Newbuild: Chinese SMR Program Faces Slowdown and Secrecy

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

While China is closer to launching a domestic small modular reactor (SMR) program than most other countries, progress on SMRs appears to have slowed since 2019, possibly as part of a broader deceleration in China's broader nuclear power program. China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) may still launch construction on the country's first-of-a-kind conventional SMR this year, but progress on any number of other prospective SMR projects is at best unheralded. Starting last year, Beijing has grown ever more reticent to reveal anything about the country's newbuild program -- it still hasn't even formally announced the initial concrete pour for China's first-of-a-kind CAP1400 reactor last summer -- and therefore it's not completely clear whether progress on Chinese SMRs is negligible or merely hidden. In the annual work plan released last month by the National Energy Administration (NEA), China's energy sector overseer mooted no plans to launch conventional reactor or SMR newbuilds over the next year, and said that it would only "safely and cautiously" pursue nuclear applications for other industrial sectors such as heating, desalination, and offshore power. The 2020 National Energy Work Plan provided a sharp contrast with previous versions of the plan, most of which had promised that China would "actively" promote SMRs and their industrial applications. It's not clear the extent to which this shift in language indicates a rethink on the policy front. But China’s ever-growing renewable energy capacity, with a sharply decreased levelized cost of electricity, is rapidly dominating the industrial sectors about which SMR developers had previously dreamed. Beijing’s energy policymakers now increasingly prefer using renewable rather than nuclear generation to replace fossil fuel-powered capacity. Most notably, the NEA has mentioned nothing about using nuclear technology in China's clean heating development in the 2020 energy plan. Limited Progress at Changjiang and Shidao Bay A slowdown in China's SMR development might already be reflected in and perhaps even prompted by continued delays to CNNC's demonstration SMR project, the 125 megawatt ACP100, which in 2017 was rebranded the "Linglong-One" (NIW May5'17). CNNC had previously hoped to pour the first concrete for a single unit ACP100 plant adjacent to its existing Changjiang plant in Hainan, an island province in the South China Sea, by the end of 2017 (NIW Jul.21'17). But that deadline was missed, as was a revised first concrete target of December 2019, and now planners may at best be hoping for early next year. In late June, the National Nuclear Safety Administration approved a preliminary safety analysis report for the Hainan SMR plant. That approval is one of the five essential reviews required by the nuclear safety regulator before issuing the construction permit. Developers have usually been able to pour their first nuclear safety-related concrete at previous newbuilds some six to 12 months after the preliminary safety analysis approval, which suggests the first ACP100 reaching that important milestone in early 2021. These pre-construction delays are mild compared to most first-of-a-kind projects around the world, but they're also increasingly typical in China. Construction of the country's first-of-its-kind high-temperature gas-cooled module -- two reactors and two steam generators attached to a shared turbine with 210 MW of output -- has been under way at Shidao Bay in northeastern Shandong province since 2012. Initially scheduled for commissioning in 2017, the project developed by a consortium of CNNC, China Huaneng, and Tsinghua University has repeatedly adjusted the expected grid-connection day. Last year developers were eyeing full commissioning of the plant in 2020, but in June an engineer involved with the project said that first criticality was now targeted for 2021 (NIW Jun.26'20). Three months ago, as CNNC launched the installation of the helium circulator, a critical component for the reactor, it revealed that it "strived to achieve a cold functioning test" by the end of 2020. Slowed SMR Applications Despite these setbacks, China's nuclear industry remains vocally committed to developing SMRs suited to various emerging industrial segments. Nuclear developers are already seeking support from central and local governments to use SMRs on ships, as a heating suppliers in the north of the country, as steam suppliers for oil field recovery, as an off-grid power source for remote islands or 5G networks and even for hydrogen production. The drive to develop seabound floating SMRs was touted several years ago, but any updates on this program have recently ceased. Back in 2015-16, CNNC and competitor China General Nuclear (CGN), the country's two primary nuclear firms, were both aggressively advancing their respective floating SMRs designed to provide electricity to remote islands and oil drilling platforms (NIW Feb.5'16). CGN teamed with China Shipbuilding Industrial Corp. (CSIC) and the China National Offshore Oil Co. to work on a 60 MW design known as the ACPR50S, with plans to commission an inaugural unit by 2020. CNNC announced a similar timeline for the technology it was developing with China Shipbuilding State Corp. (CSSC) called the ACP100S, a floating version of the reactor CNNC hopes to debut on Hainan island (NIW Aug.11'17). (CNNC has also developed an even smaller 25 MW floating SMR known as the ACP25S.) While the initial design for the ACP100S was completed prior to 2017, both the ACPR50S and the ACP25S were listed as "under development" in a mid-2019 speech by Song Danrong, the SMR-focused chief designer of the Nuclear Power Institute of China. But this didn't stop CGN from locking in CSIC back in 2017 to build he platform of the ACPR50S at the shipbuilder's Bohai shipyard in the northeastern province of Liaoning. In 2018 CSSC commenced construction of the ship to host the reactor in 2018 at the Jiaodong shipyard in Shandong. But it's not clear whether either pair of developers have secured the final construction approval for their respective SMRs, and with no announcements in 2019 or 2020, there's little evidence to suggest any 2020 timeline targets remain realistic. On the other hand, given Washington's contentions about the nature of these projects -- in particular its assertion that such floating SMRs might power Chinese military bases and advanced weapons systems -- lack of public progress in this case may simply mean the program has grown too sensitive for any progress to be disclosed (related). Work on developing SMRs for other industrial applications beyond electricity generation also appears stagnant or quiet. In 2018 CNNC completed the design of a 400 MW pool-type DHR400 reactor (or "Yanlong-One") meant to provide centralized district heating, while CGN said it would team up with Tsinghua University to develop its NHR200-II design for the same purpose. And China's third major nuclear power developer, State Power Investment (SPI), said it completed an initial design of a 200 MW HAPPY200 reactor (NIW Dec.21'18). But other than signing some early-stage cooperation agreements with local governments, none of these designs appear slated to begin project construction any time soon. Nuclear developers are also looking into the potential for nuclear applications in seawater desalination and -- most recently -- green hydrogen production. While any power reactor could conceivably produce hydrogen via an electrolysis unit, the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor in particular could directly produce hydrogen via a solid oxide electrolyzer cell. However, as the inaugural plans struggled with delays and cost overruns, and as renewable power sources make ever more inroads into the markets SMR developers are targeting, the economic assumptions of these plans are under questions. C.F. Yu, Beijing China's Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) Under Development Designer Design Commercial

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