Two days ago, on April 25th, the long-lasting uncertainty surrounding China’s first AP1000 at the Sanmen NPP site was brought to an end: the NNSA ultimately decided that Sanmen Unit 1 is qualified in all aspects of design, equipment, construction and installation, commissioning, pre-operation preparation and can proceed to fuel-loading. Mr. Liu Hua, Director of the NNSA and Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (former MEP), issued Sanmen Nuclear Power Company an approval for Sanmen Unit 1 to load its first fuel. At 7:46 p.m., the first fuel bundle was carefully loaded in the reactor core, one of the key finals steps to grid connection for the world’s first AP1000 unit. The milestone also indicates that China’s last obstacle to completing its pre-approved Gen III projects has been overcome, potentially opening the path for a period of rapid growth in China nuclear. By Nicobar’s estimates, there are at least 10 reactor units awaiting FCD currently bottle-necked behind the first AP1000, and many more to follow. Still unclear, however, is the durability of the role the AP1000 will be playing in the years to come.
The good news for Sanmen came directly on the heels of the announcement that the EPR at Taishan Unit 1 had received the approval from the NNSA to start fuel-loading and became the first Gen III unit in China to load its fuel back on April 10. Despite being the fastest constructed EPR unit around the world (it gained recognition as the World’s First EPR Unit in January 2018 during French President Macron’s state visit to China), many nuclear industry personnel had begun to associate the China EPR with the same kind of unending construction cycle affecting the Finnish and French deployments. By contrast, the world’s first AP1000 at Sanmen had always been the focus of attention and had generally been regarded by many to have the best chance to become the first operating Gen III unit in China. It was certainly a point of surprise in the industry that the trouble-plagued French design ended up receiving approval for fuel loading before Sanmen.
Westinghouse and its Chinese partners had claimed that Sanmen Unit 1 has been technologically ready for fuel-loading since late 2017. In spite of those assertions, Sanmen Unit 1 had entered 2018 (its tenth year of construction) without its fuel-load approval (five years behind its original schedule). Initiating this key pre-cursor step to grid connection had been postponed these last six months by a new round of regulator inquiries concerning the reactor coolant pump (RCP). At the end of 2017, some Chinese industry insiders believed that further evaluation, specifically a tear-down examination, was necessary for the uniquely-designed RCP. Other commentators bluntly challenged the the decision-making of the Chinese nuclear regulatory authorities, arguing that a hasty fuel-loading approval would constitute a serious dereliction of duty. These concerns likely affected the NNSA’s decision to assume a cautious posture and prompted the further rounds of safety testing that have apparently finally concluded successfully.
The repeated delay of Sanmen Unit 1 undoubtedly also impacted the development and national strategy of the Chinese nuclear power industry. Policy makers had placed high hopes on the AP1000 and a series of future Gen III units derived from the reactor design had been planned for years. As construction became increasingly bogged down over the last decade, Chinese industry planners shifted their focus to other technology types, especially the self-developed HPR1000/Hualong One. For instance, it was officially announced last month that the merged design of the HPR1000 will be built at CNNC’s Zhangzhou project and CGN’s Taipingling/Huizhou project, replacing the originally planned AP1000s at these sites. Other AP1000 projects have been cancelled outright with no replacement technology stated yet.
As China is determined to increase the share of nuclear power in its energy mix and has a stated objective of taking the lead in international nuclear power market, the slowdown in recent years will need to be made up somehow. The China Nuclear Energy Association (CNEA) released its publication Blue Book of Nuclear Energy – the Report on the development of China’s Nuclear Energy (2018) and the Report on China Gen III Nuclear Power Development Strategic Value Research on April 23rd of this year, emphasizing that nuclear power is currently underdeveloped and China now should have strong advantages in Gen III technology. Additionally, previous estimates and objectives have been revised to account for the slowdown in the deployment schedule According to the reports, as China is finally able to enter the scale deployment phase of its planned Gen III units and a new strategic development plan should be plotted towards 2035. In the very near future, China should witness 6-8 FCDs of Gen III units (this matches Nicobar estimates) and by 2030, nuclear power should reach 10% in the energy mix as opposed to the current 3.94%. By Nicobar estimates, this will require a 6-8 FCD per year deployment schedule over the next few years.
For advocates of Chinese nuclear power development, the current situation presents a logistic challenge to meeting these goals. Even with the fuel load for Sanmen Unit 1 starting now, the earliest that unit can be connected to the grid will be Q3-4 2018, as confirmed by a CNNC spokesperson in March 2018. Furthermore, the HPR1000 demonstration projects in Fuqing and Fangchenggang will not begin commercial operation until 2020 or 2021, at the earliest. Thus, if China sticks to its demonstration plant deployment model, it will only be possible to begin building more AP1000s in 2019, and more HPR1000s in 2021, which will likely make the 6-8 FCD/year target very difficult to meet, with the 2030 target nigh-impossible. This logistical problem has not gone unnoticed within the industry. Last month, during the 15th Nuclear Industry China exhibition in Beijing, Mr. Zhao Chengkun, Deputy Director of the CNEA and former Director of the NNSA, called for more aggressive deployments. Mr. Zhao argued that the merged HPR1000 design is now ready for immediate new FCDs due to its safety features and advantages versus other international Gen III technologies. He pointed out that stimulating the developing of plants would have positive effects for manufacturers whose equipment currently lies idle, and that aggressive nuclear power growth would also serve to prevent ‘brain drain’ in the industry. In essence, his position is that it is unnecessary and disadvantageous to wait for the 2021 grid connection of the demonstration HPR1000 projects in Fuqing & Fangchenggang. Obviously following this line of thinking cannot mean good things for the AP1000.
Whether the good news for Sanmen Unit 1 means the AP1000 design has secured its lifeline for at least a few more years of deployments, or whether the advocates for immediately deploying more HPR1000s will get their way remains to be seen. The Chinese regulator has walked a fine line in the past to balance the needs of an aggressive national development blueprint and a conservative proof-of-concept deployment model. Conservatism clearly won out when it came to approval for Sanmen’s fuel load. If this conservative posture continues going forward, then the AP1000 is likely to enjoy several more years of domestic deployments. If the more aggressive model advocated by Mr. Zhao gains favor, however, the future of the AP1000 for China deployments could still be in serious trouble, in spite of the good news this week from Sanmen.