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Atomic Power Is In Again—and China Has the Edge – WSJ

The first-ever fourth-generation nuclear power plant began commercial operation in China’s Shandong province.
A next-generation reactor that is safer and more efficient began commercial operation in eastern China. The first-ever fourth-generation nuclear power plant began commercial operation in China’s Shandong province.(Zhang Manyi/Zuma)

Sha Hua, WSJ

SINGAPORE
EnergiesNet.com 12 07 2023

China’s push to reduce its use of fossil fuels and imports of oil and gas has put the country at the forefront of civilian nuclear technology, as climate change is bringing nuclear power back into vogue.

The country became the first in the world to put the latest generation of nuclear power technology into use, China said Wednesday, as a power plant with two new reactors started commercial operations in the eastern province of Shandong.

The new plant uses fourth-generation reactors, which are considered to be safer and more fuel efficient by an international consortium of nuclear countries. The consortium has approved six types of such reactors, and China is trying to build all of them.

The new reactors put China “ahead of other countries in terms of nuclear technology research and development,” said Francois Morin, China director of the World Nuclear Association, a London-based industry group. Western countries aren’t expected to start bringing their own fourth-generation nuclear plants online until the early 2030s, he said.

Many countries soured on nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power at a Japanese nuclear plant, causing partial meltdowns of three reactors. But some are turning back to nuclear power again as they look for emission-free and dependable sources of power to combat climate change.

On Saturday, the U.S. and more than 20 other countries announced that they planned to triple nuclear power by 2050. Europe launched its largest nuclear reactor this year and Japan is bringing back power stations that were closed after Fukushima, while companies including

NuScale Power and Bill Gates’ TerraPower are developing small modular reactor projects that are less costly to build than existing reactors.

China briefly paused the construction of nuclear plants after Fukushima, but then doubled down on atomic energy, saying it was safe. China’s commitment to nuclear power, despite the risks and high costs, was originally rooted in anxieties over energy security but has gained additional momentum from its need to wean itself off coal to meet its aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

China is now building 22 of the 58 reactors under construction around the world, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The country currently operates 55 reactors.

China’s new plant, located in Shandong’s Shidao Bay, was jointly developed by Tsinghua University and two state-owned enterprises: China Huaneng Group and the China National Nuclear Corporation. More than 90% of the technology in the new plant, which can produce enough power for 200,000 homes, was developed in China, the country’s National Energy Administration said. 

The plant’s system uses gas rather than high-pressurized water to cool the reactor, reducing the risk of harmful consequences following accidents. The high levels of heat generated by the reactors can be diverted for use in water desalination, metal smelting and other industrial processes. 

A passive safety system shuts down the reactor automatically in case of problems, including power outages, to guard against accidents like the one at Fukushima.

The first reactor pressure vessel of China’s new nuclear plant is hoisted into place during construction in 2016. Photo: Zhang Manyi/Zuma Press
The first reactor pressure vessel of China’s new nuclear plant is hoisted into place during construction in 2016. (Zhang Manyi/Zuma)

China has sought to join Russia and the U.S. as exporters of civilian nuclear technology. In 2013, the director of China’s National Energy Administration at the time said the sale abroad of one nuclear power plant was worth “the export of one million Volkswagen Santana cars.”

China is vying to build Saudi Arabia’s first civil nuclear plant with an offer that is at least 20% cheaper than rival offers from South Korea and France, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Among other types of fourth-generation nuclear technology, a China-developed small modular reactor—about one-third the size of traditional nuclear power reactors—was the first in the world to pass a safety review by the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

That reactor is likely to come online in the mid-2020s, years ahead of similar reactors being developed by Western companies, said Morin. NuScale Power recently terminated plans to build a small modular reactor in Idaho because of rising costs.

In June, China’s nuclear administration granted a 10-year operating license to China’s experimental thorium-powered molten-salt reactor, the first in the world after one that was built at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1950s but discontinued for cost reasons. Such reactors, which use nuclear fuel dissolved in molten salts, are considered safer, more efficient and produce less waste than conventional water-cooled reactors. 

China is also building a so-called “fast breeder reactor” with the help of Russia as part of one of the biggest nuclear cooperation deals in history, valued at over $18.6 billion. Such reactors can be fueled with plutonium generated from the recovery of spent fuel from conventional reactors and produce more plutonium than they consume.

“China is arguably peerless in actually building and commercializing next generation nuclear power technology,” said David Fishman, a Shanghai-based senior manager at the energy consulting firm Lantau Group.

Write to Sha Hua at sha.hua@wsj.com

wsj.com 12 07 2023


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