design, featuring a top-side water tank and a catchment container. A Hualong reactor was sold to Pakistan, where construction began in 2015 scheduled for commissioning in late 2021. Another is currently awaiting the UK government’s review to build a plant.

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Not everybody shares China’s optimism.

“While the deployment of AP1000 in China will be welcomed news for an otherwise beleaguered industry, it’s not clear that the conditions that could allow it to be successful there will prevail elsewhere,”said A.J. Goulding, a principal at London Economics International, an energy and infrastructure consulting firm. “To the extent that nuclear has a future in jurisdictions with low natural gas prices, limited load growth, and environmental sensitivities, it is in smaller, modular nuclear technologies.”

If there’s any doubt that China is leading the field, S.C. Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper, two energy vendors that had co-funded and led the construction of two AP1000 reactors in South Carolina, scrapped their project on July 31.

S.C. Electric, which had already spent US$9 billion of tax dollars on the project, estimated that it needs another US$7 billion for completion, which their customer the state grid can’t afford.

Earlier this year, the CNNC struck a deal with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build a travelling wave reactor, a next-generation nuclear power technology with much higher fuel efficiency and little radioactive waste compared to today’s reactors. Chinese nuclear scientists were not at all surprised that Gates chose China instead of the U.S for the next step in clean energy.

“The heyday of the U.S nuclear industry was in 1970s. They were our role model,” said professor Shan of Xi’an Jiatong University. “But all those talents are now retired or gone. The current generation is no longer be able to build a new plant due to the lacking of engineering experience and technical expertise. It is sad.”