08 Aug 2011: Report

China’s Nuclear Power Plans
Unfazed by Fukushima Disaster

In the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, some nations are looking to move away from nuclear power. But not China, which is proceeding with plans to build 36 reactors over the next decade. Now some experts are questioning whether China can safely operate a host of nuclear plants.

by david biello

Giant rings of prefabricated concrete and steel lower into place at the Sanmen Nuclear Power Station in Zhejiang, China. Inside the rising containment building, a 340-ton chunk of forged steel forms the nuclear reactor’s vessel, which arrived from South Korea late last month. Inside that vessel, if all goes well, uranium fuel rods clad in zirconium alloy will by 2013 begin to fission, heating water to create the steam that will spin a turbine and produce electricity without the heavy greenhouse gas emissions of burning coal.

Workers swarm over the scaffolding of the buildings surrounding this core at the world’s newest nuclear power plant — the first to use a new type of nuclear reactor, the so-called AP 1000 from Westinghouse, though a similar reactor at Haiyang in Shandong Province is not far behind. And those two reactors represent only a fraction of the 20 nuclear power plants — and 36 nuclear reactors — China plans to build in the next decade. Already, Sanmen’s second AP 1000 reactor is under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2014.

In the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, many nuclear nations have reassessed their fission future. Japan
China has become the world’s living laboratory for new nuclear reactor designs.
has cast aside plans to build more nuclear power plants, Germany plans to abandon nuclear power by 2022, and Italy will no longer restart a long moribund nuclear industry. Even nuclear stalwarts such as France — which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors — have begun to analyze what eliminating nuclear might mean as part of a broader energy strategy for 2050, although the French government remains supportive of fission’s role in the energy mix.

But for the world to have any hope of constraining greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power may have to play a role. The Japanese Environment Ministry notes that shuttering the 18 nuclear power plants in the country would boost CO2 emissions by as much as 210 million metric tons — a rise of nearly 17 percent from current levels. The International Energy Agency suggests that 30 new nuclear reactors must be built each year between now and 2050 to cut CO2 emissions in half.

As a result of such climate change concerns, as well as the need for more power in developing nations, more than 60 reactors are under construction around the world today in countries like India, Russia. and South Korea. Even the U.S. is currently building one new reactor — the second unit at Watts Bar in Tennessee.

But no other country comes close to China, with 26 reactors now under construction — nearly half of all the nuclear reactors being built worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Association. That percentage only looks set to increase as other nations call off nuclear plans. China has also become the world’s living laboratory for new nuclear reactor designs. The country has or is building “evolutionary” pressurized water reactors from France, heavy water reactors from Canada, pebble-bed reactors tested in South Africa, and even experimental reactors that use molten salt for cooling and, potentially, thorium for fuel.

Sanmen Nuclear Power Station China
Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images
A man inspects the construction of the Sanmen Nuclear Power Station in Zhejiang, China.
China connected its first “fast breeder” experimental reactor — a reactor that theoretically produces as much nuclear fuel as it consumes and whose development the U.S. and other countries have abandoned — on July 21. And it is novel designs like the AP 1000, which rely on such innovations as a single-walled containment structure to cut down on costs and improve cooling, that China will rely on to produce the bulk of its new nuclear power.

Given this spate of nuclear power plant construction, some experts are concerned that China may be courting a nuclear disaster of its own. For example, some nuclear engineers worry that the AP 1000 design may not be able to contain the kinds of hydrogen explosions that ripped apart the reactor buildings at Fukushima as a result of the interaction between the melting nuclear fuel and the water meant to cool it.

“It all hinges on the integrity of that containment,” notes a critic of the new design, nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of the nuclear consulting firm, Fairewinds Associates. “In 40 years, we’ve seen five reactors have hydrogen explosions... [yet] we continue to assume that the heat and pressure generated from a hydrogen explosion are negligible... The AP 1000 containment cannot withstand a detonation.”

The Chinese government acknowledged such safety concerns in a statement on March 16. “We will temporarily suspend approval for nuclear power projects, including those that have already begun preliminary work,” the State Council said. “We must fully grasp the importance and urgency of nuclear safety.”

That safety review is now nearing completion and all 13 existing reactors — which provide 11 gigawatts of electricity, or less than 2 percent of China’s power generation — have been found safe, according to China’s Environment Ministry. Inspections of the reactors under construction, including Sanmen, are expected to be finished by fall, and seemingly pose
‘We seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front,’ said one of the developers of China’s atomic bomb.
no challenge to the push forward with nuclear power plant construction.

But one of the developers of China’s atomic bomb, physicist He Zuoxiu, has compared the headlong rush to build nuclear plants to Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a disastrous attempt to rapidly industrialize the agrarian country from 1958 to 1961. “Are we really ready for this kind of giddy speed?” he wrote in the Chinese journal Science Times in May. “We’re seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front.”

After all, the first reactor ever designed and built entirely by the Chinese — in 1990 at Qinshan — had to be torn down and rebuilt because of faults in the foundation and the welding of the steel vessel that contained the reactor itself. The former head of the China National Nuclear Corporation, Kang Rixin, will now spend his remaining years in prison as a result of corruption related to this nuclear power plant expansion, which may call into question the safety of the materials used.

“Nuclear has very tight quality requirements,” notes Westinghouse CEO Aris Candris, and the parts for the first reactors at Sanmen and Haiyan are coming from outside of China. But plans call for future reactors at those sites to get components from Chinese manufacturers. Given ongoing problems with meeting those requirements, Candris said that Westinghouse will still supply some critical equipment like forgings, pumps, and valves.

“The open question remains how the Chinese government is going to improve nuclear safety,” wrote Qiang Wang and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Environmental Science and Technology in April. “This country still lacks a fully independent nuclear safety regulatory agency.”

Westinghouse’s AP 1000 reactor will play an important role in boosting China’s nuclear-generated electricity output to 5 percent of all electricity production in the near future. Four of these reactors are currently under construction and should be online by 2016. The Chinese are negotiating to build as many as 10 more.

The AP1000 is cheap because prefabrication means it can be built in a factory indoors, allowing greater control over the weather and the workers. It is also designed to use less concrete and steel than earlier reactors — a
Nuclear power is one of the few resources that can allow China to burn less coal.
significant cost savings. And it may be safer because it employs so-called “passive” safety features — such as a tank of water above the reactor core and vents built into the surrounding building — that can cool a reactor without human intervention or the need for electricity to run pumps. “We rely on things that have worked for billions of years, namely gravity and convection,” explains Candris.

If the cost of building a nuclear reactor can be kept low, the cost of electricity from nuclear fission will become cheap. “The relative cost of new energy is lower and lower because fossil fuel is more and more expensive,” explains Lu Jinxiang, CEO of A-Power, a Chinese builder of power plants, including wind turbines. “Perhaps, in the future, there will be heavy taxation or strict limit on the combustion of coal.”

In fact, China’s new five-year plan requires 11.4 percent of the country’s energy needs to come from non-fossil fuel sources — 43 gigawatts from nuclear alone. And Chinese officials have announced plans to cap the country’s total energy use at 4 billion tons of coal-equivalent by 2015. A draft “New Energy Industry Development Plan” would invest 5 trillion yuan in “new energy,” which includes nuclear, in the next decade.

Nuclear power is one of the few resources that can allow China to burn less coal. China now combusts 3 billion metric tons of coal each year, overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Several thousand miners die each year digging up the dirty black rock and the choking air pollution caused by coal burning costs the country $100 billion a year in medical care, according to the World Bank. “Any nuclear power plant going up is actually displacing fossil fuels,” Candris says.

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That also explains the interest in nuclear power in places like the UK and U.S. For example, the UK hopes to build as many as eight new nuclear power plants to supplement the nine existing ones, all part of its bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But building a nuclear reactor in the UK or U.S. is a slow process, taking years if not decades. In fact, the newest nuclear reactor in the U.S. — Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee — is simply the completion of a reactor that began construction more than 30 years ago.

Utilities in the U.S. will attempt to build four AP 1000s of their own at a cost of $7 billion each, and one utility — Southern Nuclear — has opened an office in China to partner with Chinese companies on refining the construction process for the novel reactors. Jim Miller, former CEO of Southern Nuclear, says this partnership is important for the company’s plans to construct its Vogtle 3 and Vogtle 4 reactors, now being built in the red clay of southern Georgia. If completed, they will be the first new nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in more than three decades.

POSTED ON 08 Aug 2011 IN Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Asia 

COMMENTS


Since the highest dose rates observed outside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant boundaries, integrated from March 2011 to infinity, amount to an accumulated dose that to all appearances is harmless if received in an instant, there was no disaster. Eager to gain natural gas revenue, the Japanese government has sought to create the appearance of one, but for someone such as Biello to parrot this line is undignified.

Posted by G.R.L. Cowan on 08 Aug 2011


A STRONG GEOMAGNETIC STORM JUST ENDED. NUCLEAR PLANTS ARE AT HAZARD WORLDWIDE FROM WHAT NOAA TERMS AN "EXTREME" SOLAR STORM.

Four such "extreme" geomagnetic storms are forecast by NOAA for the current sunspot cycle with a peak in the next 3 to 5 years.

NASA states such a storm can collapse critical power grids worldwide for months or years.

a nuclear plant without grid power for a month is a candidate for a meltdown.

See the Aesop Institute website for maps worth a thousand words.

And some suggestions for urgent action.

Posted by Mark Goldes on 08 Aug 2011


As it is yet to to go into action i reserve my outright comment of stating the project of China is good or bad, that I will comment on once it the project is successfully put operation and functions for at least a year with any major functional complain.

However, it is an encouraging venture and if it proves successful in China many country's will benefit from it and will help reduce carbon emission to a large extent.

Posted by ROBERT on 08 Aug 2011


The Chinese are on the right path.

http://whb.news365.com.cn/yw/201101/t20110126_2944856.htm


20110128 wenhui.news365.com.cn

In an interview with CAS Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics Xu Hongjie

Said as follows; {my slant on the google translation}”

As the world's next generation of nuclear reactors still under development, so our own research and development of thorium-based molten salt reactor{LFTR Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor}, may be all intellectual property rights. This will enable China to firmly grasp the lifeline of energy in their own hands.

Let the {word} "nuclear" no longer {be threatening}.

In the past, people always talk about {disastrous} "nuclear" {events} . Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, is like a lingering nightmare to stay in human history. But a new generation of nuclear power {LFTR} will be a green, {path to} peace {for all} mankind into a new era. {The Thorium Age}”

Lets not wait for a nuclear cloud from another LWR Plant problem or a detonation of  WNGN
(Weapons Grade Nuclear Waste) by terrorist to convince us we desperately need to pursue the work Dr Weinberg started in the 1950s at Oak Ridge on LFTRs.

The CONVENIENT TRUTH is LFTR is The EARTH Friendly Reactor

Posted by Terry Floyd on 08 Aug 2011


The REAL reason why the nuclear industry pushes uranium for nuclear power is for the weapons program, just as everyone knows how Iran is doing the very same thing.

If the world wanted peace, they don't need uranium to fuel nuclear power stations, as thorium is safer and better suited for nuclear power stations.

But there is big MONEY involved, with the weapon industry. Add up all the money spent on warring, it's a huge amount given to cause suffering, death and regression of civilization.

Nobody makes war illegal, so well just keep eliminating each other instead of realizing how our ignorance is the root cause of our poor thinking just to allow a few so much wealth, by holding back ALL of society.

That's what you see in China too, forbidden knowledge, censorship, just to keep a small group wealthy.

That's just selfish, but a reality of current human ideology. Unless we learn to cooperate together, we be wolves fighting each other?

You can be sure China doesn't release any news about it's failures in the nuclear industry, like toxic spills in rivers (Harbin), etc...

Posted by Justin H. Thomas on 08 Aug 2011


G.R.L Cowan says "Since the highest dose rates observed outside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant boundaries, integrated from March 2011 to infinity, amount to an accumulated dose that to all appearances is harmless if received in an instant, there was no disaster" apparently without realizing that whole body doses from external radiation sources are NOT the long-term problem at Fukushima and other radiological disaster sites. The long-term problem is exposure to INTERNALLY deposited radionuclides that make their way into the human body through air and water and food, especially "hot" particles of dust or ash that if inhaled or ingested can easily cause cancer. More diffuse radioactivity that is now working its way up the food chain to humans raises the incidence of birth defects and can cause life shortening in addition to increasing cancer risk too.

There are now hundreds of square miles of contaminated land in that island nation already short on land that are now uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination that could persist for centuries or even millennia if it turns out plutonium-239 was spread around too. It's a disaster allright, with tens of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes and a radioactive mess that will only spread over time as it already has begun to spread as far as Tokyo. Radiation dangers are not only about immediate death or radiation sickness but include increased suffering and sickness impairing health and quality of life for GENERATIONS.

The Japanese are today finding themselves dealing with a radioactive environment as will every other country sooner or later that persists in the foolish development of nuclear power. There are things that can be done to slow or stop the body's uptake of radionuclides in a contaminated environment (Google 'Antinuclear Nutrition') but it would be infinitely smarter to forever stop the nuclear power plants that will continue to threaten us all for as long as they exist.

Posted by Karl S. on 09 Aug 2011


It is interesting to note that France, being 79% nuclear, has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per person in Europe (as well as cheapest electricity) and Denmark which is leading the way with wind technology (20% wind) has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person.

http://nuclearradiophobia.blogspot.com/

Posted by Richard Green on 09 Aug 2011


As usual in this age of "believable" propaganda, world leaders are preying on fear and ignorance and using the environmentalist's card to cheat them at their own game. Dismantling nuclear power would definitively NOT lead to increased carbon emissions if it were replaced with sustainable alternatives such as water, solar and wind power. But the truth is that no government, it seems, has been forward-thinking, has cared about our planet, or has taken scientists studied claims seriously.

In the U.S., we have not funded these alternatives, instead throwing billions of taxpayer dollars into subsidies for the already rich and bloated fossil fuel industry. We think of corn fuel as "alternative," being ignorant of the toll large-scale agriculture and its concomitant pesticides and oil-powered machinery, rape of natural resources and destruction of habitat, entails. Apparently we humans have devolved into grasping, needing, wanting parasites who are incapable of learning from past mistakes and instead nurture an insane capability for ignoring fact and living a lie. The only question I have is, will we wake up and realize the full horror of what we are doing as we are about to die, or will we die suddenly and cruelly, blissful in our denial?

Posted by Karen on 09 Aug 2011


I find it interesting that the strongest national players of atomic fission are the nation-states of the UN Security Council that are the premier nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK, France and China).

After arrangements with the G. W. Bush administration, India was allowed to violate the NPT in going atomic even after they used civilian nuclear technology for weapon development. This, along with Israel's nuclear weapons, is tending to push Middle Eastern nation-states to promote atomic fission (and internally, weapons).

All this and more seems to indicate that most of the work in nuclear weapons development is first pretending that atomic fission is a morally justified technology for support by the state (Atoms for Peace). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Maybe communist China will follow Japan and their next train wreck won't involve a train. However, all nation-states may be incapable of containing the massive radiological poisons in the event of corporate insolvency and abandonment of facilities which are sure to come with globalized corporatism and state sanctioned, corrupt, crony pseudo-capitalism.

In short, atomic fission is an economic bomb allowing expansion of the nuclear weapon club, along with short sighted, pell mell, unsustainable economic development via intergenerational theft.

I am sorry for victims of nuclear weapons, their tests, Chornobyl and Fukushima, but mostly for the Atomic Age and it's poisons and corrupting centralization of physical and political power. Thanks to all nations that are abandoning the Atomic Age.

Posted by James Newberry on 10 Aug 2011


US Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff gives an OK to the safety of the AP 1000 reactor. So, expect to see more of them in the US too. Can't say whether NRC's move should increase comfort with the nuclear option.

Posted by Sallan Foundation on 11 Aug 2011


James Newberry: "I find it interesting that the strongest national players of atomic fission are the nation-states of the UN Security Council that are the premier nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK, France and China).
...
All this and more seems to indicate that most of the work in nuclear weapons development is first pretending that atomic fission is a morally justified technology ..."

You're reading this backwards. In every case, nations developed nuclear weapons first, and only later went on to use the skills gained for civilian power.

Posted by Bill Woods on 11 Aug 2011


China is ruled by wise, patriotic leaders who are establishing a commercial and military empire that will rival Kublai Khan. wen Jinbao and Hu jintao negotiate free trade agtreeement, then take the profits acquired through the negative balance of trade with America, Europe and nations throughout the world and loan some of these profits back to progressive, socialist, welfare state world leaders. every liberal leader in the world is in debt to the chinese in this spiral. And the Chinese leaders, like those who built the wall, are concerned about the over all prosperity of their people, unlike our leaders. The Chinese leaders may be Machiavellian but at least they support a system of growth, development for their people and power for their military. Maybe it is because they allow no liberals?

Posted by Michael guy on 17 Aug 2011


This could be a story about the stubbornness and obstinacy of central planning efforts, and not the quick and nimble response of the Chinese to waste contamination concerns in the China sea, and Japan's equipment engineering, siting, and design woes. Lacking a fully independent nuclear safety agency, one has to question the motive and scope of the pro-forma shut down of new construction and safety check on all existing reactors.

In addition, the Chinese "fast breeder" power plant is a small 20 MW demonstration plant. The challenge of fast breeders (since the 1970s) has always been to bring this technology to market at a scale and cost that can make a significant impact displacing coal baseload technologies (and not break the bank dealing with a slew of new regulatory concerns in spent fuel reprocessing, plutonium stockpile management, up front capital expenses and sunk costs, and more). The Chinese push for wind and solar has been equally impressive.

Perhaps we're looking for motives where there aren't any, and the Chinese simply have an "on" switch. Everything is go looking for the next technology breakthrough (fission, batteries, or renewables), and massive public spending on energy is putting hundreds of thousands of Chinese to work (and stimulating the Chinese GDP, international reputation, and economy as a whole).

Posted by idyl on 31 Aug 2011


Dear David,

First, nuclear power is neither safe nor cheap;

Second, as Joschka Fischer said (www.project-syndicate.org) that "Fukushima has presented the world with a far-reaching, fundamental choice. It was Japan, the high-tech country par excellence (not the latter-day Soviet Union) that provide unable to take adequate precautions to avert disaster in four reactor blocks. What, then, will a future risk assessment look like if significantly less organized and developed countries begin - with the active assistance of the nuclear powers - to acquire civilian nuclear energy capabilities?"

We must change our beliefs to change our bad habits, i.e. consumer life-style.

Posted by KEMO on 13 Sep 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
david bielloABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Biello has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade, the last four years as an associate editor at Scientific American. He also hosts 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Biello documented the unfolding of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and reported on the potential to convert carbon dioxide into an abundant supply of liquid fuels.
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