China has lifted the ban on constructing new nuclear powerplants as part of an ambitious plan to add 30,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2020, which will bring it closer to U.S. production capability. After the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, China banned capacity expansion as the country closely examined its safety standards in existing plans.
The government plans to take the number of nuclear powerplants to 75 from 22 at present in about five years. There are 26 reactors under construction, and 27 more will be conceived and launched in the coming years, government officials said. In fact, the ban did not affect the plants under construction, and many of them are nearing completion.
"China has encountered no major safety alarms since its first nuclear powerplant began construction in 1985," Guo Chengzhan, deputy director of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said recently.
Chinese reactors have stayed well within the safety limits prescribed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which uses a seven-level rating scale for nuclear accidents, official said.
"A Level 1 accident involves a security warning for technicians at a nuclear powerplant; it has no influence on surrounding areas," said Tang Bo, a safety administration official. China has not seen any accident above Level 1 in the past two decades because of its rigorous nuclear-security practices.
"Based on modern technologies and security lessons from the past, nuclear power can be safely utilized," Zhang Guobao, former chief of the National Energy Administration of China, said at a recent conference.
But other nuclear experts are worried about China’s ambitious growth plans.
“Even if China’s safety record appears clean, the lack of transparency from Beijing’s regulators fosters concerns that they are sweeping problems under the rug,” said Stephanie Lieggi, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., and Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Although China itself has not had an incident similar to Fukushima, it is still unclear if Beijing’s nuclear safety and security policies will keep pace with its rapid domestic expansion,” Lieggi and Pomper wrote in a recent article.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is planning to merge two major state-run nuclear companies: the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp., which specializes in building modern, third-generation reactors, and the China Power Investment Corp., one of the three companies in China licensed to construct and operate nuclear powerplants.
The purpose of the planned merger has not been spelled out. However, observers feel the program will help China expand the market to sell its homemade reactors because the merged company will become a one-stop shop for anyone looking to buy, build and operate nuclear powerplants.
China is thinking several decades down the line. It is scouting for uranimum mines, and funding research to replace the use of uranium with thorium. Beijing is determined to reduce use of coal for power generation as heavy smog threatens to choke its citizens and drive away foreign investors.
Last year, the government owned China Uranium Corporation Ltd. bought part ownership of a uranium mine in Namibia, regarded as the ninth biggest in the world, which is owned by Australia’s Paladin Energy Ltd.
"China is likely to continue to import more uranium for years to come as the nation continues to boost its generation of electricity through nuclear power," Li Ning, dean of the School of Energy Research with Xiamen University in China, said. He predicted that "by 2025, China could grow to become the largest uranium consumer." Each of the 26 nuclear plants scheduled for the next phase of construction requires about 400 tons of uranium before it can commence operations.
A Chinese scientist, Li Zhong, recently disclosed that the government has established a research project for developing a new design that would make it possible to use thorium for nuclear powerplants. The project scientists were initially asked to come up with a viable solution in 25 years but the deadline has now been cut down to 10 years, he said.
The International Automic Energy Agency passed China’s ACP1000 for the first time after putting it through a regiorous Generic Reactor Safety Review (GRSR) on December 4-5 last year.
“Experts believed that, meeting IAEA's latest design safety requirements for the third-generation nuclear power technology, ACP1000 was mature and reliable in the area of reactor design safety and that its innovative designs based on proven technologies and detailed experimental tests were also mature and reliable,” the State controlled China Nuclear Power Corp. said in a statement.