China Links Fast Nuclear Reactor to Grid After 40-Year Research

China connected to the electricity grid an experimental nuclear reactor that produces less radioactive waste than current designs, in a move that may help the nation build safer atomic plants after the Fukushima crisis.

The 65-megawatt fast-neutron reactor near Beijing connected to the grid at 40 percent capacity today, Xu Mi, chief engineer at the experimental fast reactor program of the China Institute of Atomic Energy, said by telephone. The reactor was built by the institute with help from the Russian government.

China continues to promote the development of nuclear power even after it stopped approving new plants pending safety reviews following the March 11 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago. France, the U.S. and U.K. are among countries developing the next generation of reactors based on fast-neutron technology that uses uranium fuel more efficiently.

“This is a pretty big breakthrough, as in the reactor is actually producing electricity,” Dave Dai, regional head of utilities research at Daiwa Securities Capital Markets, said by telephone from Hong Kong. “This basically means they can go ahead in terms of schedule for the real commercial ones.”

The experimental fast reactor took a decade to build and achieved criticality, or started controlled and sustainable generation, exactly a year ago, according to a report by the China Institute of Atomic Energy published on the website of China National Nuclear Corp., the nation’s biggest operator of atomic plants. China started fast-reactor research in the mid-1960s, it said.

Fast Reactors

Fast reactors reduce radioactive waste compared with existing operational designs by using most of the fuel during the nuclear reaction, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The reactors utilize up to 70 percent of uranium feedstock compared with 1 percent for existing pressurized water reactors, such as the AP1000 design by Westinghouse Electric Co., according to the report published by China National Nuclear.

About 20 fast reactors have been operating around the world, some since the 1950s, the nuclear association said on its website. France and Russia run commercial plants based on the technology, it said.

“The next step for us is to increase the generating capacity of the reactor to 100 percent while connected to grid,” China Institute’ Xu said. “After that, we can use the technology to build our own commercial fast reactors.”

Fourth Generation

China plans to start construction of a 1-gigawatt fast reactor at Sanming city in 2018 using home-grown technology, Xu said. State-owned China National Nuclear will start building two 800-megawatt fourth-generation reactors using Russian designs in 2013 or 2014, he said. The reactors will also be at Sanming.

The nuclear industry has developed several generations of reactors starting with the first in 1950-1960s, according to the website of the World Nuclear Association. There are no such reactors outside the U.K. today. The second generation units are used in the U.S. and France, while early third-generation reactors have been operating in Japan since 1996, according to the nuclear association.

“Generation IV designs are still on the drawing board and will not be operational before 2020 at the earliest,” the group said.

China will build more fast reactors of greater than 600 megawatts in capacity starting 2015 and start commissioning them from 2030, Xu said on May 13.

Safety Review

China plans to conclude safety checks on all its nuclear plants by October, completing one stage of a nationwide review of its atomic power industry following the Fukushima crisis.

The country, planning to build more nuclear reactors than any other nation, said on March 16 it suspended approval of all new atomic projects until a safety review is carried out. China’s existing reactors use second-generation technology, the official Xinhua News Agency said on July 22.

China started its first commercial nuclear plant in 1994 and currently has the highest number of atomic facilities under construction, according to data from the World Nuclear Association.

The nation has 13 generators in commercial operation while 28 are being built, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in June. China may have more than 100 atomic reactors by 2020, it said.

Japan’s 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, causing radiation leaks.

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