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Global nuclear industry’s confidence is wobbling, as China loses enthusiasm for nuclear power

China’s losing its taste for nuclear power. MIT Technology Review, Once nuclear’s strongest booster, China is growing wary about its cost and safety. by Peter Fairley,December 12, 2018

Most beautiful wedding photos taken at a nuclear power plant” might just be the strangest competition ever. But by inviting couples to celebrate their nuptials at the Daya Bay plant in Shenzhen and post the pictures online, China General Nuclear Power (CGN), the country’s largest nuclear power operator, got lots of favorable publicity.

A year later, the honeymoon is over.

For years, as other countries have shied away from nuclear power, China has been its strongest advocate. Of the four reactors that started up worldwide in 2017, three were in China and the fourth was built by Beijing-based China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) in Pakistan. China’s domestic nuclear generation capacity grew by 24% in the first 10 months of 2018.

The country has the capacity to build 10 to 12 nuclear reactors a year. But though reactors begun several years ago are still coming online, the industry has not broken ground on a new plant in China since late 2016, according to a recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

Officially China still sees nuclear power as a must-have. But unofficially, the technology is on a death watch. Experts, including some with links to the government, see China’s nuclear sector succumbing to the same problems affecting the West: the technology is too expensive, and the public doesn’t want it.

The 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant shocked Chinese officials and made a strong impression on many Chinese citizens. A government survey in August 2017 found that only 40% of the public supported nuclear power development.

The bigger problem is financial. Reactors built with extra safety features and more robust cooling systems to avoid a Fukushima-like disaster are expensive, while the costs of wind and solar power continue to plummet: they are now 20% cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants in China, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Moreover, high construction costs make nuclear a risky investment.

And gone are the days when nuclear power was desperately needed to meet China’s soaring demand for electricity. In the early 2000s, power consumption was growing at more than 10% annually as the economy boomed and manufacturing, a heavy user of electricity, expanded rapidly. Over the past few years, as growth has slowed and the economy has diversified, power demand has been growing, on average, at less than 4%.

China’s disenchantment with nuclear power corresponds with an overall decline in nuclear generation elsewhere in the world. Utilities are retiring existing plants and have stopped building new ones. If China, too, gives up on nuclear, it could sound the death knell………

Within days of Fukushima, nuclear reactor construction in China was frozen. When building resumed months later, after a wave of inspections, Beijing insisted that future nuclear power projects adopt more advanced designs with extra safety features.

The damage to public confidence, however, had already been done. In 2013 over a thousand people assembled in Jiangmen, east of Hong Kong, to decry a planned uranium fuel plant. Within days the state-run project was scrapped. In 2016 local officials suspended preliminary work on a site in Lianyungang, in northeastern Jiangsu province, after an uproar caused by revelations that it might host a recycling plant for spent nuclear fuel. In the wake of that protest, China’s State Council amended its draft regulations on nuclear power management, requiring developers to hold public hearings before siting projects…………

Dwindling options
The government has lately said little about nuclear policy. Its official target, last updated in 2016, calls for 58 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity to be installed by 2020 and for another 30 GW to be under construction. All experts agree China won’t reach its 2020 goal until 2022 or later, and pre-Fukushima projections of 400 GW or more by midcentury now look fanciful. Han says he is betting that after the country builds the 88 GW in its 2020 plan, it will move on to other energy sources. …….

If the Hualong One proves too expensive, China’s lingering nuclear hopes will be pinned to its advanced-reactor program—an effort to develop a new generation of technologies that include high-­temperature gas-cooled reactors, designs cooled with sodium metal or salt, and smaller versions of pressurized-­water reactors. These various designs are meant to be cheaper to build and operate—and much safer—than conventional reactors.

But so far there is little evidence that any of them will solve nuclear’s problems. A sodium-cooled reactor completed near Beijing in 2011 has had familiar technical glitches such as problems in its coolant systems. And the rising cost of a pair of high-­temperature gas-cooled reactors nearing completion at Shandong Province’s Shidao Bay ended plans for a further 18 such reactors at the site.

There’s always the possibility of a breakthrough that would make nuclear safe and cheap enough to compete with renewables and coal. But even China’s nuclear giants are hedging their bets. Both CGN and the state-owned firm funding China’s AP1000 investments rank among the world’s top 10 renewable-power operators……..

 If China’s nuclear ambitions wind down, it may be the nail in the coffin for the technology’s viability elsewhere.

December 13, 2018 - Posted by | business and costs, China, politics, politics international

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