NUCLEAR POWER IN CHINA: EXPANSION, SAFETY AND POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

NUCLEAR POWER IN CHINA

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China is the world’s second-largest consumer of nuclear energy.As of 2009 China’s civilian nuclear power industry had 11 operating reactors and is not known to have had a serious accident in 15 years of large-scale electricity production. At that time China’s nuclear plants produced about nine gigawatts of power when operating at full capacity, supplying about 2.7 percent of the country’s electricity. Three years ago, the government set a goal of increasing that capacity more than fourfold by 2020. [Ibid] [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

As of 2007 China got 2.3 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy from 10 nuclear plants producing 8 million kilowatts of electricity. It hopes to meet 4 percent of its electricity demand with nuclear energy by 2010 with an output of 16 billion kilowatt hours and double that figure by 2015. By 2030 China wants to increase the amount of nuclear-power-produced electricity 20-fold to 120 to 160 million kilowatts.

To achieve these goals the Chinese government plans to spend $50 billion to build 100 nuclear reactors, each capable of producing 1 million kilowatts, at a rate of about four a year over the next 20 years. This is one of the most ambitious nuclear plant building drives on record. China is the only place in the world where nuclear power generation is regarded as a major growth industry. When the currently proposed plants are finished China will be the third biggest nuclear power generator after France and Japan. If all 100 plants are built it would be the world’s largest generator of nuclear power.

China has two rival state-owned nuclear power giants: the China National Nuclear Corporation, mainly in northeastern China, and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, mainly in southeastern China. China plans move aggressively to build inland nuclear power plants. The plan kicked off in 2008 when work began on an $8.7 billion nuclear plant in eastern China in Jiangxi Province. Work on plants in Hubei and Hunan Provinces is expected to start soon.

China’s nuclear development dates to 1955 when it concluded an atomic energy cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union. After that more energy was put into developing bombs than plants. Construction of power-generating nuclear reactors began in the mid 1980s with the first ones, Daya Bay No. 1 and Qinshan No. 1coming on line in 1994. As of 2006, China had 11 operating nuclear power plants, all of which were pressurized-water reactors (BWRs), and given approval for eight more. One nuclear power plant was built mainly to supply electricity to Hong Kong. It was shut down in 1995 when its control mechanism failed.

There are no public discussions on the merits and risks of nuclear power. The government decides and that’s that. There are doubts as to whether or not China takes enough safety precautions. There are also worries that the increased number of plants will fuel international competition for uranium, causing prices to go up, and produce massive amounts of nuclear waste.

In January 2011, China announced with great fanfare that it had developed the technology to reprocess spent nuclear fuel’something only a handful of countries can do and something that would help China deal with its lack of uranium deposits---then added a few days later that it would need at least a decade to develop the technology to do it on an industrial scale.

China produces 750 tons of uranium a year. Annual demand is expected to rise to 20,000 tons by 2020.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Nuclear Power in China world-nuclear.org ; China Solar Net shinesolar.net ; Suntech suntech-power.com ; Wind Power in China Report by Ecoworld ecoworld.com ; 2009 Article on Wind Power thenation.com Wikipedia article on Wind Power in China Wikipedia ; Solar and Alternative Energy Products made-in-china.com ; Articles on Renewable Energy in China martinot.info ; China Sustainable Energy Program efchina.org ; New York Times Article on China’s Leadership in Clean Energies nytimes.com ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) greenleapforward.com

On Energy and Electricity: U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Energy in China eia.doe.gov/cabs ; U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Electricity in China eia.doe.gov/cabs ;China Sustainable Energy Program efchina.org ; China Energy Report pdf file piie.com/publications ; Another Lengthy Energy China Report ieej.or.jp ; China Energy Production Statistics indexmundi.com ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) greenleapforward.com

Links in this Website: ENERGY AND ELECTRICITY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DAMS AND HYDRO POWER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THREE GORGES AND THREE GORGES DAM Factsanddetails.com/China ; COAL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; COAL MINE DEATHS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; OIL AND NATURAL GAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE OIL AND NATURAL GAS COMPANIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; NUCLEAR POWER AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Nuclear Power and Corruption Safety in China

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In November 2011, Kang Rixin, the former head of China’s nuclear power program, was sentenced to life in prison on charges of corruption. The head of the most aggressive nuclear-power expansion in the world, he was convicted of taking $260 million in bribes, connected to rigged bids in the construction of nuclear power plants, and abusing his position to enrich others. Keith Bradsher wrote in New York Time, “While none of Mr. Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making.”

Thus far there have been no major safety problems with Chinese nuclear reactors. Bradsher wrote: “Western experts regard the Daya Bay nuclear power plant in Shenzhen, which mainly uses French designs and is run by China Guangdong Nuclear, as evidence that China can run reactors safely. A display case holds trophies the power plant won in global safety competitions. The Daya Bay plant uses two loops of fluid in making power. The fluid in one heats as it circulates around the fuel rods, then transfers the heat to water in a second loop of intertwined pipes. The steam produced expands through a turbine, spinning it to generate electricity. [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

“China National Nuclear likewise cooperates with international inspectors and has had no reported mishaps. But its roots are in a government ministry with close ties to the former Soviet Union, making it more of an enigma to most Western experts, and a corruption case involving its former president has added to their concern. China National Nuclear was on track to grow faster than China Guangdong over the next decade.” [Ibid]

In October 2009, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ordered a quintupling of the safety agency’s staff by the end of next year, to 1,000, according to United States regulators.

Nuclear Power Expansion in China

China is preparing to build three times as many nuclear power plants in the coming decade as the rest of the world combined, with construction starting on as many as 10 additional reactors a year. The expansion of nuclear power will help slow the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

As of 2011 China had seven nuclear power plants with 13 reactors. Twenty-six nuclear power plants with 53 additional reactors are planned or being built. Twelve of the 26 projects have been given the go ahead to be built. The 14 others had passed initial approval. China intends to have more than 100 reactors in operation by 2020.

China wants to increase in nuclear power electricity generating targets to 70 gigawatts of capacity by 2020 and 400 gigawatts by 2050, said Jiang Kejun, an energy policy director at the National Development and Reform Commission, the main planning agency. Electrical demand is growing so rapidly in China that even if the industry manages to meet the ambitious 2020 target, nuclear stations will still generate only 9.7 percent of the country’s power, by the government’s projections. Bringing so much nuclear power online over the next decade would reduce the country’s energy-related emissions of global warming gases by about 5 percent, compared with the emissions that would be produced by burning coal to generate the power. [Bradsher, Op Cit]

Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker website, “China is in the throes of building more new nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined. It is adding twenty-four reactors and quadrupling its nuclear-power capacity in the coming decade to some forty gigawatts. The pace is so fast that the country’s nuclear safety chief publicly warned in 2009 that China would encounter safety and environmental hazards if it did not make a point of ensuring good construction. “At the current stage, if we are not fully aware of the sector’s over-rapid expansions, it will threaten construction quality and operation safety of nuclear power plants,” Li Ganjie, director of National Nuclear Safety Administration, told the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy in April 2009. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker , March 14, 2011]

“China presents a unique dilemma for energy strategists: it is expanding nuclear power in a race to meet rising demand for electricity and replace heavily polluting coal power plants. If China’s greenhouse emissions keep rising at the rate they have for the past thirty years, the country will emit more of those gases in the next thirty years than the United States has in its entire history. In some cases China builds world-class pieces of infrastructure, but we have also seen a steady drip of deeply disconcerting examples of a system growing too fast for its own good.

China has said that won’t let the nuclear crisis after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 deter its nuclear power plant growth. After the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan the Chinese government suspended approvals for new projects pending safety reviews but said it planned to go ahead with previous expansion plans. Chinese Vice Minster of Environmental protection Zhang Lijium said, “Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China’s nuclear plants. But China will not change its determination and plans to develop nuclear power...We’re not going to stop eating for fear of choking.”

See Japan

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Safety and Nuclear Power Expansion in China

The challenge for China is to build and operate its nuclear reactors without the equivalent of the Three Mile Island accident, in which a reactor core partly melted and released radioactivity, or the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986, the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident.China does not use the kind of reactor that exploded at Chernobyl. And engineers in China study the mistakes that poorly trained operators made at Three Mile Island. Liu Yanhua, a vice minister of science and technology, said China believed that its nuclear industry would continue to grow safely. [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

China has asked for international help in training a force of nuclear inspectors. Philippe Jamet, the director of the division of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said that China had welcomed foreign inspectors at its reactors and that they show pretty good operations safety. But he added that the international agency was concerned about whether China would have enough nuclear inspectors with adequate training to handle the rapid expansion. [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

Problems with Nuclear Power Expansion in China

The speed of the construction program and the plants themselves have has raised safety concerns both inside and outside China. Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times, “China is placing many of its nuclear plants near large cities, potentially exposing tens of millions of people to radiation in the event of an accident. In addition, China must maintain nuclear safeguards in a national business culture where quality and safety sometimes take a back seat to cost-cutting, profits and outright corruption---as shown by scandals in the food, pharmaceutical and toy industries and by the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the Sichuan Province earthquake last year.” [Source: Keith Bradsher New York Times, December 15, 2009]

At the current stage, if we are not fully aware of the sector’s over-rapid expansions, it will threaten construction quality and operation safety of nuclear power plants, Li Ganjie, the director of China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, said in a speech. [Ibid]

A top-level corruption scandal has already occurred in the nuclear industry. In August 2009, the Chinese government dismissed and detained the powerful president of the China National Nuclear Corporation, Kang Rixin, in a $260 million corruption case involving allegations of bid-rigging in nuclear power plant construction, according to official media reports. No charges have been reported against Kang, who is being held incommunicado for interrogation. [Ibid]

While none of Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making. In contrast with its performance in industries like toys, China has a strong safety record in industries like aviation, which receive top-level government attention. [Ibid]

The challenge for the government and for nuclear companies as they increase construction is to keep an eye on a growing army of contractors and subcontractors who may be tempted to cut corners. It’s a concern, and that’s why we’re all working together because we hear about these things going on in other industries, said William P. Poirier, a vice president for Westinghouse Electric, which is building four nuclear reactors in China. [Ibid]

Small Leak at Daya Nuclear Plant in China

In May 2010, a Chinese nuclear plant experienced a small leak. A fuel rod at a state-owned nuclear power plant in southeastern China last month leaked traces of radioactive iodine into the surrounding cooling fluid, but no radiation escaped the building, a Hong Kong electric utility with a 25 percent stake in the power plant said Tuesday.The Hong Kong electric utility, CLP, said in a statement that the leak was small and fell below international standards requiring reporting as a safety issue. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, June 15, 2010]

The plant, located on Daya Bay in Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, continued producing electricity without disruption, CLP said. The Security Bureau of the Hong Kong government said that 10 radiation sensors in Hong Kong had not detected any increases since the leak.

The leak occurred when radioactive iodine escaped from at least one of the French-made fuel rods, CLP said, adding that an investigation was under way to identify how that happened. The radioactive iodine, a byproduct of splitting uranium atoms, leaked into the fluid surrounding the fuel rods but did not contaminate the water whose steam powers the turbine, CLP said.

China and South Africa have designed a pebble-bed reactor in which the fuel is incapable of melting. The fuel is easy disposed of and difficult to use to make a bomb. A prototype has been built in Beijing.

Next Nuclear Meltdown: in China?

On the dangers of nuclear power in China, Brett M. Decker wrote in the Washington Times: “The Middle Kingdom is earthquake-prone and suffers regular damage from major tremors. Fault lines crisscross the mainland. This augurs poorly for Beijing’s nuclear blueprint. China National Nuclear, the country’s top nuclear-power developer, is planning to build a new nuclear plant in Chongqing, which is around 480 kilometers from the epicenter of a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in 2008 that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing in neighboring Sichuan province.” [Source: Brett M. Decker, Washington Times, March 16, 2011]

“Another relevant - and frightening - factor is the Chinese institutional practice of cutting corners to try to get ahead. The power needs to sustain China’s huge population are putting pressure on the national energy grid, which in turn puts pressure on authorities to speed up their already mad sprint to build more nuke plants....It’s not as if “Made in China” is a brand that instills a lot of confidence either way. To put it gently, Chinese quality is years - if not decades - behind Japan, which is a global technological leader in many industries. If an unusually strong earthquake can lay waste to a first-world nation with strict building codes such as exist in the land of the rising sun, a record shock in backwards China would make last week’s devastation look like spring break in Fort Lauderdale.” [Ibid]

“The nuclear crossroads raises broader questions about the PRC’s economic development and the myriad pitfalls therein. At the epicenter of the problem is feverish development to keep pace with demographic trends that see a growing middle class and hundreds of millions of rural poor migrating to cities. This all puts a tremendous squeeze on urban infrastructure. China needs to gobble up the lion’s share of the world’s resources - cement, steel, copper, aluminum, just about anything you can think of - to be able to maintain subsistence for its 1.3 billion souls, whose average per capita gross domestic product is a mere one-eleventh of America’s. “There is enormous friction between China’s need to grow quickly and its poor safety and quality-control standards,” Virginia Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes, founder of the Congressional China Caucus, told me Wednesday. “It’s not just the nuclear sector; coal-mining fatalities are huge.” In other words, generating enough energy is fraught with peril in every direction.” [Ibid]

Chinese Nuclear Safety After the Fukushima Crisis in Japan

In June 2011, AP reported: “China's nuclear regulators have given the country's reactors a clean bill of health following inspections ordered after the disaster at Japan's tsunami-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi facility. Inspections have been completed on all 13 of China's currently operating reactors in a process very similar to those in place in Europe and the United States, Vice Environment Minister Li Ganjie said in a statement posted on the ministry's website. Further safety reviews of 28 reactors now under construction should be completed by October, Li said. [Source: Associated Press, June 14, 2011]

“Li has called for a major overhaul of China's nuclear oversight in the wake of Japan's disaster, although there have been no signs that China plans to diverge from its ambitious program to develop the industry .China intends to have more than 100 reactors in operation by 2020, but has suspended issuing permits for new plants until a national nuclear safety plan is completed. China says the expansion is necessary to fuel an energy-hungry economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on coal.” [Ibid]

Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science at M.I.T., who has worked closely with Chinese nuclear officials at the Daya Bay plant in Shenzhen, told The New Yorker . “I served on a safety oversight board at the Daya Bay plant, and we had free access to the facilities, including all levels of management. These are basically French-designed plants, and they were very well maintained. And our goal was to try to create a U.S.-type operating culture, and we tried to do that, and the Chinese were very receptive to that.” He went on, “The plants that are now being built have all the current state-of-the-art designs in them. The plants that failed [in Japan] were relatively old. That’s the good part. The unknown, of course, is how do you plan for a humongous earthquake and a humongous tidal wave, especially when they are situated in a place vulnerable to this kind of upset.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker , March 14, 2011]

When asked if Chinese plants are being designed to defend against the kinds of events that occurred in Japan, Kadak said, “Our safety reviews were more about day-to-day safety. We looked at their probabilistic risk analysis. They did not have access to seismic analyses. I’m assuming that the regulator would be doing that.”

Nuclear Power and Foreigners In China

In September 2004, China said it would begin relying more on foreign expertise, technology and financing to develop nuclear energy. According to Time magazine, "government controls on electricity prices and its failure to adopt international nuclear-safety standards have discouraged foreign investors from helping China build commercial reactors." China hopes that will change.

France is trying to sell China nuclear technology while Japanese and the United States companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba and Bechtel, are trying to win contracts to build nuclear power plants.

See Uranium, Agriculture and Resources, Economics

In July 2007, Westinghouse, a Toshiba subsidiary, finalized a deal to build four nuclear power plants in China at a cost estimated at around $8 billion. Construction is slated to begin in 2009 with the first plant going into operation in 2013. The four 1.1 gigawatt plants will use an advanced AP1000 design, which was only certified in the U.S. in 2005. Two plants will be in Haiyang, Shandong Province and two others will be in Sanmen, Zhejiang Province

Westinghouse beat out rivals from France and Russia and reportedly promised a significant energy transfer to win the deal. China has also made a deal with the French company Areva to build two modern European Pressurized nuclear plants in Taishan in Guangdong Province southern China at a cost of around $11.9 billion. Talks are being held with Russia’s Atomstroiexport to build another nuclear plant on Jiangsu Province.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011


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