AP1000 Reactor Set for Commercial Operation in China

An AP1000 nuclear reactor at the Sanmen power plant in China will likely be the first of its kind to begin commercial operation, with reports saying the reactor could come online as early as September 21.

A statement from China National Nuclear Power Company, issued to the stock exchange in Shanghai on September 20, said the reactor is expected to be ready for operation Friday after a 168-hour test run. The Sanmen plant is in east China’s Zhejiang province.

Snowy Yao, an analyst in Hong Kong with China Securities International Finance Holding Company, told Bloomberg: “It’s a landmark event for China’s nuclear power industry. It’s safe to say China is now one of the leaders in the world’s civil nuclear power industry.”

The AP1000, a pressurized water reactor designed by Westinghouse, is the same reactor being built for Units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, the long-delayed project that continues to be beset by cost overruns and legal squabbling over its construction. Problems with the Vogtle project led Westinghouse to declare bankruptcy in 2017.

Sanmen 1 achieved initial criticality on June 21 of this year. Initial criticality means the reactor’s neutron population has remained steady from one generation to the next and the nuclear fission chain reaction is self-sustaining for the first time. It is the last major milestone for the reactor before commercial operation.

The next AP1000 unit to come online is likely to be at the Haiyang Nuclear Power Plant in China’s Shandong province, where fuel loading began earlier this year. Westinghouse currently has six AP1000 nuclear power plants progressing through construction, testing and start-up—two units at Sanmen, two at Haiyang, and the two at Vogtle.

China wants to double its nuclear generation capacity by 2020. The country’s nuclear program—it also is exporting its technology to other countries—has struggled with increased costs and stricter safety regulations after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in neighboring Japan. Successful completion of the new, so-called third-generation reactors at Sanmen and Haiyang is considered critical for the country’s nuclear ambitions.

The AP1000 unit’s design has been touted as easier and less expensive to build and operate, though delays at Sanmen, Haiyang, and Vogtle have tempered that enthusiasm. The bankruptcy of Westinghouse also slowed project development. Westinghouse officially emerged from bankruptcy on August 1, 2018, with ownership of the company transferred to Canadian asset management firm Brookfield Business Partners in a $3.8 billion deal.

Unit 1 at Sanmen originally was scheduled to start-up in 2013, but construction stalled due to design problems and other issues. China Energy News in August of this year, citing an official with State Nuclear Power Technology Corp., said the project is 10 billion yuan ($1.46 billion) over its original 40 billion yuan ($5.84 billion) budget.

China also is developing reactors designed by Electricite de France SA in Taishan in Guangdong province. Hong Kong Free Press reported Unit 1 at Taishan was connected to the grid in June of this year, despite problems identified by China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) just days earlier. The unit has not begun commercial operation, however. Projects in France and Finland using the same European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design also have been delayed due to design issues.

The China Nuclear Energy Association said nuclear generation from 38 operating units in the country increased by 13% year-over-year to 130 billion kWh in the first half of 2018, accounting for about 4% of China’s total power generation. Government officials have set a target of 58 GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2020, compared to about 38 GW at present.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).