China plans to be world leader in nuclear power by 2020
China aims to become a world leader in nuclear power by 2020 under an ambitious scheme to be finalised by April.
National Energy Administration director Wu Xinxiong told more than 100 scientific and engineering advisers in Beijing on Tuesday that the plan should meet the central government's demand that China make the leap from follower to leader by engineering "major technological breakthroughs" and "industrial upgrades".
To take the lead, China will have to overcome some big hurdles, including conflicts of interest among large state-owned companies, technological uncertainties in new-generation power plants and public concerns about nuclear safety.
China has imported some of the world's most advanced nuclear reactor technology in the past few years, including one design from US firm Westinghouse and another from French nuclear giant Areva.
Chinese scientists and engineers have sought to adapt the overseas technology to their own. But the American and French designs differ, resulting in two separate Chinese spin-offs.
China has three nuclear power companies - China General Nuclear Power Corporation, State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation. China General and China National Nuclear are working together on the Hualong 1 scheme, based on French technology; State Nuclear Power's CAP1400 design is based on American technology.
"The drafting of the technological plan is important because it determines who gets a cut of the enormous business cake," a China Institute of Atomic Energy researcher said. "It is difficult to predict the outcome of the bargaining and dogfights on the drafting panel."
An executive with a Western nuclear company in China said foreign players were watching developments closely.
"But we are not particularly worried at this point because our technology is still years ahead of the Chinese," he said.
For foreign buyers, the biggest attraction of Chinese nuclear technology would be its low cost, but the Chinese companies that would build the plants are largely untested.
The home-grown designs for third-generation reactors have yet to be used in a live nuclear project, even in China.
China is building two third-generation reactors - one in Taishan in Guangdong province and the other in Sanmen in Zhejiang. Both are based on foreign designs and they have been delayed by technical problems.
"A major challenge of nuclear research and development in China is the shortage of talent. We need more scientists and engineers to meet the deadlines," said a China Institute of Atomic Energy expert, who asked not to be identified.