China empowers nuke plant innovations

Western scientists work with Chinese to test new breed of cheaper, safer plants

BEIJING • China is becoming the testing ground for a new breed of nuclear power stations designed to be safer and cheaper, as scientists from the US and other Western nations find it difficult to raise enough money to build experimental plants at home.

China National Nuclear Power this month announced a joint venture to build and operate a "travelling wave reactor" in Hebei province, designed by the Washington-based TerraPower, whose chairman is Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The development follows Canada's SNC-Lavalin, which has agreed to build a new recycled-fuel plant with China National Nuclear Corp and Shanghai Electric Group, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is working with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics on a salt-cooled system.

"China is where the demand exists and where willing partners exist for this kind of plant," said TerraPower's president, Mr Chris Levesque.

While most advanced economies are slowly pivoting to energy sources like solar and wind, China's soaring energy demand means it is spending billions on new power plants across the energy spectrum, from coal and natural gas, to renewables and nuclear.

China has the world's most aggressive reactor construction plan, with the goal of boosting its nuclear power capacity by about 70 per cent to 58 gigawatts by 2020.

Both Areva and Westinghouse Electric are slated to turn on their current-generation nuclear reactors next year in China.

POWERING AHEAD

China by a very large margin is the largest market in the world for new power plants of any type. If we do not get our act together, the low-carbon energy business will be owned by the Chinese.

MIT PROFESSOR CHARLES FORSBERG

Beijing's Tsinghua University has been running a small experimental pebble-bed reactor on campus since 2003, and has worked on the technology in cooperation with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

China Nuclear Engineering Construction Corp is now building the world's first commercial plants using the technology, including one in Shandong province that is due to connect to China's grid next year.

Part of the reluctance to invest in new reactors in Europe and the United States is related to public scepticism about nuclear power. The Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011 have all contributed to a decline in reactor-building in advanced economies.

With fewer constraints and a burning need for more energy, China is pushing ahead with new power stations not only in nuclear but also any other technology that could help it meet demand.

"China by a very large margin is the largest market in the world for new power plants of any type," said MIT professor Charles Forsberg. "If we do not get our act together, the low-carbon energy business will be owned by the Chinese."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'China empowers nuke plant innovations'. Print Edition | Subscribe