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China unlikely to be shining light for nuclear via Chinadialogue

Nuclear power can only survive if it’s competitive with alternatives. Even with China in the market, that’s unlikely.

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The situation in China is more complex than often imagined.

There are three competing nuclear vendors: Chinese Guangdong Nuclear (CGN), Chinese National Nuclear Company (CNNC) and State Nuclear Power Technology Corp (SNPTC). Most of the recent 18 orders have been supplied by CGN using their CPR1000 design – fundamentally a 40-year-old model, long pre-dating the 1978 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.

There was some evidence, even before Fukushima, that the ordering rate in China of up to 10 reactors per year was putting unsustainable strain on the Chinese nuclear supply chain, while the designs being used were acknowledged to be old. So the halt to new reactor construction starts following Fukushima may have been a blessing.

It was also clear to China that it needed to move to more modern designs and it ordered six Gen III+ reactors in 2007 to 2008, four from Westinghouse and two from Areva. This was a major plus for the western vendors because it was expected to provide a shop-window for the new designs and, because it was China, the reactors would be built to time and apparently to cost.

But as the estimated price-tag of these designs escalated, there was an increasing perception that they were too expensive for China. There are also reports of construction delays and cost overruns of about a year with the AP1000s, prompting all three Chinese vendors to talk of developing their own Gen III+ designs. As these are all some way from being orderable, when China lifted its moratorium on new reactor construction projects in November last year, the two projects approved used old technology.

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While China is by far the most important market worldwide for nuclear-power plants, nuclear is not important to China and even if it continued to build large numbers of reactors, nuclear power would still supply less than 10% of China’s electricity. The hope from Areva and Westinghouse that China would be a showcase is now fading.

Ultimately, nuclear power can only survive if it is competitive with the alternatives. Unless the trend of sharply rising real costs can be reversed, this will not be the case. Financiers are reluctant to finance new nuclear plants unless the costs of any problems could be passed on to electricity consumers because of nuclear power’s poor track record. At worst, this will make new nuclear projects impossible to finance. At best, it will make the cost of borrowing high, pushing the cost of nuclear power even higher.

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