China: Can it Build Power Reactors on its Own?

China, like the United States and other nuclear weapon states, is using its experience with military production reactors to launch a civilian power program. China has still not proved, however, that it can build nuclear power stations without foreign help.

China’s first power reactor at Qinshan in Zhejiang province experienced a series of technical problems before it started to produce electricity in 1993. “For years, the Chinese have said that the Qinshan reactors were made entirely in China, which is a lie,” says a U.S. government expert who tracks China’s nuclear progress. The first Qinshan reactor includes a pressure vessel forged in Japan and primary coolant pumps supplied by a German firm, he says.

China is openly importing all its other reactors. The French nuclear giant, Framatome, has been building two large units at Daya Bay in Guangdong province, with the first starting operation in early 1994. Russia has agreed to build two 1,000-megawatt reactors near Wafangdian as part of a 1992 nuclear cooperation agreement, and the Russian firm Zarubeshatomenergostroy may also help China build a commercial centrifuge uranium enrichment plant. The plant would apparently produce low-enriched fuel for the Qinshan power reactors, and perhaps for the French reactors at Daya Bay.

The second reactor at Qinshan will use equipment from Framatome and the American firm Westinghouse, and the third Qinshan reactor will rely on French, Canadian and Japanese technology, according to official Chinese press reports. “The recent press statements are an open admission that China can’t build these reactors entirely on its own,” says the U.S. expert.

To help pay for all this, China needs to sell its nuclear wares abroad. China has agreed to build a Qinshan-style reactor in Pakistan, but U.S. officials question whether China can complete the reactor without incorporating Western technology. Japan and Germany say they will not sell significant nuclear equipment to Pakistan until Islamabad opens all its facilities to international inspection. In September 1992, China also agreed to supply Qinshan-style reactors to Iran, but the status of the deal is uncertain.

The China Nuclear Energy Industrial Corporation, a subsidiary of the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), was formed in 1980 to market Chinese uranium and enrichment services worldwide. In January, China sold enriched reactor fuel to India. CNNC aims to produce and export a family of 600-, 900- and 1,200-megawatt power reactors. But to do so, China must expand its technological base, largely through imports. According to Zhoa Ren-kai, Vice President of the Commission of Science and Technology at CNNC, China’s new generation of reactors will include several joint ventures with foreign companies.