September 8, 2004

International Construction

China to build dozens of nuclear plants


China may be trumpeting its own progress in nuclear technology but admits it will rely more on foreign expertise and financing in coming years as it builds dozens of nuclear power plants to help relieve severe electricity shortages.

“Nuclear power is going to be an important pillar in the electricity mix,” says Zhang Huazhu, vice-minister in charge of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

China has set a provisional goal of relying on nuclear energy to meet four per cent of its electricity demand by 2020, up from the current 2.3 per cent, Zhang said. That would require construction of 27 power plants by then with a total capacity of 36 million kilowatts.

Hit by massive power shortages as generating capacity falls short of soaring demand, China has recently approved several major nuclear power projects and is clearly set on a rapid expansion.

Last week state-run newspapers showed President Hu Jintao and other top leaders viewing an exhibition showcasing China’s progress in nuclear technology at the Beijing Military Museum.

“We must do a good job of developing the nuclear industry, not only for the sake of the economy but also for national security,” the Communist party newspaper People’s Daily cited Hu as saying.

China has stressed its self-reliance in building up its nuclear program, a strategy born of Cold War necessity. But it is stepping up international co-operation, while emphasizing its commitment to preventing proliferation of atomic weapons.

International bids will be sought to supply equipment for two recently approved nuclear plants, the Sanmen plant in eastern Zhejiang province and the Yangjiang plant in the southern province of Guangdong, said Zhang, who is also chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority.

“We are inviting foreign partners to take part in the construction through bidding so that we can obtain more advanced technology,” he said. “After that, we will increase our rate of localization.”

With reactors costing about $1.5 billion (U.S.) apiece, the stakes are high.

U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co. and French rival Areva are among the many foreign companies vying for contracts.

Westinghouse is awaiting approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its 1,100-megawatt AP1000 reactor, a pressurized water reactor of the design China has said it wants.

China’s currently operating reactors include French, Canadian, Russian and Japanese designs, as well as a domestically developed model.

“The other issue is money,” Zhang said. “We have found that using both foreign and domestic financing is the most effective method.”

Asked repeatedly about safety concerns, Zhang said China had a strong record in nuclear safety, having reported no serious accidents since its first nuclear power plant, Qinshan, began operating in 1991.

After an accident at Mihama, Japan, killed five people last month, China ordered extra checks on its own plants. Additional precautions are being taken when performing inspections, he said.

China has nine nuclear power plants in operation with a total capacity of 7,010 million watts. Capacity is expected to reach 9,130 million watts in 2005 when the Tianwan plant in east China’s Jiangsu province begins operation.

The Associated Press

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