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Home > News > Columnists > L V Krishnan

How China stacks up in civilian nuclear power

December 03, 2007

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China's nuclear programme was weapons-driven to begin with. Thoughts about civilian applications arose long after the nuclear arsenal was built up.

The weapons themselves are believed to be centred mainly on highly enriched uranium, the technology for its production being of Russian origin. Nuclear reactors in China for production of plutonium for weapons were also based on Russian assistance.

Though simple in design, the project for their construction reportedly experienced delays. Plants for separation of plutonium from spent fuel too had their share of problems initially.

As a result, the first few nuclear tests were of uranium devices. Highly enriched uranium became available early in 1964 and soon was utilised for the first demonstration of bomb capability. The plutonium production reactors did not become operational until 1966, two years after the first test. The first device using plutonium is believed to be a thermonuclear one tested in 1968.

Despite the unsuccessful initial experience in plutonium production reactors, China launched the nuclear submarine project very early. Enriched uranium for the submarine's reactors was readily available.

Ship propulsion reactors are known to be quite complex. The design calls for a strong pressure vessel and has to be highly optimised bearing in mind space limitations and crew safety.

Although there are no confirmatory reports available, Soviet assistance in this area too seems likely, even if minimal, since Chinese submarine plans pre-date Soviet withdrawal of all help in nuclear matters in 1959.

Progress was slow initially and there was suspension of activity in 1963, with revival two years later. A land-based prototype of the reactor became operational in 1970 with 5 per cent enriched uranium as fuel.

At about the same time Premier Zhou En Lai called for steps towards peaceful application of nuclear energy. The following year the prototype propulsion reactor was taken to full power and subjected to sea trial.

In the same year, China was admitted to the UN replacing Taiwan, and the US established diplomatic relations with China.

A second submarine was launched by China in 1977, by which time France [Images] had extended help in solving some of the problems.

Finding success in the effort to build submarine reactors, China began designing a similar reactor of larger capacity in 1973 for electricity generation.

When it was decided to shift from a centrally planned economy to a market based one in 1978, the possibility arose of securing foreign assistance more openly.

The US began negotiations with China for a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1981, disregarding China's stated opposition to Nonproliferation Treaty then.

After four years of talks, US president Ronald Reagan signed the agreement in 1985. Meanwhile, China announced a civil nuclear programme consisting of two reactors of home-grown design and two to be imported.

Sites were selected. With China becoming a member of International Atomic Energy Agency in 1983, the prospects for external help brightened, but there was also a limitation since China had not signed the NPT yet.

Successive US presidents were reluctant to certify China's non-proliferation credentials, stalling implementation of the nuclear cooperation agreement until 1998.

China initiated negotiations with France, the other nuclear weapons state outside the NPT. That resulted in a contract being signed in 1986 with AREVA of France for supply of two pressurised water reactors with a rating of 900 MWe each to be built at Daya Bay in Guangdong.

France also helped in setting up a modern plant in China for fabrication of fuel for the reactors. After the reactors entered commercial operation in 1994 with imported fuel, this plant began supplying the reload fuel for them. Citing the high cost, plans for the second power station based on imported reactors were given up.

Meanwhile, the first reactor of the indigenous design was proposed to be set up at Qinshan with a rating of 300 MW of electricity.

Construction began in March 1985. However, lacking the necessary manufacturing infrastructure for building it, several major components, among them the reactor pressure vessel, were imported.

The reactor began commercial operations only in April 1994. When the plant faced a major problem after commissioning, it could not be resolved with indigenous effort and the assistance of Westinghouse was sought.

It is the design of this Qinshan reactor that was offered to Pakistan and replicated at Chashma, with components of Chinese manufacture. More recently, the top cover of the reactor vessel at Qinshan has had to be changed, an operation carried out by a French company.

While building many more reactors of this indigenous design at lower cost was an option vigorously supported by the well-established China National Nuclear Corporation, the recently set up State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation has chosen instead to order several, more expensive reactors from foreign countries.

The reasons for this could include one or more of the following: lack of confidence in the design and safety analyses by home teams, absence of indigenous infrastructure for manufacture of large components within stipulated short time periods, desire to set up reactors of larger capacity than at Qinshan and in quick time, or a way of sending a message that after a record of proliferation over many years, China was now ready to integrate with mainstream states in constructive applications of nuclear energy.

Whatever it may be, it was a wise move. The stagnation in nuclear power station construction business in the world and the presence of competing offers made it possible to get favourable bargains in terms of price and technology transfer.

The fact that both China and France had joined the NPT in 1992 also made things easier. On its part, Russia [Images] helped set up a centrifuge plant in China for uranium enrichment for production of fuel for the reactors.

Presently, eleven reactors have been commissioned at four sites, all in the eastern part of China, that include a mix of French, Canadian and Russian designs, besides the homegrown variety.

Barring the first two French reactors and those of indigenous design, the others entered commercial operation in just about five years. The total installed nuclear power generation capacity has reached about 9,000 megawatts, which is more than twice that in India now.

India has been governed by a desire for total self-reliance and has also achieved it, but has had to be content with smaller capacity plants and further is facing shortage of uranium fuel. The situation is unlikely to improve significantly so long as the discriminatory restrictions prevail on export to India of nuclear equipment and materials.

Western countries, including Australia and Canada [Images] -- the more vociferous supporters of non-proliferation among them -- have ignored the past proliferation record of China and vie with one another for nuclear trade with it.

They have not been deterred by the fact that China has not signed any International Nuclear Liability Convention, but is governed by a domestic law dating back to 1986 with liability limited to a mere $36 million as opposed to a figure of Euros 360 million, as per the IAEA Vienna convention (there are reports now that the Russian reactors of the Tianwan power station commissioned in 2007 were provided a cover of $1.85 billion by four Chinese Insurance companies, which indicate China's attempts to clear any hurdle in this context).

This has facilitated current Chinese plans for raising the installed capacity to 40,000 megawatts within the next twelve years, ie, by 2020.

In 2005, Westinghouse in the US submitted bids for construction of four large power reactors. China has now accepted it and signed an agreement with Westinghouse in July 2007. This will introduce reactors of a fourth design in China.

Roadmaps are ready to begin construction of two to three new reactors on average each year. Sites have already been identified and negotiations have begun with suppliers for advanced power plants of the third generation with provision for ultimate transfer of technology in full. There is every reason to believe that the plans will succeed.

In parallel China has taken necessary steps to ensure adequate supply of uranium for the entire life of the reactors being built. These include agreements for purchase of uranium from Australia and Kazakhstan as also concessions for uranium mining in Niger.

In the longer term, reprocessing of spent fuel and recycling of the recovered plutonium would become inevitable. For the present, however, China is focussing on uranium-fuelled reactors and is going slow on fast breeder reactors.

According to the current projections, fast reactors capable of generating commercial electricity are planned to be built in numbers only after 2020.

A small sized one known as Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor or CEFR is now being built that will run on a mixture of plutonium and enriched uranium. This is unlike the Indian FBTR that runs on a mixture of plutonium and natural uranium.

A fast reactor R&D programme is reported to have been initiated in China as far back as 1964. But, conceptual design of the CEFR began only in 1990.

Consultations were held with Russian scientists, who also assisted in the design. Preliminary design appears to have been ready by 1997 following which preliminary safety analyses were carried out and construction of the reactor began in 2000.

CEFR is rated to produce 25 megawatts of electricity when commissioned in 2008. It would serve as a valuable training ground for development of technology and to gather experience.

There are ambitious plans to scale it up and build the Chinese Prototype Fast Reactor of 600 megawatt capacity and to follow it up with a still larger reactor of 1,000 megawatt capacity (Chinese Demonstration Fast Reactor) all by 2020.

Perhaps, the Chinese would have opted to import commercial fast reactor designs from foreign suppliers if they were available, as they have done in the case of light water reactors and pressurized heavy water reactors.

But, that is not the case. Moreover, availability of large quantities of plutonium to fuel fast reactors would be a constraint. China has not progressed very far in building large plants for reprocessing spent fuel, though the country has many decades of experience in military reprocessing plants.

With no information available about their performance from safety and economic considerations, for obvious reasons it is difficult to assess the quality of such experience. A reprocessing plant in the civilian sector, on pilot scale and with the capacity to treat 50 tonnes of spent fuel annually, was completed in 2006 but is expected to be fully operational in 2008. Beyond that, a large commercial reprocessing plant is proposed to be built only by 2020.

While making projections of nuclear power generation beyond 2020, the Chinese plans assume that it would be possible to have fast reactors contribute a third of the share of nuclear electricity generation by 2030 rising higher in later years.

There is also an attempt to facilitate long term disposal of radioactive waste from a large nuclear programme by making provisions for transmutation of the long lived radioactive wastes in medium sized fast reactors or accelerators. Serious R&D activities in this context were initiated some years ago.

Unlike in India, China has a large number of research reactors ranging up to 15 MW power level, which can be used for training large numbers of personnel in nuclear technology. There is also a larger reactor of 125 MW rating that can be used for testing nuclear materials and equipment.

Besides power generation, China is evincing keen interest in building high temperature reactors for hydrogen generation. A small reactor modeled on a South African design has been built indigenously that can generate 10 MW of heat.

Hydrogen generation studies in this reactor are planned to be undertaken jointly with South Korea. Upgraded versions of this reactor rated to produce 200 MW of thermal power are on the drawing board for heating buildings.

An overall assessment of the Chinese civilian nuclear programme reveals that the objectives are well defined, the roadmap is clear, assistance from western countries is forthcoming readily and will be appropriately exploited to establish a strong, comprehensive indigenous capability.

In contrast, India would appear to be behind in all the above aspects. However, there are areas where the two programmes could complement each other.

It might be worthwhile to examine possibilities of sale of Indian design PHWRs to China with price advantages compared to the Canadian ones.

India being the only other country likely to embark on construction of large numbers of nuclear reactors in the future, which could be of similar design, there is also scope for trade in equipment for these reactors between India and China.

When Dr Homi Bhabha started a training school in India's Department of Atomic Energy for nuclear scientists and engineers five decades ago, he included the teaching of the Russian language in the syllabus, but that was discontinued after some years.

Presently, introduction of training in the Chinese language in the school would appear worthy of contemplation.

L V Krishnan, is former director, Safety Research and Health Physics Group, Indira Gandhi [Images] Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, India. He can be reached at: krishnan97@gmail.com


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