China: nuclear power

In January 2011 a report from the State Council Research Office (SCRO), which makes independent policy recommendations to the State Council on strategic matters, was published. While approving the enormous progress made on many fronts, it cautioned concerning provincial and corporate enthusiasm for new nuclear power plants and said that the 2020 target should be restricted to 70 GWe of new plant actually operating so as to avoid placing undue demand on quality control issues in the supply chain. Another 30 GWe could be under construction. It emphasised that the priority needed to be resolutely on Generation-III technology, notably the AP1000 and derivatives. However, ambitious targets to deploy AP1000s with reduced foreign input had proved difficult, and as a result, more of the Generation-II CPR-1000 units are under construction or on order. Only China is building Gen-II units today in such large numbers, with 57 (53.14 GWe) on the books4.

SCRO said that reactors built today should operate for 50 or 60 years, meaning a large fleet of Gen-II units will still be in operation into the 2070s, when even Gen-III reactors would have given way to Generation-IV and perhaps even to commercial nuclear fusion. The country should be ‘careful’ concerning ‘the volume of second generation units under construction… the scale should not be too large’ to avoid any perception of being below international standards of safety in future, when most of the world’s Gen-II reactors are retired. The SCRO noted the 100-fold increase in probabilistic safety brought by Gen-III, and that future generations would continue the trend.

Another factor potentially affecting safety is the nuclear power workforce. While staff can be technically trained in four to eight years, ‘safety culture takes longer’ at the operational level. This issue is magnified in the regulatory regime, where salaries are lower than in industry, and workforce numbers remain relatively low. SCRO said that most countries employ 30-40 regulatory staff per reactor in their fleet, but the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) has only 1000 staff – a figure that must more than quadruple by 2020. The SCRO recommended that ‘The NNSA should be an entity directly under the State Council Bureau, making it an independent regulatory body with authority.’ It is currently under the China Atomic Energy Authority which plans new capacity and approves feasibility studies for new plants, although it is understood to report to the State Council directly.

The report said that 32 further reactors 34.86 GWe had been approved by the state at end 2010, with 25 (27.73 GWe) then under construction.

The SCRO calculated that nuclear development would require new investment of some CNY 1 trillion ($151 billion) by 2020, not counting those units being built now. These projects rely mainly on debt, funds are tight, and ‘investment risks cannot be discounted’. This cost figure could rise if supply chain issues impact schedules, with repercussions for companies borrowing to build and for the economics of the Chinese nuclear program overall. A major recommendation was to sort out bottlenecks in the supply chain for AP1000 reactors.

Very interesting. China’s technocrats could certainly blunder, given the absence of price signals, but the advice highlighted here looks about right.