In the space of just over 20 years, China has transformed from a country with no commercial nuclear reactors, to one of the world’s leading nuclear nations. There are now 21 nuclear power stations in China, with a further 27 currently being built, and more slated for future construction.
With chronic air pollution problems, growing electricity demand and a cap on carbon emissions in the offing, the Chinese government is aware that current generation nuclear technology will not be sufficient to meet the huge challenges of the coming decades. To that end, China is pursuing the world’s most comprehensive and ambitious portfolio of Generation IV and advanced reactor R&D work.
We’ve followed China’s Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) programme closely, and members of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation team toured the Chinese MSR facilities in 2012. China leads the world on MSR R&D, with both a molten salt-cooled pebble-bed reactor, and a molten salt-cooled and fuelled reactor in the pipeline. The South China Morning Post reported earlier this year that the Chinese government had brought forward the completion date of the MSR programme to 2024, and that researchers on the programme were under ‘unprecedented ‘war-like’ pressure to succeed’.
Chinese ambitions don’t stop at MSRs, however. Here’s an overview of the other next generation fission systems currently in development in China:
- Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (SFR) – The 65MWe Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) went critical in mid-2010, and began supplying the grid a year later. A 600MWe version is due to be completed around 2023, with a commercial version planned to be available around 2030. The Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy identifies two scenarios for Fast Reactor deployment – one to disposition minor actinides from spent PWR fuel, and the other to breed fuel in the event of high uranium prices or supply shortage.
- Supercritical Water-Cooled Reactor (SWCR) – In June 2014, China announced their plan to produce a 1000MWe demonstration SWCR known as SCR-1000, with commissioning scheduled for 2022-2025. China is currently collaborating with Euratom on fuel qualification tests for the SWCR.
- High Temperature, Gas-cooled Reactor (HTR) – A 10MWe helium-cooled, pebble fuel test reactor based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University has been operating at full power since 2003. Construction of a small modular 200MWe prototype (HTR-PM) started in 2012, and is due to be completed by 2017. China envisages the HTR-PM as a source of electricity to supplement Generation III reactors, as a source of process heat, and as an ideal reactor for export to developing countries due to its size and flexibility.
China’s impressive Gen IV R&D portfolio provides a sharp contrast to the nuclear R&D situation in Britain. Since the closure of Dounreay in 1994, the UK has not had an advanced nuclear fission programme. This could change if the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board’s (NIRAB) forthcoming January 2015 report recommends the government invests in Generation IV R&D. We’re hopeful that NIRAB’s report will be bold and ambitious, and that government will be receptive to any suggestions made.
Without further government investment in Gen IV research, Britain will be left behind, while other nations partner with China on next generation nuclear R&D. The Sino-American partnership on climate change is developing alongside increasing collaboration between the two superpowers on advanced nuclear fission research. The US and China have been jointly developing the molten salt-cooled reactor known as the Fluoride-salt-cooled High Temperature Reactor (FHR) since 2011. The Australian government’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation has also teamed up with China to contribute materials expertise to the molten salt reactor programme.
The UK should also be looking east for joint nuclear R&D opportunities, which could include molten salts work with China. As it stands however, Britain is missing out, while China and its partners storm ahead and position themselves to corner the global market in advanced nuclear fission technologies.