SHIDAO, China - While engineers at Japan's stricken nuclear power plant struggle to keep its uranium fuel rods from melting down, engineers in China are building a radically different type of reactor that some experts say offers a safer nuclear alternative.
The technology will be used in two reactors here on a peninsula jutting into the Yellow Sea, where the Chinese government is expected to let construction proceed even as the world debates the wisdom of nuclear power.
Rather than using conventional fuel rod assemblies of the sort leaking radiation in Japan, each packed with nearly 400 pounds of uranium, the Chinese reactors will use hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-size fuel elements, each cloaked in its own protective layer of graphite.
The coating moderates the pace of nuclear reactions and is meant to ensure that if the plant had to be shut down in an emergency, the reaction would slowly stop on its own and not lead to a meltdown.
The reactors will also be cooled by nonexplosive helium gas instead of depending on a steady source of water - a critical problem with the damaged reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant. And unlike those reactors, the Chinese reactors are designed to gradually dissipate heat on their own, even if coolant is lost.
If the new plants here prove viable, China plans to build dozens more of them in coming years.
The technology under construction here, known as a pebble-bed reactor, is not new. Germany, South Africa and the United States have all experimented with it, before abandoning it over technical problems or a lack of financing.
But as in many other areas of alternative energy, including solar panels and wind turbines, China is now taking the lead in actually building the next-generation technology. The government has paid for all of the research and development costs for the two pebble-bed reactors being built here, and will cover 30 percent of the construction costs.
Despite Japan's crisis, China still plans to build as many as 50 nuclear reactors over the next five years - more than the rest of the world combined. Most of this next wave will be of more conventional designs.
But if the pebble-bed approach works as advertised, and proves cost effective, China hopes it can eventually adopt the technology on a broad scale to make nuclear power safer and more feasible as it deals with the world's fastest growing economy and the material expectations of its 1.3 billion people
David Fuller's view China is rapidly becoming the leader in most forms of green energy, including nuclear. India will not be far behind. The USA is the unquestioned leader in fossil fuel technology, including shale-gas and shale-oil.
Don't miss the leading picture in the article above, showing a technician from Chinergy holding one of the graphite encased nuclear 'pebbles' in his bare hand. It looks just like one of the empowering Fullermoney squeeze balls with which Eoin will be rewarding delegates at The Chart Seminar next month, in addition to the coveted brollies.