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Driven by energy shortages, China races to expand nuclear power industry

Sunday July 3, 2005

Driven by energy shortages, China races to expand nuclear power industry

QINSHAN, China (AP) - The shadows of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island no longer reach to the pine-crested hillsides of Hangzhou Bay, where China is rushing to expanding a nuclear power station to meet soaring demand for electricity for its economic boom. 

Driven by crushing fuel shortages, smog and ambitions to profit from its hard-won nuclear prowess, Beijing has embarked on a quest to more than double its nuclear power generating capacity by 2020. 

The push for more nuclear power means opportunities for U.S., French and Russian technology suppliers that are competing for up to US$8 billion (euro6.6 billion) in contracts for two new nuclear power plants _ the biggest deals in years for the industry. 

The French nuclear group AREVA; Westinghouse Electric Co., the U.S. unit of British Nuclear Fuels PLC; and Russia's AtomStroyExport are awaiting a Chinese decision on bids for facilities at Sanmen, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, and Yangjiang in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong. 

"We are fully committed to transferring our advanced nuclear technology to China,'' Paul Felten, a senior vice president of AREVA's Framatome, said at a recent conference in Shanghai. 

At Qinshan, a two-hour drive southwest of Shanghai and its 20 million residents, sites are being prepared for four new reactors, in addition to the five already operating at three different facilities. 

"The excavation is almost finished,'' said Yang Lanhe, general manager for Qinshan Phase II, China's showcase for domestically developed nuclear technology and equipment, pointing out the window to a site cleared and waiting for construction to begin. 

Yang and other executives at Qinshan speak of nuclear power with the conviction of true believers. 

They point to China's own accident-free record after 14 years of nuclear power generation. And they say technology has advanced far beyond that used decades earlier, when the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania and the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine decimated public support for atomic energy in the West. 

"We know and understand that nuclear power is a clean and good energy and we think it would be good to increase its share,'' said Hu Haiyun, Communist Party boss for the Qinshan Nuclear Base. 

China's nuclear program, dating back to the 1950s, began commercial operations only in 1991, at Qinshan. 

For six years, beginning in 1997, dozens of potential projects were put on hold amid concerns over excess capacity, safety and the relatively high costs of nuclear-generated electricity. 

The race to build more plants resumed last year, as China struggled with blackouts amid its worst energy crisis in decades. 

From the highest levels of Chinese government to the technicians running Qinshan and other plants, there is a newfound conviction that nuclear power is the most practical option for reducing the country's reliance on heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. 

"Build Nuclear Power, Enrich the People,'' says a slogan on billboards throughout the sprawling facility, built into a peninsula surrounded by farms and fishing villages. 

China expects the share of its power supplied by nuclear generation to grow to 4 percent by 2020 from 2.3 percent today. To meet that goal, it must build about two new facilities every year. 

"After 2020, nuclear power's growth will increase much much faster. Its importance in China's energy framework will be indisputable,'' Shen Wenquan, vice chairman of China National Nuclear Corp.'s science and technology committee, said at an industry conference in Shanghai. 

Shen showed a chart forecasting that by 2060, nuclear power could provide about a third of the country's energy needs. 

In regions like Zhejiang, where both Qinshan and Sanmen are located, and in Guangdong, home to the Daya Bay and Ling'ao facilities, nuclear energy already supplies 13 percent of total power generation _ a figure certain to rise significantly as plants now being planned or built come on line. 

China is concentrating its nuclear power facilities in those heavily populated, industrialized coastal regions, where demand is highest and pollution levels are too severe to burn more coal. 

"Much of the new nuclear power will be built in the south and east where they lack their own supplies of coal, gas, oil and large hydro(power),'' says Philip Andrews-Speed, director for the Center for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. 

"Nuclear will grow to form a large part of the power supply in certain areas,'' he said. 

As higher crude oil prices and worries over global warning prompt countries such as Finland, India and South Korea to increase reliance on nuclear energy, China is focusing on developing its own technology to the point where its nuclear power industry can become both self-sufficient and internationally competitive. 

Qinshan reflects the industry's evolution so far. 

Phase I was designed by Chinese engineers, with important components imported from Japan, Germany and France. Phase II was designed and built with domestic technology and equipment. Phase III, whose facilities are noticeably more modern, is a joint venture between China National Nuclear Corp. and Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. 

Industry officials point to Qinshan's success in exporting technology to Pakistan to build a nuclear plant as evidence of China's own capabilities. But they are frank about their need for foreign help in developing future generations of technology. 

"Rest assured, we certainly will continue our international cooperation for a long time to come,'' said Xu Lianyi, an official from the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. He said the more than 100 manufacturers making nuclear power equipment were keen to introduce technology from overseas. 

China plans to build a reactor using CNP1000, its next generation of pressurized water reactor, by 2007. 

China hopes to begin operating a prototype fast reactor by 2008, with commercial operations anticipated by 2020, CNNC's Shen said. It is the center of a top-priority 1.38 billion yuan (US$167 million; euro138 million) national research project. 

Chinese researchers also have been preparing to build a pebble-bed nuclear reactor, using a new technology fueled by small graphite spheres with uranium cores. Since the uranium is spread among small spheres, dissipating heat, risks of a meltdown are smaller and radioactive waste is less likely to be useful for building nuclear weapons. 

But like other countries China is still struggling over how to handle the radioactive waste from its plants. 

CNNC's Shen noted that resolving the "fuel cycle problem'' would be crucial to future expansion plans for the industry. 

He said research was focusing on fast reactor technology can reduce the amount of waste and boost efficiency of uranium usage by up to 70 times, a bonus for China, which will eventually need to import most of the uranium it needs as its nuclear program expands. 

Managers at Qinshan refused to say how much waste is stored there. 

Originally, plans called for the waste to be stored there for up to 15 years, or until a national nuclear waste dump is set up. 

"We have enough space to hold it,'' said Hu, the Communist Party secretary. "I trust our country has the ability to resolve this problem.'' 

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