China is building nearly half of all the new nuclear reactors in the world, including this AP1000 at Sanmen nuclear power plant. Credit: Courtesy of Westinghouse

A feature from Scientific American.

Across the East China Sea, west of Japan and its ongoing crisis, sits the growing Qinshan nuclear power plant, where four new pressurized-water reactors are under construction in addition to the five already operating on-site. The Qinshan addition is one of 20 new nuclear power plants undergoing construction or approved for construction in China today, part of a bid to increase the nuclear share of China's electricity-generating capacity from less than 2 percent to 5 percent. That means China is building nearly half of all the nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Association.

"Now in China we have 13 nuclear power reactors in operation," said Zhang Guobao, former vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission—the government agency charged with setting energy and industrial policy—via a translator during a visit to NDRC headquarters in Beijing this past November. "In comparison with countries like the U.S.A. and France, this number is very small, [but] we are first in the world in the construction of new nuclear reactors."

China's newly released five-year plan requires that China source 11.4 percent of its energy needs from other than fossil-fuel—at least 43 gigawatts of that to come from nuclear alone—up from slightly more than 8 percent now. Further, Chinese officials have announced plans to explicitly cap China's total energy use at four billion metric tons of coal-equivalent by 2015; they also have drafted a "New Energy Industry Development Plan" that would invest amore than $750 billion in "new energy," which includes nuclear, in the next decade. But the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 14-meter-high tsunami on March 11 has given cause for concern. A State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao has put a halt to new nuclear construction and approval. "We will temporarily suspend approval for nuclear power projects," the State Council said in a statement following a meeting on March 16. "Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants." That will be temporary. "China's energy mix is dominated by coal," explained Guobao, who retired this year. "In the near future it is our priority to increase the proportion of nuclear and renewable energy in our energy mix." China's currently operating reactors deliver nearly 11 gigawatts of electricity—or more than half the amount delivered by the nation's notorious Three Gorges Dam alone. And China is building 25 more reactors. "By 2020, installed [nuclear] capacity could reach over 70 gigawatts," Guobao said, although the current five-year plan for nuclear is to boost it from 10 to 50 gigawatts by 2015. But that would still be only a fraction of the electricity produced by burning coal. "For the foreseeable future, coal will continue to take up a big part of our energy mix," Guobao said. Nuclear with Chinese characteristics China's new nuclear future is a mix of its own and foreign reactor designs. China has or is building heavy-water reactors from Canada, "evolutionary" pressurized-water reactors from France, pebble-bed reactors tested in South Africa, and even is working on reactors that would use molten salt for cooling and thorium for fuel. China has become the nuclear industry's living laboratory for new reactor designs and the learning that comes from actual construction. Reactor No. 1 at Qinshan is China's inaugural effort at designing a nuclear reactor—a pressurized-water reactor known as the CNP-300 and based on a design conceived by Westinghouse in the 1950s. The latest iteration of that design—the CNP-1000—incorporates more safety features. China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) "spent 10 years developing our own technology and developed CNP-1000 technology with our own [intellectual property]," said Chen Hua, director general of the corporation's Department of Nuclear Power, via a translator during a visit last fall to the quasi-governmental company's headquarters in Beijing. "We are applying for approval to start construction with the CNP-1000 technology." Through this cooperation, I believe our own technology can be enhanced. Chen Hua , China National Nuclear Corp. But it is increasingly clear that China's partnership with Westinghouse to build its most recent nuclear reactor design—the AP-1000—may provide the technology blueprint for the bulk of the country's future reactor fleet. Four such reactors are currently under construction in the country—now the only actual construction of such advanced nuclear power plants anywhere in the world. The first one will initiate fission in 2013 if all continues to go according to plan, and the remaining three will be online by 2016. "There are a whole bunch of Westinghouse plants in China right now of different vintages," notes Aris Candris, CEO of Westinghouse. The AP-1000 is cheaper because it is designed to be built in a factory, indoors, where there is greater control over elements such as the weather or the workforce. The idea is also to reduce the total amount of concrete and steel needed to put up an AP-1000, which also shortens construction time—all cost savings. And it may be safer, boasting new features—such as a water tank above the reactor core and vents built into the surrounding building—that can cool a reactor without human intervention or electricity. "It took us hundreds of millions of dollars to prove that water flows down," explains Candris. Plus, "you can put three AP-1000s in an existing plant footprint." But the Chinese are also intent on mastering the AP-1000 technology. "Through this cooperation, I believe our own technology can be enhanced," Hua said of the Westinghouse deal. That enhancement can be rather direct. China has developed its own version of the design, dubbed the "CAP-1000"—with the help of the tens of thousands of pages of documents on the design Westinghouse handed over as part of the licensing agreement. "There is a technology transfer and localization agreements," says Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. That has also allowed the Chinese to shift more and more of the supply of components for future AP-1000 reactors to China itself—much as South Korea or France has done before by incorporating earlier Westinghouse designs. That's a route the French company Areva Group—its reactors sprung from a Westinghouse blueprint decades ago—explicitly did not follow when licensing two reactors of its own design to be built in China at Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong Province. "They're not allowed to build domestically without our approval as well as for export," notes Jarret Adams, an Areva spokesman. "The two [evolutionary pressurized-water reactors] under construction in China are going extremely well. We're also hoping to build two more." "We didn't authorize the Chinese government to take our technology," adds Bruce Marlow, Areva's vice president for key accounts, based in California. But "I'm sure someone will copy the design." Already, the Chinese have come up with their own version of another Areva design—dubbed the " CPR-1000". The key will be cost. The NDRC's Guobao noted that nuclear power plants in China can be as cheap as coal-fired power that has been modified to make capturing its carbon dioxide pollution easy. "In China the cost for a nuclear power plant is as low as$1,500 per kilowatt," he said.

"The relative cost of new energy is lower and lower because fossil fuel is more and more expensive," explained Lu Jinxiang, CEO of A-Power, a Chinese builder of power plants, during a visit to the company's Shenyang wind turbine factory. And "perhaps, in the future, there will be heavy taxation or strict limit on the combustion of coal."

Nuclear fuel

Areva has also signed a contract to supply Chinese nuclear operating companies, including China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) and CNNC, with uranium fuel—20,000 tons of the fissile material between now and 2020 for $3.5 billion. And Areva, which handles used nuclear fuel recycling for France, is in discussions to help with China's own plans in that regard, including the possibility of building a reprocessing plant in the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province. "It shows their long-term commitment to nuclear energy," Adams says. Much like Japan, China plans to make the most of its estimated 170,000 tons of domestic uranium supplies by setting up such reprocessing. Such nuclear fuel recycling involves taking used nuclear fuel rods, separating out plutonium and other fission by-products, and then combining the result with fresh uranium to produce usable fuel—known as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. Meanwhile, Japan has struggled to bring its Rokkasho reprocessing plant online, even with the help of Areva, and currently relies on France and the U.K. to recycle its used uranium fuel rods. And Japan's Monju fast-breeder reactor—which would allow both full fuel recycling and use for power generation—has been closed for years due to fires and technical glitches, including a refueling machine stuck in the reactor vessel that has shut the experimental reactor down. It remains to be seen if China's effort will fare any better, although a pilot plant has been reprocessing limited amounts of used nuclear fuel since 2006 in Gansu. "For China we will do it in the form of recycling because we want to make the full use of our resources," CNNC Hua's said. "Right now, we just store those energy sources temporarily." China is also expanding its efforts to acquire more uranium globally, purchasing the products of uranium mines from Kazakhstan to Niger and even Canada. And CGNPC hopes to purchase a London-based mining firm—Kalahari Minerals—for access to uranium mines in the African nation of Namibia. Safety first Nuclear power remains one of the few energy sources that can replace coal in China. The nation has already overtaken the U.S. as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter largely because of the more than three billion metric tons of coal it burns annually—and several thousand miners die each year digging up the dirty black rock to feed China's energy needs, not to mention the health toll taken by choking air pollution caused by coal burning in the Middle Kingdom, estimated by the World Bank to cost the country$100 billion a year in medical care. "Any nuclear power plant you build is displacing a coal plant," Westinghouse's Candris says.

But, as the State Council decree and accident in Japan show, safety remains the key concern for nuclear power. "Nuclear has very tight quality requirements," Candris notes. "For some of those [critical equipment like forgings, pumps and valves] they are having some problems meeting those stringent quality specifications. They have asked us to support them with that equipment, and we have been able to do that."

More from Scientific American.

This is not a problem restricted to China. In 2008 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found fake and possibly faulty valves, pipes and electrical breakers—those not actually verified to stand up to the rigors posed by an operating reactor—at two nuclear facilities in the U.S.

NDRC officials have warned that building too many reactors too fast could pose safety risks. Already, the former head of CNNC, Kang Rixin, will spend the rest of his life in prison due to corruption related to the unparalleled nuclear power plant expansion, which may call into question the safety of the materials used. After all, the first reactor built at Qinshan back in 1990—the first reactor ever designed and constructed entirely by the Chinese—had to be torn down and rebuilt because of faults in the foundation as well as defects in the welding of the steel vessel that contained the reactor itself.

"To secure nuclear safety is the lifeline in this industry," CNNC's Hua said. "We are all family members in the nuclear industry."