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New Nuclear Technology Developing in China

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
china nuclear plant

China undoubtedly is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, despite the global financial setbacks experienced in most parts of the globe, and has surged past other economies on its swift and amazing journey to the top. However, the rising economy and continuous industrialization of the nation is not without its toll. China needs significant amounts of energy to power its ever-dynamic economy and emerging industries.

Addressing this skyrocketing demand for energy, China cannot rely solely on fossilfueled and coal-fired plants. The continuous volatility of the global petroleum market, as well as growing concerns for carbon emissions generated by these plants, means that China needs to focus its attention on other forms of energy-generating technology. In this regard, the country intends to satisfy energy demands by increasing its nuclear power capacity by up to tenfold during the next 10-year period – with the ultimate aim of surpassing the United States as the global leader in nuclear energy production.

As a sign that the country in on the right path towards this end, Chinese scientists have announced that they can now overcome the nuclear supply bottleneck for uranium – a critical element for nuclear energy production – and will ensure the country’s uranium reserves for the future. This can be achieved through a new technology that would provide better and much more effective techniques for reprocessing spent uranium. This technology not only would significantly boost China’s nuclear industry, but would usher in a new era for nuclear energy.

China’s Current Nuclear Capacity and Needs

As far back as 1964, China had already made initiatives towards nuclear energy, and had in fact tested its first atomic bomb. However, China has an abundant supply of coal, a locally-available resource that generates up to 70 percent of the nation’s power and is a much cheaper alternative to spending billions of yuan on expensive nuclear technology from other countries. On top of that, the use of nuclear power plants would necessitate the importation of uranium, which China could either not afford during that time or was reluctant to spend government resources on.

In a report from the IAEA, or the International Atomic Energy Agency, China has a total of 10.82 gigawatts of energy capacity generated by 13 nuclear reactors currently in operation. The country is poised to increase this capacity to 12 gigawatts in the very near future and has 26 more nuclear power facilities currently under construction. Once completed in the year 2020, China’s nuclear reactors would require up to 20,000 tons of uranium annually according to the World Nuclear Association.

Despite the recent nuclear disasters in Japan, China is still keen in pursuing their nuclear power agenda and is now the fastest growing nation in terms of nuclear reactor development. However, China’s uranium production can only top 2,400 tons per year and it has uranium deposits of a little over 170,000 tons. This new technology will give them the technological boost that they will need to ensure sufficient uranium deposits.

Reprocessing Spent Uranium

Since the dawn of the nuclear power age, some of the primary concerns for generating power through this technology have been to control and reduce the amount of high-level nuclear waste generated by the process and to optimize the use of the uranium and plutonium fuel elements used in the reactors. To achieve this, reprocessing technologies have been harnessed in an attempt to recover up to 25 percent of unused uranium as well as to reduce the amount of nuclear wastes by one fifth.

Although reprocessing has been practiced in some countries during the last few decades, the process has been politically controversial for some nations such as the United States, as reprocessing can contribute to nuclear proliferation and recovery can be diverted to illicit non-energy use. On top of that, current technologies used for reprocessing can only reduce the volume of high-level nuclear waste up to a certain degree, and are not capable of practically reducing heat generation or radioactivity – which will still require further repository sites.

Since the practice of uranium and plutonium reprocessing started decades ago, there has been a constant debate on whether it is more economical to reprocess nuclear fuel using existing technologies, or to store spent fuel in geological repositories. Currently, only France and the United Kingdom are actively reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, with France having the more developed reprocessing system. The technologies used in this process account for up to 5 percent of the global nuclear fuel demand.

Other countries such as Japan and Russia have tried their hand in reprocessing, but are still unsuccessful in coming up with a viable commercial process. Japan, which is using reprocessed uranium for its nuclear power plant in Rokkasho, transports spent uranium to France for reprocessing and then transports the recovered fuel back via sea transport. The United States, on the other hand, decided that it is more economically viable to use fresh uranium fuel to power its nuclear plants at the moment, and has opted to store the spent nuclear fuel in geological repositories for future reprocessing – if the technology has developed enough to make it more economically viable.

China’s New Nuclear Technology

The new nuclear reprocessing technology developed by the China National Nuclear Corporation, the primary nuclear entity operated by the state, claims to boost uranium materials recovery by up to 60 percent. The announcements were made on China’s Central Television, which featured the testing and development of this new technology at China National Nuclear Corporation’s 404 Factory in the Gobi desert. However, it was not entirely clear if the new technology is different from what currently exists in other countries.

Technological experts such as Lin Boquiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, mentioned that the technology is still not fully developed for actual practical use, but once completed it could signal China’s selfsufficiency for nuclear energy resources. China’s current uranium reserves are approximately at the 171,400 ton level and are equivalent to only 70 years of nuclear power use. With this new technology, this existing capacity can be multiplied by up to 60 times, ensuring China’s uranium sufficiency for up to 3,000 years.

This reported breakthrough from China did not, however, affect the views of foreign analysts, nor did it affect the confidence in the uranium market. In fact, after the pronouncements were made, the market and uranium prices actually moved higher and not lower as would have been expected. China, with 13 nuclear power plants in operation and with concrete plans of doubling this number, will be the largest consumer of nuclear fuel in the future. This pronouncement for self-sufficiency can affect the market – if the technology announced proved technically and commercially viable.

The technology described in this new reprocessing technique has strong implications for the global uranium market, if China manages to prove their announcements true and becomes be less dependent on foreign uranium supplies. Industry experts do not see the market affected on near-term projections, but future demand and prices may significantly be affected if China manages to roll out a commercial version of this reprocessing technology.

The Future of Nuclear Technology in China

The recent nuclear crisis in Japan triggered widespread concerns about the viability of nuclear power as a long-term energy resource, making global powers have second thoughts about whether or not they will pursue the nuclear pathway. Even China, who was previously very aggressive in their nuclear power drive, stopped existing construction of new nuclear power plants and conducted safety inspections of all nuclear plants nationwide.

Inspections were spearheaded by the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), the China Earthquake Administration, and the National Energy Administration, and were expected to last for up to six months. On August 5 of this year, the China Nuclear Energy Association posted a notice on their website indicating that the nuclear safety inspections had concluded their operations and that they had been completed one month earlier than projected. According to the announcements, there were no major safety concerns and issues highlighted on all current plants, giving an indication that the country is now poised to resume construction and operation of the nuclear power plants.

These developments are clear indications of the aggressive stance of China with regards to nuclear power generation and the drive towards becoming the global nuclear energy leader in the near future. The Chinese government, through the China National Nuclear Corporation, has made pronouncements that it will invest up to 800 billion yuan (US$120 billion) into the industry, which will complete ongoing constructions by the year 2020. China is putting more focus on nuclear power safety and is ready to adopt existing technologies from other countries. One such technology is the adoption of the AP 1000, the third generation nuclear power plant technologies developed by Westinghouse Electric Company from the United States.

Adoption of key foreign nuclear power technologies is not the sole intent of China’s nuclear industries, as they are also keen on replicating these technologies for domestic development, and probably overseas sales in the future. This new technology for reprocessing spent uranium is a key step towards this end and may likely put China, and the rest of the world, towards nuclear power independence.

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