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    Greater China
     Sep 9, 2005
Let a hundred reactors bloom
By Todd Crowell

Not far from the fabled Silk Road city of Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu province, Chinese scientists are drilling boreholes deep into the Beishan Mountains. It is here that China expects to permanently store the radioactive wastes that are accumulating from its rapidly expanding nuclear power industry.

In the next few weeks - before the end of the year certainly - Beijing is expected to make a decision on who will get contracts to provide reactors for four new nuclear power plants being built along China's coast, two at Sanmen in Zhejiang province and two others at Yangjiang in Guangdong province.

Everyone in the nuclear power industry from Moscow to Pittsburgh is watching this deal closely. The four new plants are

 

likely to be only the first installments of a wave of new nuclear power plant construction, which is likely to see as many as 30 new plants constructed in China by 2020. Currently, China gets only about 2.5% of its electricity from nuclear power - compared with about 30% in Japan.

Explosive economic growth has made China probably the most power-hungry nation on earth. The burning of coal, China's most abundant fuel, has polluted the air in many of China's cities and contributes to the buildup of greenhouse gases. That, plus concerns about petroleum depletion over time and the need for energy independence, lead logically to an increased reliance on nuclear power.

A glossary of nuclear waste terms

Low-level waste: Radioactive residue that builds up in the normal operation of a nuclear power plant except for the fuel itself. Often, but not always, of low radiation content. Usually disposed in specially designed landfills.

Spent fuel: The fuel assemblies removed from the core of the reactor during refueling. Usually stored temporarily (often for years) in a kind of swimming pool, called a spent fuel pool.

High level waste: The liquid residue that remains after spent fuel is reprocessed (if it is reprocessed) to recover and reuse uranium and plutonium. The residue is held temporarily in underground tanks, then turned into a glass-like substance and placed in a repository.

Repository: An engineered, underground storage receptacle designed to safely store vitrified nuclear waste for centuries. Not to be confused with a "dump".

Closed fuel cycle: Refers to a system in which uranium is mined, refined, enriched, turned into fuel, burned in a reactor and then reprocessed so that unused uranium and the plutonium created can be made into new fuel. China plans a closed fuel cycle system.

Open fuel cycle: Same as above except that spent fuel is not recycled but treated as waste and placed in a repository. This is the system planned for the US.
Nuclear power has many attractions. Nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases, as do coal-burning power plants. They can run for more than one year without refueling, saving on fuel costs. The raw material, uranium, is more plentiful in China than petroleum, holding out the promise of lessening dependence on imports. But nuclear power does have one downside. What do you do with the waste?

China has nine civilian nuclear power plants in operation. So far they've accumulated approximately 1,000 metric tons of wastes. By the year 2020, if its plans for new power plants pan out, China will be producing roughly 1,000 metric tons a year that year and every year thereafter. By 2040, when China hopes to have a permanent nuclear waste repository in operation, it will have accumulated 32,000 tons.

For the moment and for the near future, the waste is being stored temporarily in spent fuel pools close to the reactors. Many in the nuclear industry would not consider these rods "waste", strictly speaking, since they can be processed chemically to retrieve valuable "unburned" uranium and newly created plutonium, which, in turn can be made into new fuel. This, in fact, is what the Chinese plan to do. For the time being, however, the rods remain safely in the spent fuel ponds.

There is nothing unusual about this arrangement. The United States has operated more than 100 nuclear power plants for the better part of 30 years and still depends largely on on-site storage. A permanent underground repository at Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, has yet to get a license. China's equivalent of Yucca Mountain is the Beihan Mountain area in northwestern China, where for the past eight years technicians have been investigating the terrain. "They are zeroing in on three sites near each other close to the city of Dunhuang," said an American government official who recently visited Dunhuang and attended a Chinese presentation on nuclear waste disposal there.

Dunhuang and surrounding desert are the location of the Mogao Grottos, hundreds of caves containing wall paintings and painted statues, dating from the 6th century. Also preserved are thousands of pages of Buddhist sutras. The Chinese actually pointed to the survival of these documents for over 1,500 years as evidence of the region's dryness, the American official recounted.

Why the concern about humidity? Because dryness is critical to the safe permanent storage of nuclear waste. Waste contains many radioactive isotopes (an isotope is a form of a chemical element) that last a very long time before the radioactivity becomes depleted. For example, plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, which means that the isotope loses only half of its radioactive potency in that time. These isotopes must be prevented from leaching into ground water for centuries to come. That's one reason why most permanent storage sites are located in deserts, like the Gobi.

One of the most important technical solutions yet proposed to the problem of indefinitely containing the radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste is called "vitrification". This involves reprocessing the spent fuel to recover usable material, then converting the liquid residue into a glass-like solid. The resulting glass rods are covered with a stainless steel casing and inserted into specially bored holes in a suitably dense rock. The Chinese favor granite, which is abundant in northwestern Gansu province.

The American official who visited the site recently said the Chinese have been investigating this region for the past eight years and have zeroed in on three locations near Dunhuang. If all goes well, they expect to pick a suitable site within the next five years, leading to the construction of a permanent waste repository on the site, according to this timetable:

2010: Completion of site surveys and site selection
2020: Repository design completed
2050: Site excavated and ready to receive waste

The Chinese expect to design and build a civilian chemical reprocessing complex, probably within 100 kilometers of the waste repository, by this time, the official said. Spent fuel from nuclear power plants will be taken there and chemically treated to recover unused uranium and plutonium. The latter substances will be recycled into fresh nuclear fuel; the residue will be vitrified and buried.

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the operational authority, is responsible for site selection, construction and operation of the repository. The State Bureau of Environmental Protection has oversight authority for waste disposal. The Everclean Environmental Engineering Corporation, a subsidiary of CNNC, is responsible for the disposal of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

The American official said their Chinese counterparts were much concerned about the safe transportation of the spent fuel from reactor sites to the interior. All of China's currently operating nuclear plants and most of the planned new ones are concentrated on the coast, close to the centers of electricity demand. The fuel thus has to be moved safely thousands of kilometers into the interior.

That means upgrading rail networks and designing safe, fire- and impact-resistant receptacles to carry spent fuel rods over long distances. The American delegation reportedly was generous in sharing US specifications and designs for special shipment casks, and explaining the certification processes. China is only at the beginning stages of developing standards and regulations for coping with radioactive wastes, the official said.

"The Chinese are cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency to adopt guidelines concerning various aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, especially the transportation of wastes by surface means. They indicated to us that they were going to comply with all international standards," he said.

China at least has the benefit of time in its waste disposal efforts, since the waste repository plans are being made concurrently with the early stages of nuclear power plant construction. On-site water-storage spent fuel ponds can keep fuel safely for 15 years or longer, before it is sent to other storage pools located away from the reactors, presumably closer to the plants where it will be ultimately reprocessed.

China's commercial nuclear reactors
China currently has nine commercial nuclear power plants in operation and two more under construction. The Daya Bay and Lingao plants were designed and built by Framatome, the French national company that builds reactors for both domestic use and exports. These are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR), the most common type of civilian reactor, found in nuclear industries around the world.

The first three Qinshan plants are PWRs of Chinese design. The latter two, Qinshan 3-A and Qinshan 3-B, are heavy water reactors (HWR) of Canadian design. These so-called CANDU reactors are used extensively in India and South Korea.

The two plants being built at Tianwan in Zhejiang province are PWRs of Russian design and manufacture, known by the Russian acronym of VVER. They are an entirely different design from the Russian plants at Chernobyl, which was a type called RMBK-1000.

 

Name

Type

Location

Capacity

Daya Bay 1

PWR

Guangdong 

944 MWe

Daya Bay 2

PWR

Guangdong 

944 MWe

Lingao A

PWR

Guangdong 

938 MWe

Lingao B

PWR

Guangdong 

938 MWe

Qinshan 1

PWR

Zhejiang

279 MWe

Qinshan 2-A

PWR

Zhejiang

610 MWe

Qinshan 2-B

PWR

Zhejiang

610 MWe

Qinshan 3-A

HWR

Zhejiang

665 MWe

Qinshan 3-B

HWR

Zhejiang

665 MWe



















Note
: 1,000 MWe, or "megawatts electrical", is sufficient power to serve a city of about half a million people.

Veteran Asia correspondent Todd Crowell comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable. He has worked in the nuclear power industry.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


China to have enough electricity by 2007: expert (Apr 26, '05)

US's $5 billion nuclear gamble with China (Mar 11, '05)

China power crisis dims production (Sep 24, '04)

China continues to develop nuclear power (Oct 25, '02)


 
 



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