UK-China nuclear deal won't keep our lights on

Years late, billions over budget: construction of two AP1000 reactors at Vogtle, South Carolina, October 2011. Photo: Charles C Watson Jr / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA).
Years late, billions over budget: construction of two AP1000 reactors at Vogtle, South Carolina, October 2011. Photo: Charles C Watson Jr / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA).
The UK's plan to get China to build and finance new nuclear power stations is based on a wish and a prayer, writes Oliver Tickell. There is no reactor design, including new Chinese ones, that we can depend on to fill our impending power generation gap. This time, the last one out won't even have to turn out the lights.
The Sun's 1992 General Election headline ran: 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave turn out the lights'. If the Tories don't get their energy strategy sorted out, we won't even need to do that. The lights will have gone out already.

A huge nuclear deal has been announced by Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping and UK Prime Minister David Cameron to get Britain's nuclear renaissance off the ground.

Under the deal, Chinese state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) will pay £6 billion for a one third share in the troubled Hinkley C project. They also take an option to go on to build new reactors in partnership with EDF at Bradwell, Essex, and Sizewell, Suffolk.

For UK Chancellor George Osborne, the need to get the Chinese involved is twofold. First, they have the money to invest. Second, they have their own ambitious nuclear programme with 27 power stations operational and another 24 under construction.

With Chinese money, industrial power, technical expertise, and 'can do' approach, Osborne believes, the UK's nuclear programme will finally lift off and 'keep the lights on' for a generation to come.

But it won't. For a very simple reason. There is no reactor design that's actually up to the job. All the existing ones like the French EPR and the Japanese AP1000 are afflicted by severe problems with huge delays and cost overruns. The EPR also comes with serious safety fears.

And as for China's promised new reactor designs, the CAP1400 and the ACPR1000 - they don't yet exist.

Works at Taishan have come to a halt

For all the bluster, China's nuclear build programme is in a highly uncertain state. For example The Ecologist has learnt from an industry insider that work on its two power stations at Taishan in Guangdong province came to a grinding halt in mid-2014 and the sites remain deserted.

That's a long way from its early promise. Two power plants were expected to be fully operation in December 2013 and October 2014, according to a report in Power Technology, which optimistically stated: "The Chinese nuclear project is benefiting from the experience gained from the Finnish and French NPPs, with significant savings in cost and construction time."

And that's a serious matter. Taishan is the world's single biggest nuclear power project, with two power stations under construction each with two EPR reactors rated at a nominal 1.75 GW. But the reasons for this are clear.

Currently there is not a single working EPR nuclear plant anywhere. Those under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France are both running hugely over time and budget. Oliluoto is now nine years late and three times over budget, as Carbon Brief reports.

The Sun's 1992 General Election headline ran: 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave turn out the lights'. If the Tories don't get their energy strategy sorted out, we won't even need to do that. The lights will have gone out already.

The Flamanville reactor is doing no better. Ordered in 2006 for a price of €3.3 billion, it was meant to be generating power in 2012. According to an EDF statement in early September, it is scheduled for completion in the 4th quarter of 2018 and costs are assessed at €10.5 billion. But Agence France Presse revealed yesterday that EDF has requested to delay completion until 2020 - a full eight years late.

In fact there are severe doubts as to whether it will ever be completed at all as the reactor's pressure vessel - supplied by French parastatal Areva - that lies at its heart has been found to suffer from grave metallurgical flaws, with the steel made brittle by localised excesses of carbon, leading to the possibility of cracks and, ultimately, catastrophic failure.

A long programme of tests is under way and there is a real possibility that the vessel, and its lid, may be scrapped. If that's the case, the entire project is likely to be abandoned.

An unfolding Chinese nuclear disaster?

And it is surely the chilling effect of this defect that is knocking on to Taishan. The Taishan reactor vessels, two of which are already installed, were also supplied by Areva, along with other key components such as the steam generators and the pressuriser for the primary reactor coolant system.

In April 2015 the South China Morning Post ran a report stating that the Taishan reactors had not been subject to tests before installation, and could therefore suffer from the same defect.

The Taishan project is being carried out by Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co (TNPJVC), in which China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Corporation (CGNPC) has a 70% stake, while EDF has 30%.

As for why construction at Taishan has halted there are three reasons coming into play:

  • The China Insurance Regulatory Commission is reported to have forbidden the loading of any fuel into the Taishan reactors before the Flamanville issue is fully understood and resolved.
  • EDF and CGNPC are probably awaiting the outcome of the tests under way at Flamanville before committing further capital to completing what may be a doomed project.
  • The three banks that are financing Taishan, China Development Bank, Bank of China and Société Générale will, if they have any sense, have declined to advance any further cash to the Taishan project pending the Flamanville outcome, causing it to run out money. CDB and BOC have already advanced about $6.5bn to the project.

In any case the Taishan problems represent a massive headache for all parties involved, and most of all for EDF and Areva both of which are in a perilous financial state and would probably have gone bust already were it not for the support of the French government.

Oh yes - and this is the reactor design that's planned for Hinkley C. Also note: despite the deal announced today, there has still been no 'final investment decision' by either EDF or CGN.

China's great nuclear hope - the CAP1400

Meanwhile uncertainty looms over China's 'great nuclear hope', its CAP1400 design - one of the two designs it may employ at  Bradwell and Sizewell in the UK.

The CAP1400 is an expanded 1.5GW version of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design rated at 1.1GW. Three AP1000 reactors are already scheduled for use at the UK's proposed Moorside nuclear plant next to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria.

Three AP1000 reactors are currently under construction in China at Sanmen and Haiyang and as part of the construction deal, Westinghouse is transferring its nuclear technology to its Chinese partner the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation - the process that led to the CAP1400. An even larger variant, the CAP1700, is also planned.

However as Chris Goodall reported on The Ecologist in July, all current AP1000 projects are suffering from delays and cost overruns. He wrote of Vogtle 3 and 4 in Georgia, now under construction in the US:

"Near-concurrent construction of the two plants started in May 2013 with completion of the first planned for April 2016 ... in February 2015 the station's eventual 45% owner (Georgia Power) told the state regulator that the partnership building the station had recently estimated that the eventual completion date for Vogtle 3 would be June 2019. Vogtle 4 would be finished in June 2020. The expected delay for Vogtle 3 is now 39 months, more than doubling the initially expected construction time. The project is not yet half complete."

The project has been reported as running $1.4 billion over cost and now faces the danger that its completion may come too late to qualify for $522 million in federal Production Tax Credits.

China's AP1000s experience long delays

Cost data and construction delays on Chinese nuclear projects are generally unpublished, however there is evidence of significant problems. Construction at Sanmen began in August 2009 and was due to end by August 2013.

As late as March 2012 completion was still officially planned for 2013. However completion is now expected to take place in 2016 after a three year delay. And as Goodall notes,

"The design used in China is simpler than that used in the US, and it may well be possible for Chinese constructors to build much more quickly and cheaply. However the modifications are unlikely to be acceptable to Western regulators. For example, the power stations are not designed to survive a direct hit from an airliner, a US requirement."

So what about the CAP1400? There is still not a single operational example of one anywhere in the world, nor even under construction, though a site is being prepared at Shidaowan, Shandong province.

China is confident of the design and it is now the country's preferred option for both domestic use and export, not least because it owns it. But given the combination of all the known problems of the AP1000, and the unknown problems that are certain to arise in the construction of the first CAP1400s, it appears unwise in the extreme for the UK to be pinning its hopes on it.

So when might China actually be able to deliver - 2030?

The same applies to China's ACPR1000 design, the 'advanced' verion of its PCR1000 reactor, itself a variant of Areva's 900MWe class reactors designed for the home market. Two of the new 'third generation' ACPR1000 reactors are under construction at the Yangjiang nuclear complex in western Guangdon with a scheduled completion date of 2019.

Yet another 'third generation' Chinese reactor design is the HPR1000 'Hualong' reactor - and we have just discovered that this is the design selected for Bradwell. This design represents a fusion of the ACPR1000 and the ACP1000, a purely paper reactor with no units under construction.

The HPR1000 design is under construction at Hualong 1 and is being used for CGN's Fangchenggang units 3 and 4. This is now the official 'reference plant' for the UK Hualong design.

These designs therefore remains untested, and will do for some years to come. The reactor will also need to pass lengthy and stringent examination by the UK's nuclear safety regulators before it can be approved.

So at this point it's fair to ask - what are the prospects that China will be able to deliver a new generation of nuclear power stations for the UK in a timely manner? The EPR - which has, astonishingly, been selected for Sizewell - is a dead duck. All three of the CAP1400, the ACPR1000 and the HPR1000 are entirely unknown quantities.

EDF has now set a target date of 2025 for the completion of the Hinkley C project - and note, this one has already been long in gestation, site works are already well under way, planning permission has been won, and the design has been approved by UK regulators.

Realistically, no Chinese nuclear plant can feasibly be completed at Bradwell or Sizewell until 2030 or beyond. Meaning that the entire current exercise is a complete waste of time when it comes to meeting the UK's needs to 'keep the lights on' for the next ten years.

But the power generation crunch is already upon us with diminishing margins between capacity and demand, and will exacerbate in the years to 2023 thanks to the closure of old coal fired and nuclear power stations. In the face of this threat, new nuclear capacity in 2025, 2030 and beyond is as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

We should be concentrating on low carbon technologies that can be delivering in months and years, not decades hence - like proven and increasingly low cost renewables like wind and solar, combined with 'smart grid' systems for adjusting demand to supply, and new energy storage technologies. Instead of which George Osborne is deliberately crushing the entire renewable energy sector.

On the day of the 1992 General Election the Sun's headline ran: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". If the Tories don't get their energy strategy onto a rational foundation, we won't even need to do that. The lights will have gone out already.



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

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