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Energy

China approves first new nuclear reactors in 3-plus years

Beijing pushes homegrown alternatives as US squeezes tech exports

A dome is installed over a Hualong One reactor in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in May 2018. China is heavily promoting these homegrown reactors at home and abroad.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China has given new nuclear reactors the green light for the first time in three and a half years as it looks to spur economic activity and exports of its reactors.

Six reactors with a combined capacity of 7 gigawatts have been approved for construction across Fujian, Guangdong and Shandong provinces, National Energy Administration development and planning office chief Li Fulong said July 25.

China has seen multiple delays with new reactors in recent years. The Sanmen plant in Zhejiang Province was supposed to bring its first reactor, Westinghouse Electric's AP1000, online in 2013 but did not until 2018.

The start of the first unit at the Taishan plant, an EPR reactor by Framatome, was also delayed to 2018 from 2016. Both the AP1000 and the EPR are new models designed to automatically shut down during a loss of all electrical power and needed time to obtain the necessary approval.

Still, state-run power companies in China have brought more than 15 nuclear reactors online since 2016. The country has also made significant progress in promoting its first domestically developed reactor: the Hualong One, based on American and French technology.

The Hualong One features a double-layered containment shell for added safety. Nearly 90% of its parts are produced in China, which is believed to have cut total costs by at least half compared with Western-developed reactors.

Of the newly approved facilities, the Zhangzhou and Taipingling power plants will use the Hualong One. Zhangzhou had originally planned to go with the AP1000.

Beijing is stepping on the gas on its homegrown reactor particularly amid its trade war with Washington. Chinese President Xi Jinping considers nuclear energy a key industry to promote under the "Made in China 2025" initiative. The U.S., alarmed by such moves, announced last October limits on exports of nuclear technologies to China.

"If the dispute lasts for a long time, U.S. exports to China could come to a halt," an executive at a major Chinese utility said. "This pushed China to quickly boost the number of homegrown reactors."

The China National Nuclear Corp. finished structural work for a Hualong One reactor in the Pakistani city of Karachi this June. Xi hopes to build the reactor at more locations along Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative. The goal is 30 units by 2030, which is estimated to create 5 million jobs and provide an economic boost of 1 trillion yuan ($145 billion).

China's 47 reactors currently in operation have a total capacity exceeding 45 GW. It seeks to raise the capacity to 150 GW by 2030, overtaking the U.S.

Locals near the planned reactors have concerns. But they are wary of voicing them under Communist Party rule, and many are more concerned about reducing heavy air pollution.

The six new reactors will cost over 120 billion yuan and could deliver an economic shot in the arm. The market for nuclear reactors is expected to reach 100 billion yuan in two years, according to China People's Political Consultative Conference member Wang Shoujun.

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