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Economy

China launches French-designed next-gen nuclear reactor

Beijing showcases ties to Paris as US tries to curb Chinese tech ambitions

The No. 1 reactor at China General Nuclear Power's Taishan plant became the world's first operational European-style water pressure reactor on Friday.
The No. 1 reactor at China General Nuclear Power's Taishan plant became the world's first operational European-style water pressure reactor on Friday.   © Photo from Taishan plant website

BEIJING -- The world's latest cutting-edge pressurized nuclear reactor built with French technology has gone into operation in Guangdong Province, state-owned China General Nuclear Power announced Friday.

The No. 1 reactor at CGN's Taishan nuclear power plant, known as the "European Pressurized Reactor," was designed by Electricite de France unit Framatome. The unit boasts a world-leading generating capacity of 1.75 GW.

The joint project with France comes at a time when China's industrial cooperation with the U.S. is grinding to a halt. Wary of the "Made in China 2025" initiative pushed by President Xi Jinping, the U.S. moved in October to restrict exports of nuclear technology to the Asian country. With China eyeing future exports of nuclear reactors to the U.K., Pakistan and Brazil, the focus will be on how far France will go to cooperate with China.

Beijing's ties to Paris in nuclear power run deep. After launching economic reform in 1978, then-leader Deng Xiaoping chose that same year to use French technology to build commercial nuclear reactors, the first of which entered operation in 1994. Construction began in 2009 on the Taishan plant, which was originally scheduled to go online in 2016.

Westinghouse Electric of the U.S. had been eager to help China build nuclear reactors, but Washington's now- hardened stance on Beijing means obtaining cooperation from American companies will become difficult for China. So France has stepped in to fill the void. In a Friday press conference, a CGN executive cited a "comprehensive partnership" with the French side in a display of their warm relationship.

At the Group of 20 summit in Argentina earlier this month, Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron affirmed their unity on the 2016 Paris climate agreement, from which the President Donald Trump-led U.S. has withdrawn. The two leaders also agreed to advance cooperation on nuclear power and seek stronger relations.

CGN and utility Electricite de France, its partner on the Taishan project, are also collaborating extensively on a British nuclear project using Hualong One reactor technology, a Chinese design pushed by Beijing. Nearly 90% of the Hualong One design is made with proprietary technology, China says.

To further their nuclear development, Chinese personnel will need to participate in international conferences and work with overseas companies. But their ability to do so has been impeded by the arrest earlier this month of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei Technologies, in Canada at the request of U.S. authorities. She was released on bail on Tuesday.

"Overseas business trips are a cause of concern not just for us, but for all Chinese businesses," said a CGN executive. There are "no problems" at present with a group of 100 Chinese employees the company has dispatched to the U.K. to assist with the Hualong One project, the executive said. But the company apparently has restricted business trips to the U.S., according to sources.

Beijing is likely to face U.S. resistance as it shifts focus to exporting Hualong One after the scheduled 2021 launch of the first reactor in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

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