China’s goal of exporting nuclear reactors seems within reach, as domestic makers of these power stations are establishing a complete industry chain, company officials and engineers said.
Involvement by Chinese companies in foreign projects has been expanding but mostly in the form of project financing rather than contracts to design, build and operate nuclear plants.
Even a recent foray into Argentina, related to construction of a pressurized heavy-water reactor at the Atucha plant, is limited to providing equipment and services under long-term financing. An agreement was signed between China National Nuclear Corp and Nucleoelectrica Argentina SA during President Xi Jinping’s state visit in July.
But China’s nuclear companies have global ambitions for their proprietary technology.
“It seems that CNNC hopes to take advantage of this deal to open up other nuclear opportunities with China’s domestic technology in Argentina,” said Zhang Luqing, a nuclear expert and power project manager with almost a half-century of experience.
He said that China has the technology ready to export, and it can benefit from doing so in many ways. Exporting plants will help domestic manufacturers improve their technology levels and recover the huge costs of research and development.
The United Kingdom will be the likeliest place to locate a nuclear project entirely owned by Chinese companies. A bilateral agreement allows companies from China to build, own and operate nuclear power plants in the UK.
The British government said it is committed to the development of nuclear energy to provide a sustainable, low-carbon electricity supply, with a target of adding 16 gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity by 2030. It has confirmed a list of eight new sites deemed suitable for nuclear power stations by 2025.
Yang Maochun, project manager in charge of the UK market at China General Nuclear Power Corp, said the UK offers a substantial market opportunity.
Yang said the company will cooperate with French power giant Electricite de France SA to invest in the UK project, which is the Hinkley Point C in Somerset, southwest England.
CGN has had a long-standing partnership with EDF, which helped develop two Areva-designed European pressurized reactors in Taishan, Guangdong province, where CGN is based.
CNNC, a bigger player, will also be bidding for construction of nuclear reactors in the UK.
Last year, the UK government gave approval for CGN and CNNC to invest in the $2.6 billion Hinkley Point C project for a combined stake of 30 to 40 percent. The project involves a two-reactor, 3.2-GW station led by EDF.
An industry insider at a UK-based nuclear company said that because the UK is a developed market, winning a bid to build a nuclear station will give the two Chinese companies global recognition.
But he warned that hurdles remain, because the UK has very strict nuclear regulations and there are still concerns about whether Chinese companies should be allowed to own majority stakes in the new plants.
“The lack of international business experience and a long-term market strategy will constrain the development of Chinese companies making inroads into these countries,” he said. But he added that if the two companies could form an alliance or set up a joint venture in the UK, they would have better chances to win bids.
China has the world’s largest number of reactors under construction, and it plans to translate that capacity into nuclear exports. Of 72 reactors under construction, 28 are in China. Russia, second on the list, is building 10 reactors
The Chinese government suspended all nuclear projects following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, but it now plans to approve more plants. The central government has already approved new reactors in coastal areas. There will not be any work on projects in inland areas until 2015.
Experts are confident in the prospects for technology exports, because China’s newest reactors have higher safety levels and lower costs.
Zhang Luqing said the ACP1000, a third-generation reactor developed independently by CNNC, is ready for export. The ACP1000 reactor is equipped with safety mechanisms to withstand an accident similar to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, and it also features proprietary fuel technology, he said.
“The ACP1000 is the only one we have with fully independent technology rights, which will lower the costs for reactors,” he said.
Other Chinese companies have taken different technical routes.
State Nuclear Power Technology Co has developed the CAP1400, which was based on Westinghouse Co’s AP1000.
Wang Binghua, president of the company, said that China will have full design rights for the CAP1400, which is 65 percent complete.
“About 80 percent of the components for the first two CAP1400 units will be made in China,” he said, adding that the country is capable of making six to eight CAP1400 or AP1000 nuclear reactors each year.
Third-generation reactors rely on passive safety features, which do not require any action by human operators.
Chai Guohan, chief engineer in the nuclear and radiation safety center of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said that no matter which technical route a Chinese company takes, it must commercialize its technology, or exports are just “empty talk”.
“It will take time for Chinese companies to establish a global reputation, but if they speed up the commercialization phase of their nuclear plants, more technology will be exported to the Western markets,” he said.