Nucleonics Week March 10, 2011
China to start building high-temperature gas-cooled reactor
Construction on a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor is to begin soon
in China following state approval earlier this month, two officials from companies
jointly owning the project said in separate interviews. If successful,
China could lead the world by years in demonstrating commercial application
of the latest HTR technology.
The Chinese State Council approved construction of a 200-MW electric reactor
at the Shidao Bay site in Shandong province March 1, the company officials said.
The sources did not want to be named because the government has
not made the approval public. One of the officials said the first concrete for
the nuclear island will be poured March 30, with commercial operation targeted
50 months later.
China Huaneng Group, one of the major state-owned utilities, is the lead
investor in the Shidao Bay project. It holds 47.5% of a joint venture called
Huaneng Shandong Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Co., owner and future operator of
the reactor. China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Group, or CNEC, owns
32.5% of the consortium, and Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear Energy
Technology, or INET, has the remaining 20%. Chinergy Co., a joint venture
between CNEC and the Tsinghua University, is the main contractor for
the nuclear island.
Both the US and Germany had operated several HTRs since the 1960s as
commercial demonstrators. They were
all closed by the 1990s due to technical problems and failure
to achieve commercial viability. The Germans transferred
their technology to China and South Africa. INET, as the
Chinese HTR project’s research and development leader,
developed the reactor design known as HTR-PM. The PM
stands for Pebble-bed Module, a reference to the micro fuel
elements encased in tennis-ball-size graphite spheres and
packed in a graphite moderator.
INET has been operating a 10-MW thermal test reactor
named HTR-10, which reached full power in 2003 and has
an outlet temperature of 700 to 950 degrees C. On its website,
INET said HTR-10 has “good safety characteristic, can
generate electricity in high efficiency and hydrogen” and
can also produce process heat. The full scale pilot project
will be based on the HTR-10 experience.
But the demonstration plant to be built at the coastal
city of Weihai will only showcase the reactor’s electricity
generation capability, Zhang Zuoyi, a Tsinghua University
professor who leads the INET’s HTR-PM division, said in an
interview this month.
Jonathan Hinze, vice president of international operations
at Ux Consulting, said structuring the Shidao Bay project
only for electricity is “intriguing.” Hinze and his UxC
colleagues recently completed a study on major small modular
reactor designs around the world, including China’s HTRPM.
“What’s the purpose of building this? The only reason
you go with a high-temperature reactor is for these additional
applications” to use process heat for industrial facilities
such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants, he said in an
interview last week.
On the other hand, said Hinze, the Chinese have a track
record of following through on their nuclear power projects.
The experience from the HTR-10 test reactor and the credentials
of the companies involved in the project bode well for
its completion, he said.
Andrew Kadak, director of nuclear services and principal
at Exponent, an engineering consulting firm, said in a
March interview, that if China builds the HTR-PM on schedule
and operates it successfully, the US would arrive too late
in the field of high-temperature reactors.
Because of “tremendous electricity needs,” Kadak said,
China would initially deploy the HTR-PM domestically, in
regions where infrastructure constraints prevent deployment
of large nuclear power plants, “but there’s no reason why
they cannot be part of the export market for reactors.”
Kadak is a former nuclear science and engineering professor
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and led
the school’s own pebble bed reactor research from 1998 to
2010. During that period, Kadak said, MIT and Tsinghua
University researchers exchanged visits and technological
Since leaving the MIT in 2010, Kadak has continued to
pursue commercialization of the pebble bed reactor design.
He said he found enough venture capital to complete the
conceptual work and is looking for additional money to
finance more detailed design.
Another high-temperature reactor project in the US is
proceeding under the DOE’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant
project, an initiative mandated by Congress in the Energy
Policy Act of 2005. The law requires DOE, in partnership
with private companies, to build a demonstration NGNP by
2021. But the government and the industry differ on how to
split the cost.
“The likelihood of meeting the deadline of 2021 is infeasible,”
said Sal Golub, associate deputy assistant secretary
for nuclear reactor technologies at DOE’s Office of Nuclear
Energy. In a March 8 interview, Golub said funding shortage
and delays in reactor design are holding back the project.
South Africa also obtained the pebble bed technology
from Germany, and the government set up Pebble Bed
Modular Reactor Ltd. in 1999 as a subsidiary of utility Eskom
to develop and commercialize the design. But government
funding for PBMR Ltd. dried up following the 2008 financial
crisis and the company started to close down last year after
failing to secure private investments.
Russia and Japan also have programs to develop commercial
HTR units, but they are in the early stages.
The Chinese have had delays, too, in their HTR-PM project.
The State Council had planned to have construction
begin in September 2009 with completion targeted for 2013.
The initial plan was to build two reactor modules with a
total capacity of 210-MW driving a single turbine.
Switching from dual modules to a single reactor requires
“pretty big” technical changes and raises questions on the
design’s readiness, Hinze said. “The hardest part” for China
to complete the HTR-PM pilot project is the lack of the
capacity to produce the pebble bed fuel on a commercial
scale anywhere in the world, he said. Germany made the
pebble bed fuel but ceased production after the country
decommissioned its high temperature reactors in the 1980s
and transferred the reactor technology to other countries,
China’s HTR-10 test reactor uses fuel produced by
Tsinghua University. Huaneng Shandong Shidao Bay
Nuclear Power Co. signed a contract in January to buy
graphite balls from German company SGL Group. An official
from the Chinese company, who did not want to be named
because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said in a
March 9 email that a fuel contract for the Shidao Bay project
has also been signed. But he declined to provide details, saying
they are “commercial secrets.”—Yanmei Xie, Washington