China Leaps Forward

The people’s republic is embarking on the world’s biggest nuclear building spree.


Newsweek International

Feb. 6, 2006 issue – American businessman Edwin deSteiguer Snead went to China seeking a future for nuclear energy. He’s pretty sure he found it. On a recent bitterly cold day, Snead took a ride out to a military zone northwest of Beijing, not far from one of the most well-known sections of China’s Great Wall. In the spartan lobby of an unassuming concrete office building that contains the control center of a nuclear reactor, Snead studied a model of the reactor, housed in a hillside at the site. Nuclear scientist Chang Wei pointed at the model, which looked like a basement furnace split down the middle, and explained how the design—including 27,000 balls of uranium wrapped in layers of super-strong silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite—makes it physically impossible for the reactor to do anything but shut down if something goes wrong; the dangerous uranium would be trapped inside the spheres, which have a melting point much higher than the temperature inside the reactor could ever reach.

“So let me see if I can describe it in Texas English,” said Snead, 76, an entrepreneur who hopes to build a nuclear power plant on 55 acres in Texas. “There’s no way it can explode or melt?”

Chang nodded in the affirmative. She went on to explain how the design requires only a fraction of the control-room staff a more conventional reactor would need. Snead, apparently impressed, exclaimed that this newfangled Chinese technology may be the key to assuaging the nuclear fears of Americans. He wants to go back and sell the idea to Texas A&M University or another school willing to back a research center. “I think the Americans will be buying nuclear plants from China within five years,” he said.

While experts in the United States and Europe talk about reviving plans for nuclear power, China, as in so many other fields, is racing ahead. The so-called pebblebed technology behind the Beijing test plant originated in Germany more than three decades ago, and the U.S. nuclear-power industry also pursued it. But when public opposition to nuclear energy forced those countries to curtail nuclear research in the 1980s, Beijing took over. China expects to complete a small commercial plant, which will produce 195 megawatts of electricity, within five years in the eastern province of Shandong. Huaneng Power, one of the country’s largest electricity companies, is ponying up about half the $300 million price tag. What makes the pebblebed technology so important is its fail-safe design—it would not be possible for the reactor to melt down or explode like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. The uranium in each sphere can’t get hot enough to melt the casing and escape. Also, the main coolant for the system is inert helium, not water, as is used in other types of reactors (water, of course, contains oxygen, which is combustible). As global warming and politics render the world’s reliance on fossil fuels problematic, China may in a few short years hold the key to a renaissance in nuclear power.

And the pebblebed reactor is only a small part of China’s nuclear ambitions. In the past few years, Beijing has embarked on the boldest nuclear-energy plan since the one orchestrated by the United States in the 1970s. Chinese leaders recognize that their reliance on fossil fuels—about 80 percent of China’s energy comes from coal—is unsustainable. Nuclear power has thus become an essential part of their plan to prevent an energy and environmental crisis. China intends to increase its output of nuclear power at least fourfold by 2020, from 8,700 to 36,000 megawatts. That will require building up to three reactors a year until then. So far, Beijing has committed $50 billion toward construction. China will soon add two more reactors to the nine it already has running. At least 16 provinces and municipalities plan to build nuclear power plants. The goal is to derive at least 4 percent of the country’s energy from nuclear power in 15 years. Although that’s far behind today’s world average of 16 percent, it will amount to the biggest nuclear-construction binge the world has seen in decades. Already, China’s enthusiasm for nuclear power is helping rekindle interest among countries that had abandoned their own programs (following story).

China is positioned to leapfrog the world in nuclear power precisely because it entered the race late. Until now, the country has built a hodgepodge of reactors with different technologies and safety features. But recently top leaders decided to build a newer infrastructure virtually from scratch based on the most advanced, and safest, technologies. Although the pebble-bed reactor is not yet ready for prime time, the government is buying equipment and designs that have never been built before. China plans to choose one design of three submitted by Areva of France, Atomstroyexport of Russia and Westinghouse Electric for an $8 billion program to build reactors in the eastern province of Zhejiang. (Some industry experts say Areva will probably win, especially since the Chinese government may bristle at the recent takeover bid by Japan’s Toshiba on Westinghouse.) The Chinese plan to work closely with the winner to learn how to design and operate the reactors. The goal is to use this technology as the basis for subsequent Chinese plants.

The ultimate goal is to improve China’s own design and construction capabilities so it will not have to rely on foreigners to build and operate the country’s reactors. Eventually, Beijing hopes to export some of its own expertise in the construction and operation of plants, ultimately contributing power-plant designs as well. Its contracts with foreign firms are thus structured to maximize technology sharing. In fact, Beijing recently delayed awarding the Zhejiang contract in part to squeeze even more concessions from the bidders (as well as to get a better price): the Westinghouse technology, for example, uses state-of-the-art passive safety design, which China’s engineers hope to learn. The Chinese leadership is expected to announce soon a sharp increase in plans for research in nuclear reactors. I think that, unfortunately, in the U.S. we’ve lost our market leadership,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nuclear-science and engineering department who has worked on joint programs with the Chinese. “We’re going to be watching how emerging nations of the world, such as China and South Africa, do with these technologies and perhaps follow them, which is sad to say.”

The most likely technology to export, of course, is the pebblebed reactor. All reactors, including the pebblebed, use uranium fuel to produce heat that is used to turn electrical turbines. In conventional so-called light-water reactors, the heat is generated by thousands of fixed metallic rods, which require elaborate cooling systems to keep them from overheating and backup cooling systems in case the primary ones fail. Furthermore, a conventional reactor must be housed in a concrete containment vessel to mitigate damage in case it overheats. In the pebblebed reactor,thousands of tennis-ball-size spheres coated in layers of silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite each contain thousands of granules of the fuel, uranium dioxide. Because the pebbles dissipate heat so efficiently, say the designers, the fuel inside them couldn’t possibly get hot enough to penetrate the graphite casing. The pebble-bed reactor, in fact, doesn’t even have a containment vessel. Another advantage of pebblebeds is that it’s easier to make small plants and put them up quickly, which lends itself to China’s plan of spreading plants around the hinterlands. Extracting fuel from pebblebed reactors to use for weapons would be difficult and expensive.

Engineers at the research facility outside Beijing are working to create a next-generation version that will use helium as a coolant, rather than water. The facility is run by the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology of Beijing’s Tsinghua University (with cooperation from MIT) and Chinergy, a company owned in part by the institute and partly by the state-owned China Nuclear Engineering Group. The only other country actively working on a commercial pebblebed reactor is South Africa, but the project has faced delays due to pressure from environmentalists; many experts expect China, which keeps its greens on a short leash, to finish first. Other countries are interested in the technology because one of its byproducts is hydrogen, a potential energy source.

Some experts worry that Beijing’s grand plan could founder over political turf battles. For one thing, it’s not certain that the large electric-power utilities will buy into the central government’s vision. Even though nuclear power has strong political support from the leadership, the state-owned utilities are mostly con—trolled by provincial and local governments, many of which are poor and would prefer cheaper sources of energy. Some provincial officials also have ties to traditional energy companies.

Construction and contract delays could also scuttle China’s ambitions, forcing authorities to resort to using older reactor technologies it can put up quickly. Many have fewer automatic-safety features and therefore are more vulnerable to human error. And using many different technologies would both preclude the economies of scale that make construction cheaper and operation safer, and slow the anticipated blistering pace of construction. “If you have one type of reactor, you can give very clear management procedures to reduce risk,” says Wang Yi, assistant director for the Institute of Policy and Management at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “China already has so many types of reactors that it could cause problems in the future.”

Safety is also a growing concern. For one thing, experts such as Wang claim that Beijing does not have a clear strategy for dealing with spent fuel. The country has a spent-fuel storage facility that could eventually hold up to about 1,100 tons. There is also a pilot reprocessing plant in the works, but Beijing has no comprehensive plan to handle the waste from all the plants it’s building; that could reach 3,800 tons by 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association. As Chinese grow more environmentally aware, they may balk at the idea of storage facilities in their backyards.

Indeed, even if China avoids accidents, a growing domestic environmental movement could slow its nuclear-energy strategy. Twenty years after the disaster at Chernobyl and nearly 30 years since the Three Mile Island incident, leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and U.S. President George W. Bush have only recently begun to suggest the possibility of re-examining nuclear energy. The Chinese government has been careful to treat its pursuit of nuclear energy as a potential boon to the economy and a source of nationalism. It has also discouraged public debate of the risks. Towns with reactors advertise them as though they were national treasures. On the road to the Qinshan nuclear power plant in Zhejiang province, for example, visitors are welcomed with propaganda. construct nuclear power, make the people wealthy, reads one sign. But environmental activism is catching on in China, as witnessed by the public outcry over the toxic chemical spill in the Songhua River.

Even if the nuclear strategy is a runaway success, it won’t come close to solving China’s energy problems. Demand far surpasses supply—in large part because Chinese companies are notoriously inefficient energy consumers. China is quickly running out of raw materials, such as coal, while demand for electricity has seen double-digit growth for more than three years. Renewable-energy sources won’t come close to meeting China’s needs. But that only fuels the urgency Chinese officials express when discussing the nuclear boom. “We need every type of energy,” says Zhang Zuoyi, head of the institute that helps run the pebblebed test reactor. “We are hungry.” China’s leaders won’t listen to naysayers. They can’t afford to.

With Duncan Hewitt in Zhejiang



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