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.
China has become the world’s living laboratory for new nuclear reactor designs.
In the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, many nuclear nations have reassessed their fission future. Japanhas 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.
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.”
‘We seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front,’ said one of the developers of China’s atomic bomb.
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 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.
Nuclear power is one of the few resources that can allow China to burn less coal.
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 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.
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.