China resumes nuclear power plant construction after a four-year freeze

2015-06-16 10:07Global Times Editor: Li Yan

In the biggest IPO in China in almost five years, China National Nuclear Power Corp, headquartered in Beijing, raised 13.19 billion yuan ($2.12 billion) last Wednesday, according to the company's statement on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

The stock price of the first nuclear company ever listed in China's mainland jumped 44 percent, the maximum allowed for new listings, the first day of its debut, to close at 4.88 yuan from 3.39 yuan.

Investors are not just betting on China's booming stock market, but also on China's latest effort to expand its nuclear power industry both home and abroad, driven by China's pledge to cut its carbon emissions and upgrade its foreign trade.

But discussions have already begun to surface over whether China's latest nuclear renaissance is going too fast, and if China is capable of keeping its 27 nuclear power plants currently under construction - over a third of the nuclear power plants being built worldwide - under control, let alone exporting its nuclear technology overseas.

Back in full swing

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster cast doubts over nuclear power worldwide. Following the incident, Germany and Switzerland, where nuclear power contributes 16 and 38 percent of national power output, decided to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022 and 2034.

In France, the world's most nuclear-reliant country where nuclear power makes up 76.9 percent of its energy production, discussions have been going on over whether it should reduce nuclear power's dominant share.

China, where the share of nuclear power was less than 2 percent, also joined the international trend, pausing its approvals for new nuclear plants in 2011.

But as pollution worsens and as targets were announced to expand the share of zero-emission sources, China seems to have no other choice but to turn to nuclear power, which also boasts higher efficiency than other new energy resources, low running costs and less disturbance of habitat compared with hydropower stations.

In 2012, then premier Wen Jiabao made it clear that it was on the central government's agenda to resume China's nuclear programs.

In a document on energy strategy issued last June, China's State Council said construction of new nuclear power plants in coastal areas in East China will start at a proper time, and the feasibility of building plants in inland ares will be studied.

Few actions were taken until this year. In February, the State Council approved the construction of two units of the Hongyanhe Nuclear Power Plant in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, making it the first project that was approved after 2012. This was followed by the construction of unit five of the Fuqing Nuclear Power Plant in Fujian Province, which started in May.

More projects are likely to follow. In an energy forum held this May, Liu Baohua, who's in charge of nuclear power at the National Energy Administration of China, said that as many as eight nuclear power reactors could be launched this year, China Nuclear Industry News reported. Liu also said that it is within China's capacity to build six to eight more nuclear reactors each year.

By 2020, China expects that installed nuclear power capacity will reach 58 gigawatts, and those under construction will reach 30 gigawatts. This is nearly three times the current capacity, which is 20.29 gigawatts, or 1.5 percent of China's total electricity capacity.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear power generated by China's 23 nuclear reactors contributed to just 2.4 percent of China's total electricity production in 2014.

"China resumed its new nuclear energy activities rather soon this time, after just a four-year pause. This is mainly prompted by the advance of nuclear technology and safety standards, and more importantly, voices from within China to change its energy structure toward a cleaner one," Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times.

Bold experimenter

Not only is China fast in its pace to build more nuclear reactors, it's also bold in using the most advanced nuclear technologies, some of which have never been used commercially before. This courted doubts over whether these technologies are reliable enough, since there are few precedents to draw experience from.

Since 2004, China has been approving projects using advanced nuclear power reactors, including US-based Westinghouse's AP1000 and France-based Areva's EPR (Evolutionary Power Reactor), many of which are now under construction. Dubbed generation III reactors, they are designed to withstand the crisis that damaged the Japanese nuclear plant.

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