Market News

 September 30, 2013
Nuclear plants see powerful growth

 China is strengthening its efforts in developing clean energy, but obstacles remain, as Wu Wencong reports from Lianyungang, Jiangsu province.

When it comes to finding the solution to China's air pollution problem, experts and environmental officials are unanimous in saying nuclear power is the way to go.

But although a series of impressive figures have been put forward to advance the nuclear cause, public misgivings remain.

China's nuclear power industry is growing at the fastest pace in the world, accounting for 14 percent of the nuclear power generated globally every year. Of the 64 nuclear power plants being built worldwide, 29 are in China.

The country's demand for nuclear plants will reach 200, with four to six new ones being approved annually before 2015, said Jian Jingwen, deputy head of the equipment department at the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation.

That number will reach 10 plants every year after 2020, Jian said.

The nation's nuclear power generation capacity will rise from 10.7 gigawatts in 2010 to 160 gigawatts in 2040. China will also account for more than 40 percent of the global net increase in nuclear capacity between 2010 and 2040, according to International Energy Outlook 2013, released by the US Energy Information Administration.

By 2017, the installed capacity of the nation's nuclear power plants will be increased to 50 million kW, enabling the proportion of non-fossil energy to meet the target of 13 percent, up from the 2010 level of 8.6 percent.

Insiders say nuclear power may be the only solution to meeting the 13 percent target, with both wind and solar power facing obstacles such as difficulties in storing the power and transmitting it to other regions.

Several considerations affect the country's development of nuclear power, including safety during operation, waste disposal and the newly added factor of public opinion, says Zhao Yongkang, deputy director of the Nuclear Safety Management Department at the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Chen Xiaoqiu, deputy chief engineer of the ministry's Nuclear and Radiation Safety Center, says the technology used for newly built nuclear power stations in China is at the most advanced level in the world.

"The core-damage frequency (a term used in probabilistic risk assessment indicating the likelihood of an accident that could damage a nuclear reactor core) of the newly constructed units should be less than 1x10-5, meaning that one core damage incident is likely to take place in no less than 100,000 reactor years," Chen said.

"The large release frequency, indicating the likelihood of an accident causing a massive discharge of radioactive materials into the environment, is less than 1x10-6 per reactor year, meaning one large release incident is likely to occur in at least 1 million reactor years."

The collective amount of radiation caused by the coal fuel chain is 50 times that caused by the nuclear fuel chain, according to research by Pan Ziqiang, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert on nuclear radiation prevention and control.

But this series of statistics has failed to end public doubts over the use of nuclear energy.

Safest section

The latest example of this came in July in Jiangmen, a city in Guangdong province, when residents gathered in the streets holding posters objecting to a nuclear fuel project originally planned for Heshan, a county-level city about 30 km away. The protest came about two months after an environmental activist flew into the grounds of a nuclear power station in France on a motorized paraglider.

Zhao, from the ministry, said the production of fuel elements is the safest section of the entire nuclear power production line, with fewer risks than those from nearby chemical plants, while Chen said there were two reasons for the mass objection to the project.

First, the public lacked knowledge of nuclear fuel and its potential risks. Second, they were unclear about the examination and approval procedures for the project.

Residents in Heshan, where the project was originally located, reacted peacefully to it because the local government made a number of efforts to communicate with them. However, residents in Jiangmen, for some reason, were not thoroughly informed about the project details, said Zhang Yongwang, a staff member at the China National Nuclear Corp, the project's original investor.

A two-day conference aimed at promoting better public understanding of nuclear power, with participants from all levels of nuclear and radiation departments and companies, was held in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, in early September. "The government should introduce the procedures for similar projects to a wider group of people phase-by-phase to win their trust in the future," Zhang said at the meeting.

Zhang's advice may become a compulsory legal procedure for all nuclear power-related projects, as a law dedicated to nuclear safety is being drawn up.

"Articles relating to public participation will definitely be included in the law," Zhao said.

Zhai Yong, head of the law chamber of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the 12th National People's Congress, said the new law will regulate only nuclear facilities, focusing on safety throughout the power generating process.

"The basic principle for the law is preventing all types of pollution," Zhai said. "Every process of the operating procedure at nuclear power plants will be covered."

He said the study of the nuclear safety law was partly triggered by the huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, which led to a radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Another reason is that China's nuclear program is getting back on track.

To date, the 10-year-old Radioactive Pollution Prevention Act is the nation's only law relating to nuclear and radiation safety. It is accompanied by seven administrative regulations and 27 departmental rules.

"The act is the first law in China to manage production in the nuclear industry. It covers not only nuclear power stations, but also radioactive ore, and the regulations regarding the safety issue are relatively simple," Zhai said. He added that an Atomic Energy Act is also being prepared, which will focus mainly on the peaceful use of atomic energy.

A rational choice

Beijing suspended approval of new nuclear power projects after the radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But Zhao said this was simply an adjustment of the development pace. The plan to promote nuclear power has not changed.

"That is mainly because of the pressure coming from airborne pollution, especially that from fine particles," he said. "To completely solve the problem, we must change our energy structure, which relies heavily on coal."

The environmental cost of nuclear power plants is much lower than that of coal-fired plants. Greenhouse gases emitted during the nuclear fuel chain are only one-hundredth the level of those emitted during the coal-fuel chain under a similar scale, said Ye Qizhen, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, speaking at the China International Nuclear Power Equipment Exhibition in Beijing this month.

Ye said nuclear power is a better choice for China than wind power, because the wind turbines required for the latter take up too much land.

The country used more than 500 billion kWh of electricity in August, an increase of 13.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to data from the National Energy Administration on Sept 14.

"As public expectation of good air quality grows with the demand for electricity, the prediction that nuclear power will account for about 5 percent of China's total energy consumption by 2020 seems far from sufficient," Zhao said.

He said the huge consumption of coal has also become a great burden on the transport industry, adding that 60 percent of the country's rail capacity and 40 percent of its waterways capacity are reserved for coal transportation.