Nuclear Power Foundation of China’s Future Generation

China has its sights set on being the world leader when it comes to nuclear power technology. The country has brought its first Hualong One—a third-generation pressurized water reactor—online at the Fuqing plant in Fujian province, with its developers calling it a “strategic tool for the government to promote nuclear power technologies abroad.”

China is making nuclear power the foundation of its power generation sector, building more new nuclear plants than any other country while also making a concerted effort to export its own reactor technology. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in September of this year reported China has 18 reactors under construction—representing more than 17 GW of generation capacity—adding to the 51 reactors (and about 50 GW of capacity) already in service.

Nuclear power has increased emphasis in China as the country tries to improve its emissions profile. China is the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), owing to its longtime reliance on coal-fired power, and accounts for as much as 30% of worldwide emissions of CO2 —more than double that of the U.S, the world’s second-ranking emitter.

Chinese officials have made development of nuclear technology, and its export, one of 16 major national science and technology projects, according to the WNA. The initiative to expand nuclear power is led by China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Group, along with State Power Investment Corp., via that group’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp.

1. Fuel loading for Unit 5 at the Fuqing nuclear power plant began in September 2020. The reactor utilizes 177 fuel assemblies as reactor cores to reduce its core power density. Courtesy: CNNC 

A key to China’s ambitions is deployment of the world’s first pilot project to use the country’s indigenous third-generation nuclear power technology, Hualong One, also known as the HPR1000. The Hualong One, in use since January of this year at Unit 5 of the Fuqing plant in Fujian province—with a second HPR1000 set to come online at Fuqing’s Unit 6 by year-end—utilizes 177 fuel assemblies (Figure 1) as reactor cores to reduce its core power density, while its design also is improving the level of reactor safety, according to CNNC, which said the installed generation capacity of each Hualong One unit can reach nearly 1,200 MWe. Unit 5 includes three ZH-65-type steam generators, each more than 21 meters in length and weighing 365 metric tons. The generators were independently designed by the China Nuclear Power Institute and manufactured by Dongfang Electric Corp.

CNNC said operation of a Hualong One reactor makes China the fourth country to bring indigenous Generation III nuclear power technology to market, following the U.S., France, and Russia.

Yu Peignen, the deputy party secretary of CNNC and general manager of Dongfang Electric, a primary contractor in the construction of the new Fuqing units, has said of the project: “After some 30 years of learning and innovation, China has mastered the independent design and manufacturing of third-generation nuclear power facilities, and has shifted from being a novice to a pioneer in the nuclear sector worldwide. The third-generation Hualong One reactor, being a star export, will also lead to more equipment manufacturers going abroad.” Yu said a key factor in the design of Hualong One is that it can be built on a mass scale.

Xing Ji, chief designer of Hualong One at CNNC, has said the reactor’s technologically advanced design will help forge a path for globalization of China’s nuclear power equipment industry. Xing noted that CNNC technology is now in use in at least seven countries, and the agency is working with more than 40 countries on projects that would include CNNC equipment.

Potential for Mass Production

Nuclear power experts have watched the Fuqing project with interest because of its reactor design, and its potential to show how reactors can be built more efficiently. Construction often moved ahead of the expected timeline; for example, the pumps at Fuqing were transported to the site nearly three months earlier than scheduled. Internal structural construction of reactor buildings in Unit 5 was completed in May 2017, just two years after construction began.

“What’s especially interesting to me about the HPR1000 is that, from the early days of the design, there’s been a focus on making it suitable for mass construction,” said Leslie Dewan, CEO of RadiantNano, a nuclear startup developing next-generation radiation detectors with applications in national security, clean energy production, and medical diagnostics. Dewan, former CEO of a Transatomic Power, a company known for designing safer nuclear reactors that leave behind less waste than conventional designs, told POWER, “This is very different from the one-off reactors being built within the United States and Western Europe and, coupled with their growing number of international collaborations, shows that China is now exceptionally well-positioned to export these reactors worldwide.”

The Fuqing nuclear project is jointly owned by CNNC subsidiary China Nuclear Power Co. (CNPC), which has a 51% stake. Huadian Fuxin Energy Co. has a 39% interest, and Fujian Investment and Development Group holds a 10% stake, according to CNNC. The company has touted the HPR1000 as “a third-generation nuclear technology to which China has exclusive intellectual property rights. It’s independently innovated and developed with advanced million-kilowatt PWR [pressurized water reactor] nuclear power technology with global cutting-edge safety standards, seasoned by lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident.”

Wang Shoujun, a former executive with CNNC and now president of the China Nuclear Society, said even before Fuqing Unit 5 came online that “The Hualong One reactor has passed all safety requirements and preliminary safety reviews and China should give priority to the country’s third-generation nuclear technology in future nuclear power projects. The pace of nuclear power projects in recent years is lagging and as the expanding economy in China is pointing to a growing demand for energy… nuclear power is not an option but a must-have in the future.”

CNNC said the “HPR1000 has driven the transformation and upgrading of China’s high-end equipment industrial clusters. It has played a principal role in accelerating China’s nuclear power ‘going global’ strategy and promoting international production cooperation. Nuclear technology is of great strategic significance in strengthening China’s nuclear industry.”

Dewan said China’s operation of its nuclear industry provides a case study for other countries, including the U.S., on how to lead when it comes to nuclear power technology. “From my American perspective, it drives home the need for the U.S. to streamline our procedures for exporting nuclear technology,” she said. “We need to maintain our competitiveness in the global nuclear marketplace, while still maintaining strict standards for nuclear security and nonproliferation.”

Result of a Reorganization

The HPR1000 technology was not always planned for Fuqing. CNNC officials have said the company had expected to use the ACP1000 design for Units 5 and 6, but after a reorganization of China’s nuclear industry—prompted in part by the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, and a pause in China’s nuclear power program—the ACP1000 technology was incorporated into the new HPR1000. China’s State Council gave final approval for construction of Fuqing Units 5 and 6 in April 2015; construction of Unit 5 began the following month.

CNNC said the reactor “innovatively uses a combination of ‘active and passive’ safety systems and a double-shell containment, which meets the latest international nuclear safety requirements,” put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency after the Fukushima incident.

The Fuqing plant is being developed in phases. The first phase includes CNP-1000 PWR units with a capacity of 1 GW each; those four units were commissioned between 2014 and 2017. The second phase, Units 5 and 6, features the HPR1000 units, also with 1-GW capacity.

Unit 5 entered commercial operation on Jan. 30 of this year, just more than five-and-a-half years after construction began. The reactor was connected to the power grid on Nov. 27, 2020, after achieving first criticality on Oct. 21 of last year. CNNC in a statement at the time of grid connection said, “It was confirmed on site that all technical indicators of the unit met the design requirements and that the unit was in good condition. This laid a solid foundation for the subsequent commercial operation of the unit and for the top performance in the world’s first third-generation nuclear power reactor.”

Two more HPR1000 units are under construction at the Fangchenggang nuclear plant in southern China, near the border with Vietnam. Unit 3 at Fangchenggang could begin operating as soon as next year, according to CNNC. Fangchenggang is considered a reference plant for a project in Bradwell, UK, that also would use the HPR1000. The Bradwell site previously was home to a nuclear power plant that entered decommissioning in 2002, but is being considered as part of the UK’s nuclear power redevelopment program. CNNC is also building two Hualong One units at the Zhangzhou plant in Fujian province, along with two units at Taipingling in Guangdong province.

The Hualong One has a design life of 60 years. In addition to the units being built at other China nuclear power plant sites, the technology is being used for Units 2 and 3 of the Karachi nuclear plant in Pakistan, part of a $9 billion deal between CNNC and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission that was signed in 2013. Construction of Unit 2 at Karachi began in 2015; the reactor was connected to the power grid in March of this year, a few weeks after Unit 5 at Fuqing entered commercial operation. Construction of Unit 3 at Karachi began in 2016, and that reactor is expected to come online in 2022. The Karachi reactors mark the first export of the HPR1000 technology from China.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER.

SHARE this article