Construction of the plant is nearly complete, and the next 18 months will be spent installing the reactor components, running tests, and loading the fuel before the reactors go critical in November 2017, said Zhang Zuoyi, director of the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology, a division of Tsinghua University that has developed the technology over the last decade and a half, in an interview at the institute’s campus 30 miles south of Beijing. If it’s successful, Shandong plant would generate a total of 210 megawatts and will be followed by a 600-megawatt facility in Jiangxi province. Beyond that, China plans to sell these reactors internationally; in January, Chinese president Xi Jinping signed an agreement with King Salman bin Abdulaziz to construct a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor in Saudi Arabia.
“This technology is going to be on the world market within the next five years,” Zhang predicts. “We are developing these reactors to belong to the world.”
Pebble-bed reactors that use helium gas as the heat transfer medium and run at very high temperatures—up to 950 °C—have been in development for decades. The Chinese reactor is based on a design originally developed in Germany, and the German company SGL Group is supplying the billiard-ball-size graphite spheres that encase thousands of tiny “pebbles” of uranium fuel. Seven high-temperature gas-cooled reactors have been built, but only two units remain in operation, both relatively small: an experimental 10-megawatt pebble-bed reactor at the Tsinghua Institute campus, which reached full power in 2003, and a similar reactor in Japan.
Regardless of the cost, China needs to import fossil fuels. From a national security perspective that’s a problem. Despite the fact the pace of growth is moderating the requirement the country is going to have for energy means they have little choice but to fund any and every potential technology to supply their market. Nuclear is a big part of that and China is now the largest test bed for new reactor designs in the world. They will inevitably seek to capitalise on that investment and China is going to be a major competitor in the construction of nuclear reactors globally.
We’ve written about pebble bed reactors for over six years so it is exciting that the first utility scale version will be up and running by next year. Looking further out Bill Gates backed, TerraPower’s, travelling wave design which runs on depleted uranium (nuclear waste) claims to be up to 50 times more efficient than conventional reactors. The safety features of all generation IV designs are something that many consumers appear to still be unaware of not least because US and European regulatory authorities are so wedded to outdated permissioning. That’s a big part of the reason TerraPower’s first reactor is also going to be built in China.
In the last week there were also headlines focusing on the progress made with developing fusion technology both in Germany and China. Fusion is the real prize in what is an emerging golden age for nuclear technology but we can consider that to be more like generation VI rather than the generation IV designs that are getting built right now.Back to top