On March 29, 2007 Resourceinvestor.com published an article supplied by Interfax-China titled China needs to develop its own nuclear power technology. It provides a thought provoking point of view about China’s need for new energy supplies and the path that it is taking in expanding its own nuclear power capabilities.
China has the capacity to build its own plants – the first commercial nuclear plant built in China was a domestically procured 300 MWe Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) – Quishan-1 – that was built between 1985 and 1994. (Note: Apparently even this plant needed one major component – the reactor vessel – that was purchased from an outside supplier – Mitsubishi.) I have not been able to find much operational information on the plant, but the rest of the inventory of Chinese nuclear power plants tells me that the plant has not been a roaring success – as one might expect from the first of a kind of any unit.
The basis for my statement is that the list of operating and under construction reactors in China does not include any indication of a follow-on to that design – there are 11 reactors on the list, four Areva PWR reactors (about 900 MWe each), two 600 MWe PWR’s built with help from South Korea, two 728 MWe PHWR purchased from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and two 1000 MWe VVER type PWRs supplied by AtomStroyExport. As has been discussed in previous comments here, the Chinese have recently ordered 4 Westinghouse PWRs and 2 more PWRs from Areva. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems that this is a country that is learning as much as it can by inviting many different suppliers into the market.
The article describes China’s nuclear power activities up to this point as “learning technology by providing a market” and expresses the opinion that this strategy has not yet resulted in a complete Chinese capability to build its own reactors. Apparently, the foreign suppliers that have been supplying the designs and key components for the reactors built so far have been unwilling to provide Chinese manufacturers with access to all of the necessary technology.
A key example is reactor coolant pumps – while pumps in general are a pretty well understood and long established technology, the demands on the reactor coolant pumps in a pressurized water reactor make them a challenging and proprietary type of technology. There are only a few suppliers in the world; they supply complete units, not technical specifications.
One of the key selection criteria for the recently awarded advanced reactor contracts was the willingness to share technology with local suppliers – the degree of sharing is obviously a closely held business secret. With China’s demonstrated attitude towards intellectual property, it must have been a delicate balancing act between wanting to make a near term sale and trading away a long term market by teaching a tough competitor how to be more competitive.
If you want to learn more about China’s aggressive development plans for nuclear power, I recommend visiting the World Nuclear Association information brief titled Nuclear Power in China.