The flaws in China’s nuclear power drive

Under Mao Zedong, China’s focus was purely on nuclear weapons. Encouraged by the success of nuclear weapons, Zhou Enlai proposed a turning point for nuclear power generation in the 1970s. This soon led to some preliminary work. Serious efforts to design an enriched uranium required large pressure reactor (PWR) began in 1978 after the ‘reform and open’ policy was adopted. In parallel, China has begun talks with France to build two large PWRs simultaneously, for quick results. These began operating in 1986. China then ordered more reactors from Canada, Russia and the United States (US). Now, out of a total of 60 reactors, China owns 40 reactors.

Chinese experts believe China will need 300-500 reactors by 2050 to meet the government’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions. This is five to eight times the jump from the current. Despite the progress so far recorded, the road ahead has not been easy. This is due to various factors.

Uranium Availability: China’s domestic uranium reserves are not enough to support the current fleet over its full lifetime. Ongoing uranium accumulation through market purchases and acquisition of uranium mines in many countries since 2006 proves to be inadequate for an even larger PWR fleet.

The use of plutonium as a fuel: The practical solution to the uranium question is known as ‘shutting down the fuel cycle’. This calls for the recovery of the remaining uranium and plutonium from spent fuel emitted by PWRs and their use in the same reactors (MOX for mixed oxides). This reduces uranium requirements by only 25%. The recycling of plutonium produced in fast breeder reactors (FBRs) enables the full use of uranium. China adopted this method in 1983. China’s progress in building PWRs has been impressive, but success in recycling and recycling of plutonium in PWRs and FBRs is unclear.

China produced an estimated two tonnes of plutonium for nuclear weapons from small military reactors until the mid-1980s, which was discontinued. The experimental plant was commissioned in 2006 for the production of plutonium for civilian purposes by the heating of large PWRs. Designed to produce 500kg annually, it ran into problems in operation. China’s announcement to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was last filed in December 2016, states that its civilian plutonium inventory is just 41kg. A subsequent report was not submitted. Approximately 3,000 kg of plutonium is required to load a reactor with MOX fuel.

Constant high-level talks have not materialized for many years to get France to build a large plutonium recovery plant in China. Recently, the MoU was signed in 2018 in the presence of the President of both countries. Then there was no progress.

Nonetheless, local construction of the plant, which produces two tonnes of plutonium per year, began in 2015 and is expected to be commissioned in 2025. Meanwhile, the construction of such a second plant has begun without waiting for the first to begin operating. This indicates the urgent need to produce plutonium for recycling in PWRs.

Introduction of fast reactors: In parallel, construction of the China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) began in 2000, rated to generate 20 MW of power. It was built by the Russian Federation and began operation in 2010, not from MOX fuel, but from Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) supplied by Russia. The reactor has undergone commissioning tests for ten years. It was relaunched in June 2018. China has not provided its status to the IAEA database since then.

Efforts have been continuing since 2009 to import a large FBR of Russian design, in an effort to get to the fast breeder stage quickly. It did not bear fruit. Therefore, China began construction of a large sodium cooled fast reactor (China Fast Reactor-1) in 2017. The reactor has 600 MWe capacity, similar to India’s PFBR. Three years later, work on the second reactor began at the same location.

China built a small-scale plant in 2008, looking to establish MOX fuel capacity for these reactors. However, due to the lack of plutonium, all of the above reactors were initially refueled with HEU, which Russia agreed to provide.

It is not uncommon to stumble first in attempts to install new technology. In the case of China, the lack of success so far in plutonium recovery and fast reactor operation is surprising. In particular, considering its record of plutonium production for nuclear weapons in the past, its proven industrial ability to build PWRs all on its own. Lack of imported plant to start with may be one reason.

An article published seven years ago in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates that China is lagging behind in nuclear fuel cycle technology, 25 years ahead of India in key areas such as MOX fuel production and spontaneous nuclear fuel refueling.

Thorium use: Like India, China will eventually consider its modest thorium resource to avoid dependence on uranium. China has started R&D on reactors filled with plutonium and thorium. Cooled with molten salt, this reactor operates at a fairly high temperature, which facilitates hydrogen production from the water. Operation has been started with enriched uranium fuel to launch with a two MW reactor. Plutonium deficiency is a serious impediment to progress in the coming days. China hopes to profit from US experience six decades ago in building a molten salt reactor, which was later covered by structural material problems.

Top Level Waste Management: Plutonium recovery from spent fuel leads to the production of high levels of liquid radioactive wastes. Conversion of liquids into unleashed glass blocks, a process known as vitrification, is a safe solution adopted by many countries. China has been working with teams in Germany since 2009 to learn the technology. In September 2021, the first glass block from military waste was produced in a small display unit built with German help.

Nuclear Power Expansion: China, which has adopted the Import, Digest, Absorb and Re-engineer (IDAR) policy, has established an impressive capacity to produce enriched uranium and manufacture all major PWR equipment within the country. Five companies have been established each year that can supply the tools to build two large PWRs.

60 odd reactors, now operating and under construction in China, are on site at 18 sites. All of this is on the beach, as it allows the seawater to be used for freezing steam before being pumped back into the reactor. With limited opportunities to identify new coastal areas, future reactors must be located inland. Although each site has eight reactors, tens of such sites are required. Winning public acceptance for inland sites is a key requirement.

Despite the authoritarian nature of the administration, the decade beginning in 2007 has seen successful street protests in China over high-speed rail lines, along with dam projects, chemicals for producing paroxetine, GM crops, municipal waste burning and nuclear facilities. Some of them have to give up. It consisted of two planned nuclear power projects, one on the coast and the other on the Yangtze River, bordering two provinces. Afterwards, the protesters included a group of respected scientists who wrote to then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and decided to postpone not only this project but also the general plans to install future nuclear reactors in the interior. In the other two instances, (1) a large plutonium recovery and MOX fuel-making plant and (2) enriched uranium fuel production plants for several PWRs in the vicinity were canceled following the protests. This is the real test of gaining public acceptance when more inland areas are considered as part of nuclear power expansion.

Reactor Export: Meanwhile, China is keen to keep nuclear industry sectors that are building PWRs in other countries in addition to domestic expansion. There are six reactors built in Pakistan. Four more were signed at the end of last year. China’s Nuclear Corp. report says 30 reactors could be built outside China as part of the Belt Road initiative. China has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with 27 countries and is building large and small reactors. Seventeen of these were signed between 2015 and 2017. Many countries still do not have the ability to operate reactors or pay for them. Clearly the goal is to establish long-term relationships with the receiving countries with greater reliance on China.

China has a record of building PWRs in five years, now the smallest in the world. In principle, it has the potential to add 200 PWRs and some FBRs by 2060, the year of projected maximum carbon emissions. However it depends on the success on many fronts.

India has built a good base of local expertise to add more heavy water reactors and is ahead of China in FBR technology. It is now in a position to add more reactors of both types than Anvil. The National Declaration on COP26 last November aims to reach maximum emissions by 2050 through timely support for funds and site selection. Placing all new facilities under international safeguards allows for productive communication with other countries.

(The article was written by LV Krishnan, Former Director, Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, Tamil Nadu. )

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