China's reactor construction offers insights

Quinn Wan's front-row seat to America's nuclear future is 10,000 miles from home.


The Alabama engineer is part of Southern Nuclear's quest to build the first new reactors in the U.S. in decades, using a new -- and never before built -- reactor design known as the AP1000.

Wan, who grew up in China, recently moved to Shanghai, where he will serve as an observer and liaison between his company and Chinese authorities building the world's first four AP1000 reactors in Sanmen and Haiyang.

"In China, the nuclear industry is booming," said Wan, who became a U.S. citizen last fall. "They are about two years ahead of us in building these reactors. The lessons learned from the Chinese nuclear projects will greatly benefit Vogtle 3 and 4."

The units planned in Georgia will be identical to those rising from China's coastal terrain, but they are certain to face heightened scrutiny in the wake of the earthquake-induced crisis with Japan's nuclear fleet.

Southern Nuclear, which has already obtained the nation's first and only federal loan guarantee for new reactor projects, contends Japan's disaster will not delay the $14.8 billion Vogtle project.

Many other nations, however -- including China -- are placing some new nuclear programs on hold.

The U.S. has long been the global leader in nuclear energy, with 104 reactors in operation.

China, by comparison, has just 13 existing reactors in operation, with 27 more under construction.

Until last week's announcement that future proposals would be re-examined, 50 more Chinese reactors were in planning stages, with 100 more being proposed, according to the World Nuclear Association. Now that once-bright nuclear future is in question.

Many of the post-Japan safety questions involve older units and their ability to maintain the flow of cooling water during an emergency.

Traditional reactors rely on electric or diesel pumps to provide cooling water that would prevent a meltdown.

In Japan, the combined punch of a quake and tsunami disabled all primary and emergency backup cooling water systems, allowing the fuel rods to overheat.

The AP1000 design is much different, according to specifications provided by its manufacturer.

Each unit includes tanks on the top of the containment vessel that hold enough water to cool the reactor for 72 hours.

The emergency water supply requires no electricity or pumps, and relies only on the force of gravity to flow into the reactor during a power outage.

In the U.S., there are at least 23 older reactors with designs similar to the doomed units in Japan, including two built in the 1970s at Plant Hatch in Baxley, Ga.

Activists believe standards used to re-license those units for decades of future use should be strengthened, and that energy companies, including Southern Nuclear, should postpone and re-evaluate new reactor construction plans to accommodate any lessons from the evolving crisis in Japan.

"It's going against their philosophy to just say, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,' " said Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator with Friends of the Earth. "They think they know everything and they've analyzed everything, so they aren't changing their schedule."

Although the Vogtle construction is poised to commence in earnest as soon as permits are issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the ability to observe the progress of the China project is like looking into a crystal ball at the Georgia project's future, said Cheri Collins, Southern Nuclear's general manager of external alliances.

As the Vogtle project was being planned, company officials quickly learned there was little hard data available about the startup and operation of the new reactors.

Other than Vogtle, only one other U.S. project -- the expansion of the V.C. Summer Plant in South Carolina -- was in the advanced stage of planning.

"We originally thought there would be several AP1000s to benchmark," she said. "As it's turned out, there's South Carolina -- and China."

So far, the cultural and informational dialogue between the two countries is faring well, with engineers on both continents learning lessons from their peers.

"I visit the two sites very often, sometime for one week, sometime only one day," Wan said. "It depends on the visiting agenda. During the visits, I bring Southern Nuclear visitors to meet their peers in Sanmen and Haiyang and exchange the lessons learned."

In particular, Wan is also helping to establish relationships that will lead to larger groups of U.S. nuclear professionals having a chance to learn about the AP1000 before the Vogtle project goes online.

"Sanmen I is the farthest along and is supposed to go commercial in 2013," Collins said. "When it does, the people who will operate Vogtle 3 and 4 will be watching."

The three other units in China are scheduled to begin operation shortly thereafter, she said. By the time Vogtle's units 3 and 4 are operational -- with target dates of 2016 and 2017 -- the new reactors in China will have undergone several rounds of startup, shutdown and refueling.

The AP1000's modular design is supposed to ensure consistency from site to site and allow lessons learned at one project to be applied at other sites.

Ed Lyman, a senior staff scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the ability to observe the Chinese program doesn't guarantee the U.S. project will unfold and perform in exactly the same way.

"One of the problems is, we have such a limited window to China's regulatory system and its oversight of licensing and building these facilities," he said. "China is still sort of in the Wild West phase in terms of industrial development, and the big question is, to what extent is that present in nuclear construction?"

The nation's aggressive nuclear program might be moving too fast to be deemed safe, he said.

"We haven't granted a single license over here yet, and China's already throwing up four of them," Lyman said. "Unfortunately, they are still going to be first-of-a-kinds. They're being constructed in different countries and the components will be transported and assembled differently."

The current and future China projects mean lots of money -- and jobs -- for the U.S. company that builds the units.

"We have a comprehensive agreement with China that includes construction of the first four plants, with the first set to come online in 2013," said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. "All four are on budget and on schedule."

The Pittsburgh-based company has also been in discussion with the Chinese over the next round of construction that includes 10 more AP1000 units, with many more planned thereafter. Although the Japan disaster will raise questions over nuclear expansion, observers say China's master plan to increase its energy production will likely continue to move ahead.

"By 2020, they want to have 50 AP1000s either in operation or under construction," Gilbert said, adding that the company's relationship with the Chinese includes a "technology transfer agreement" that -- over time -- would enable the country to become self-sufficient in building new reactors.

Southern Nuclear's Wan can already see the changes stemming from the Japan disaster.

In some ways, he said, the new concerns will certainly slow the progress of nuclear expansion.

However, they also might help the projects associated with the AP1000 design, due to the reactor's passive cooling feature.

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Visits to Vogtle

Chinese nuclear professionals first visited Plant Vogtle in August, when Southern Nuclear signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of how operating and construction experience will be shared between the two nations. Since then, another Chinese group has visited the site and more visits are expected.

Such interactions, while seemingly informal, are far more complex than they appear. "The interactions are very structured, and have to be approved by the (U.S.) Department of Energy and other agencies," said Cheri Collins, Southern Nuclear's general manager of external alliances. "It's to make sure they are comfortable with what is being shared."

-- Rob Pavey, staff writer

Home and Abroad


Plant Vogtle is in line to become the site of the first new U.S. nuclear reactor project in almost three decades. The two reactors will be a new Westinghouse design, the AP1000, which uses a passive cooling system.


China is the only place in the world where AP1000 units are under construction -- two years ahead of Plant Vogtle. Southern Nuclear's new office in Shanghai will offer U.S. engineers a chance to observe China's project.

Lessons learned during the construction, startup and shutdown of Chinese reactors will be applied to Vogtle.

Nuclear power reactors
CountryOperableBeing builtPlannedProposed
South Korea21560
United Kingdom19049
United States1041923

Source: World Nuclear Association