Nuclear Options

China Has Taken the Global Lead on Nuclear Energy Projects


China is setting the nuclear pace. Surging energy needs and a desire to lessen its coal dependency have led the country's government to refocus its energy portfolio on nuclear projects.

Since 2008, China has built 60 percent of the world's new nuclear plants. With 19 projects under construction and 22 more being considered, this trend will only continue, says François Morin, China director for the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in Beijing, China. The government's target, set in 2012, is to install 58 gigawatts of power by 2020, after reaching 35.8 gigawatts last year.

Beyond serving China's energy needs, a strategic aim of this nuclear uptick is to grow a profitable industry that could deliver reactor projects in other countries. If all goes well with the bevy of projects in motion—not a sure thing—China could serve as a model for safe, affordable energy in other countries.

“China has become a pilot for the world,” Nesimi Kilic, nuclear engineer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the IAEA Bulletin.

Since 2008, China has built 60% of the world's new nuclear plants.

Powering Up

The central government's strong financial support eliminates many of the challenges that can plague nuclear energy projects in other countries, Mr. Morin says.

China's commitment to multiple projects over a relatively short period of time has also helped the country build a large nuclear talent pool, including experienced project directors and construction teams. “They are learning by doing,” Mr. Morin says.

Part of the learning curve involves new reactor designs and technology. Current projects include the country's first offshore floating nuclear reactor, which will be completed near Beijing by 2020. Once finished, the mobile reactor will provide power to oil and gas rigs in the area, according to the WNA.

The project team for the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp. is also on track to complete construction on the world's first Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at the Sanmen plant in Zhejiang province. Two additional AP1000 reactors are also being developed at State Power Investment Corp.'s Haiyang plant in Shandong province. By using a pressurized water reactor that can passively cool itself in the event of an accidental shutdown, the AP1000 was designed to avoid catastrophic meltdowns—such as what happened at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

AP1000 reactor projects have proved difficult, both in China and the U.S. (See “Last Nuke Project Standing” on page 15.) One of the new AP1000 reactors at the Sanmen site (there are two in development) was originally due to come online later this year but is years behind schedule.

As the country's economic growth slows, the government will need to be more strategic in where and when it greenlights nuclear projects in the coming years, says Matt Crozat, senior director of policy development, Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington, D.C., USA. “You have to balance infrastructure development with how and where the economy is going to grow.” —Sarah Fister Gale


“You have to balance infrastructure development with how and where the economy is going to grow.”

—Matt Crozat, Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington, D.C., USA


Vogtle power plant project near Waynesboro, Georgia, USA


Last Nuke Project Standing

Things didn't go well almost from the start. Westinghouse Electric, which received regulatory approval to build four nuclear plants in the United States in 2011, had big plans to construct the first-ever AP1000 reactors. Designed by Westinghouse to avoid Fukushima-like meltdowns, the AP1000 reactor promised to be safer and cheaper than anything before. But the program quickly went awry, plagued by inexperienced subcontractors, an immature supply chain and an aggressive schedule.

To save time and money, Westinghouse chose to prefabricate construction—an untested method for the industry. But the organization miscalculated schedules. For instance, work at the two reactors in Waynesboro, Georgia, USA paused for eight months in 2012 because engineers had to wait for signatures and paperwork to ship a section of the plant. The wait was longer than the time to build the section.

Part of the problem? Westinghouse had plenty of design experience but didn't have the staff, structure or background to manage engineering and construction of a reactor project. A document written by a Westinghouse engineer that was published last year by The Post and Courier, a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, noted that construction started before all building blueprints were finished and questioned the decision to not use professional engineers to approve critical blueprints.

“Fundamentally, it was an experimental project but they were under pressure to show it could be a commercially viable project, so they grossly underestimated the time and the cost and the difficulty,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Reuters.

The project to build two reactors in South Carolina was canceled last July. That leaves just one nuclear project left in motion in the country: the initiative to build two reactors in the state of Georgia. Combined, the two plants had an estimated US$13 billion in cost overruns, according to Reuters. The Georgia project alone will ultimately cost roughly US$19 billion, US$5 billion more than originally expected. (After Westinghouse declared bankruptcy last year, project co-sponsor Southern Nuclear took over the construction management role.)

Despite these huge cost overruns and glaring setbacks, a regulatory body in Georgia voted in December to allow construction to continue, in part because so much money has already been sunk into the project. Matt Crozat, senior director of policy development for the Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington, D.C., USA, says that because cheaper nuclear power can offset rising natural gas prices in the region, the project could still deliver benefits. “This is an important step for the U.S. in the nuclear energy industry.”

The project's targeted completion date is 2022—five years behind schedule.



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