China looks to nuclear exports and innovation

4 March 2016

China has set a target of building 30 nuclear units along the economic corridors of the new Silk Route, hoping to export its infrastructure to countries of Central and South Asia, the Middle East and even Europe, the China Daily reported on 3 March. China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) President, Sun Qin, announcing the plan,said China will face competition in a rapidly expanding sector, where around 70 countries aim to develop nuclear projects, including Russia, South Korea, Japan and the USA.

China currently has 30 nuclear plants in operation, 24 under construction and is scheduled to start building its first floating NPP by the end of this year, Sun Qin said, according to state-owned Xinhua agency. The plant will become operational in 2019 "to power offshore oil and gas drilling, island development and remote areas," Sun underlined. A government report in January said China was considering the construction of NPPs on the sea to diversify energy sources and reduce dependence on coal.

To date, only Russia has the necessary technology to build a floating nuclear plant and is set to put into operation the world's first floating NPP later this year to supply energy to the Arctic region. In 2012, Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom had negotiated a collaboration with China on this technology, but according to Sun, the intellectual property rights of China's new floating nuclear reactor will be held by CNNC.

Meanwhile, China's Nuclear Engineering Construction Corporation is almost completed construction of a demonstration high-temperature, gas-cooled, pebble-bed nuclear plant at Shidaowan in Shandong province - the HTR-PM. A full-scope simulator for the HTR-PM is already inoperation. China General Nuclear (CGN) said its China Guangdong Nuclear Simulation Technology subsidiary completed the on-site installation and commissioning of the HTR simulator on 20 December. A site acceptance certificate was signed on 24 December, marking the official start of use of the simulator system.The simulator will mainly be used for the training and licensing of operators, as well as for supporting emergency exercises, and plant design and operation verification.

The plant involves two 105MWe Generation IV self-regulating high temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) - the first of its kind in the world to be built on a commercial scale. Criticality is scheduled for November 2017, according to director Zhang Zuoyi from Tsinghua University's Institute of Nuclear and New Technology. The plan is to later upgrade the design to a 600MWe plant. China has ambitions to build similar reactors abroad. In January an agreement was signed with King Salman bin Abdulaziz high-temp gas-cooled reactors in Saudi Arabia.

The pebble-bed design originated in Germany, and the German SGL Group is supplying the graphite spheres of uranium fuel "pebbles" for the Chinese reactors. No external cooling systems are required and technologists at Tsinghua have already been testing the helium blower designed to circulate the gas coolant.

China is also investigating other innovative advanced nuclear techologies including a molten-salt reactor fuelled by thorium, a travelling-wave reactor (in co-operation with US-based nuclear energy technology startup TerraPower), and a sodium-cooled fast reactor. On 23 February, CNNC's general manager Qian Zhimin and Lee McIntire, CEO of TerraPower, discussed cooperation at a meeting in Beijing. TerraPower, founded in 2008 to develop advanced nuclear technology and backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, signed a memorandum of understanding with CNNC last year for cooperative work on the development of a 1,000MW travelling wave reactor, which would operate for up to 100 years without refuelling or the need to remove any used fuel from the unit.

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