China’s influence on nuclear power

Over the next several years, China is likely to influence “third generation” nuclear power more than any other country. That is partly because China already is and will likely continue to be the largest market. It is also because China has the most active efforts at nuclear design, manufacturing and construction.

China’s nuclear fleet: Before 1994, no nuclear power operated in China. China never built “first generation” nuclear-power plants or any power plants with “boiling water” reactors. During 2016, 34 “second generation” nuclear-power units are or will be in full, normal operations at 11 power plants in China. Organizations primarily responsible for construction have been China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) of Beijing–5 plants and 15 units–and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) of Shenzhen–6 plants and 19 units.

Nuclear-power units operating in China during 2016

Click Here for a table of China’s nuclear power-plant units in full operation during 2016: plant and province, unit number, rated net MW, equipment type and source, year and month in full operation, builder organization.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2016

CNNC worked with several types and sources of equipment designs. CGN concentrated on a single type, first sourced from France. After building four units, CGN localized the type to China, with increased output, as the CPR-1000 design. That became the major nuclear-power design in China, built by CNNC as well as by CGN and representing 19 of the 34 units operating in 2016. The first CPR-1000 unit at Ling Ao in Guangdong province took 6-1/2 years to build. More recent CPR-1000 units have been completed in a little over 4 years, with about 90 percent of the value sourced from China.

Responses to disaster: After the Japanese nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in March, 2011, the government of China briefly halted nuclear plant and unit authorizations and began a review of China’s nuclear-power programs. A so-called “white paper” from October, 2012–officially a statement of “energy policy”–provided the following:

“Since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in 2011, China has launched comprehensive safety inspections at all nuclear-power plants. The inspection results show that nuclear security is guaranteed in China…China’s installed capacity of nuclear power is expected to reach 40 GW by 2015.” [Information Office of the State Council, China’s Energy Policy 2012, as released in English October 24, 2012, pp. 12-13 of 25]

The capacity goal was silently ignored. China’s net rated nuclear generation capacity at the start of 2015 totaled only 20 GW–half the claimed goal. No clear public statement came from China’s government reflecting the nuclear safety review. There was little chance of a candid assessment amid a command economy and regimes long arrogant toward the people of China. Because disclosing information outside official channels is harshly punished, China’s regulation of its nuclear industry is far less effective than even United States regulation in 1974, before dissolving the former Atomic Energy Commission and starting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Some changes began with retirement of Hu Jintao as general secretary in the fall of 2012 and succession of Xi Jinping. During the Hu regime, China promoted pell-mell industrial growth at the expense of infrastructure and environment. Energy production gorged on China’s coal and led to large coal imports. Motor vehicle traffic grew apace, combining exhaust fumes with coal smoke to produce intense storms of air pollution–sometimes worse than Pittsburgh in the 1940s but enormously larger.

Regime change: Near the start of the Xi regime, the Chinese government lifted the moratorium on nuclear authorizations and quickly moved to consolidate and spur activities of nuclear organizations. Owing to needs for large sources of capital, these are all effectively arms of government–regardless of charters. A modest growth in nuclear-power capacity became a surge. More than half the nuclear generation capacity at the end of 2016 will have begun normal operations within the latest three years.

Nuclear generation capacity in China by years

chinanuclearpower2003to2016
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2016

A practical effect in China of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan was to accelerate “third generation” nuclear-power technology, in hopes it would deliver on claims of safety yet to be proven through operating experience. Plans for “second generation” units were cut back and new plans for “third generation” units pushed forward. China had already contracted to build four AP-1000 units at Sanmen and Haiyang, mostly designed at Westinghouse in the United States, and two EPR units at Taishan, mostly designed at Areva in France. China had licensed Rev. 15 of AP-1000 designs from Toshiba of Japan–omitting aircraft impact resistance and rejected for U.S. plants, which use Rev. 19 of AP-1000 designs. Chinese organizations apparently saw EPR technology as less promising and had not licensed it from Areva of France.

In a reversal of usual behaviors, typically more proactive CGN had taken responsibility for EPR technology, while CNNC took responsibility for AP-1000 technology. Nevertheless, CGN moved rapidly toward a Chinese localization of “third generation” nuclear-power technology using AP-1000 rather than EPR as a model. The overall approach appears to wrap protective AP-1000 “third generation” elements around CPR-1000 “second generation” designs–the latter adapted and promoted by CGN but also utilized by CNNC.

For a time, CNNC and CGN elaborated separate, competitive approaches to integrating AP-1000 “third generation” nuclear technologies into Chinese “second generation” designs. Both organizations had built locally sourced “second generation” nuclear units at multiple power plants. In early 2014, China’s government directed the two organizations to produce a single design. They soon began to refer to the object of the joint effort as the 华龙 Hualong (grand China dragon) design.

Disputes over still separate elements of plans were resolved by reviewers assembled by Hualong International Nuclear Power Technology Company, a 50-50 joint venture of CNNC and CGN begun in March, 2016. Bloomberg News reported in early August, 2016, that CNNC elements were chosen over those from CGN. The organization will seek overseas business. Its 1.09 GW nuclear-power design has been designated HPR-1000. Geographic regions were separated for CNNC versus CGN activity. CGN, now focused on Guangxi, Guangdong and parts of Fujian provinces, will pursue opportunities in Europe. CNNC will seek overseas business in South America.

CNNC asserts that the HPR-1000 “design concept and technologies…have been verified” by “natural science.” That sounds like an appeal to magic. By comparison with the United States and the European Union, regulatory review in China has been, at best, extremely hasty. News sourced from China shows foundations being built for the first HPR-1000 unit in May, 2015, before organizing joint management and more than a year before resolving design issues. In telling contrast, U.S. regulatory review for the AP-1000 design took from March, 2002–when the first complete design was submitted–through December, 2011. No construction occurred during that interval.

Developing technology: The HPR-1000 design is not a knockoff of the AP-1000 design, although it uses similar approaches and has nearly the same external ratings. Obvious differences include these five. (1) AP-1000 has a water reservoir for passive cooling on the roof of its containment building; HPR-1000 has a water reservoir inside its building. (2) AP-1000 has two “loops”–steam generators; HPR-1000 has three. (3) AP-1000 has four coolant pumps moving reactor water through its steam generators; HPR-1000 has three. (4) AP-1000 has a core with 157 fuel assemblies, each 264 rods that are 15.0 ft long; HPR-1000 has a core with 177 fuel assemblies, each 264 rods that are 12.7 ft long. (5) AP-1000 has a vessel with 13.3 ft diameter around the core; HPR-1000 has a vessel with 14.4 ft diameter around the core.

Nuclear “third generation” designs in China

Characteristic AP-1000 HPR-1000
rated net MWe 1110 1090
heat transfer 2-loop 3-loop
coolant pumps 4 3
fuel assemblies 157 177
rods per assembly 264 264
fuel rod length 15.0 ft 12.7 ft
vessel diameter 13.3 ft 14.4 ft
water reservoir on roof inside
passive survival 72 hr 72 hr
ground acceleration 0.3 g 0.3 g
seamless vessel on core yes yes
bottom cap solid solid
double containment yes yes
load following yes yes
refueling cycle 18 mo 18 mo
design life 60 yr 60 yr

Source: China National Nuclear Corporation, 2016

The HPR-1000 design leverages China’s infrastructure built around the CPR-1000 design, by far its most widely applied nuclear-power technologies. Chinese type AFA3G fuel assemblies have become its high-volume nuclear fuel, required by the CPR-1000 units. Type CF3 fuel rods for HPR-1000 assemblies are slightly (15.9 mm) shorter than type AFA3G rods for CPR-1000 assemblies and use a double-welding process. Dimensions of reactor vessels and steam generators nearly match, assuring that current manufacturers will be able to build them.

China’s nuclear industries remain plagued by lack of consistent standards for dimensioning, measuring, testing, inspection and qualification. Instead of adopting or developing a comprehensive set of standards, China continues to apply multiple standards copied from the countries that have been sources for equipment. Those include France, Russia, Canada, the United States, Japan and Spain. A document from China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration suggests that the French RCC-M code (Règles de Conception et de Construction des Matériels Mécaniques) may be the most common standard, because it was used for the CPR-1000 design. When foreign standards are revised–a frequent occurence–it is unlikely that the forest of Chinese copies can be kept synchronized. Over time, that can become a potential source of equipment failures.

According to CNNC in 2015, longstanding Chinese official policy of a “closed nuclear fuel cycle” remains unchanged. A presentation at a meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil stated, “China has been adopting the closed nuclear fuel cycle, i.e., the spent fuel shall be reprocessed to recycled uranium, plutonium and other elements to enhance the fuel utilization.” [text in English, figure legends in Chinese] However, locations in the general area of a reprocessing facility proposed near Jiayuguan in Gansu, near a military outpost since the 1950s, currently provide only storage, despite a claim by CNNC about plans for “big commercial reprocessing.”

Energy context: During 2015, China’s nuclear-power fleet produced about three percent of China’s net electricity. So far, growth in nuclear electricity is far outpaced by growth in coal-fired electricity. Between 2014 and 2015, a rated 6 GW of nuclear capacity was added, while a rated 72 GW in coal-fired capacity was added. At recent rates of change, China might never achieve the current world average of about 11 percent nuclear electricity.

Quoting from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, Energy Post–produced in the Netherlands–finds that renewable electricity has been growing faster. Between 2014 and 2015, China reported adding about 33 GW, peak in wind capacity and adding about 18 GW, peak in solar capacity. Discounted by typical capacity factors of 90 percent for nuclear, 25 percent for wind and 12 percent for solar, China reported adding about 5.4 GW in average nuclear capacity and about 10.3 GW in average renewable capacity. There has been no information on China’s internal energy development costs that is generally regarded as reliable.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 9, 2016


Nuclear power-plants in China, International Atomic Energy Agency (Vienna), September, 2016

Nuclear power in China, World Nuclear Association (London), August, 2016

Tom Holland, Why Britain’s Hinkley nuclear reactor is a horror show, South China Morning Post, August 29, 2016

Edward Wong, Coal burning causes the most air pollution deaths in China, New York Times, August 18, 2016

Chris Buckley, Chinese city backs down on proposed nuclear fuel plant after protests, New York Times, August 11, 2016

Aibing Guo, CNNC says its plan to merge ‘Hualong One’ reactor designs favored, Bloomberg News, August 3, 2016

David Dalton, China nuclear companies form joint venture to export ‘Hualong One’ reactor, NucNet Newsletter (Brussels), March 17, 2016

‘Hualong One’ joint venture officially launched by China, World Nuclear News (UK), March 17, 2016

China’s electricity mix, Energy Post (Netherlands), March 1, 2016

China to build more ‘Hualong One’ reactors, Nuclear Engineering International (UK), February 25, 2016

Nuclear fuel industry in China, China National Nuclear Corporation (Beijing, in English), October, 2015

Chinese reprocessing plant to start up in 2030, World Nuclear News (UK), September 24, 2015

Haiyang Wang, China’s nuclear power development and ‘Hualong One’ (HPR-1000) pressurized water reactor technology, China National Nuclear Corporation (Beijing, in English), September, 2015

Emma Graham-Harrison, China warned over plans for new nuclear power plants, Manchester Guardian (UK), May 25, 2015

Fuqing-5 foundation in place, World Nuclear News (UK), May 12, 2015

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Jane Nakano, The United States and China: making nuclear energy safer, Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution (Washington, DC), February 6, 2014

Matthew L. Wald, Approval of reactor design clears path for new plants, New York Times, December 23, 2011

Craig Bolon, Third-generation nuclear power: uncertain progress, Brookline Beacon, September 6, 2016

Craig Bolon, Nuclear power-plants at risk from hidden defects, Brookline Beacon, September 3, 2016

Craig Bolon, Will New England revive nuclear power?, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2016

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