Adding to China’s repertoire of innovation and high-powered ambition, the country’s Nuclear Engineering Construction Corporation is almost done building a high-temperature, gas-cooled, pebble-bed nuclear plant in Shandong.
In what will be a milestone for nuclear tech the plant involves two 105-megawatt (combined 210-megawatt) “meltdown-proof” Generation IV reactors. It’ll be the first of its kind in the world to be built at a commercial scale, according to the MIT Technology Review.
Over the next 18 months there’ll be installation of reactor components, running of tests, and loading of fuel. November 2017 is when the reactors will go critical, according to director Zhang Zuoyi from Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Technology. If all goes according to plan they’ll even be upgrading to a 600-megawatt plant of the same kind in Jiangxi afterwards.
China will be building similar reactors abroad, too. In January, the President signed an agreement with King Salman bin Abdulaziz to build Saudi Arabia’s own high-temp gas-cooled reactors.
The pebble-bed design reportedly actually derives from Germany, with the German SGL Group supplying the graphite spheres of uranium fuel “pebbles” for the Chinese reactors.
Essentially, the point of the thing is that it’s self-regulating, and therefore immune to meltdown. The graphite is key because it supposedly prevents the fuel from breaking down — and when the interior temperature reaches a certain point, nuclear reactions are supposed to slow. On top of that, no external cooling systems are required, the plant instead being gas-cooled. Technologists at Tsinghua have already been testing the helium blower designed to circulate the gas coolant.
And while innovation does come at a price, there’s an upside to that too. “There have been studies that indicate that if reactors are mass-produced, they can drive down costs,” shared Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project. “The Chinese market is large enough to make that potentially possible.”
Currently there are only a couple small-scale high-temp gas-cooled reactors out there in operation, one of them a 10-megawatt in China’s own Tsinghua Institute — but it’ll soon have much more impressive company.
This pebble-bed plant isn’t the sole advanced nuclear tech in progress either. So far, other advanced reactors China has in the works/under its belt include a molten-salt reactor fuelled by thorium, a travelling-wave reactor (feat. Bill Gates), and a sodium-cooled fast reactor.
“What you are seeing is serious intent,” Forsberg summed up. “They may kick greenhouse gases out of their power sector before we do because of that serious intent.”