China continues to tackle its enormous electricity generation needs using a number of energy sources. Nuclear power is a key part of the supply strategy due to its large, constant, emission-free output. The nuclear power plant construction schedule in China is unprecedented in its scale. This article re-visits some questions posed in 2011 about its sustainability in terms of workforce and regualtory capacities.
In 2011, a paper in Energy Policy took a look at the broad question of China's preparedness for rolling out a large fleet of nuclear power plants (NPP). In order to shed light on the topic the (US-based) authors looked at several key factors and noted several challenges associated with the country's ambitious NPP construction plans.
The assessment areas included; legal frameworks, safety licensing capacity, workforce issues, R&D support and supply chain strength. The paper also offered several recommendations regarding changes that would help realize the goal of installing more than 70GW (70000 megawatts) of nuclear electric generating capacity in a ~12 year timeframe.
The publication date is significant for two reasons: (i) the paper came out at a time when confidence in a 'nuclear rennaisance' was at its height and when the Western energy industry had just realized the enormous scale of nuclear new-build reactor projects that were being planned in China, and (ii) the paper hit the streets just before the terrible tsunami that assaulted the Japanese east coast and precipitated the well-known reactor accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP.
It is edifying to revisit both the challenges and the recommendations posed in 2011. Since then there have been some highly significant changes in the global nuclear energy landscape and these have certainly impacted - mostly positively - China's readiness for a large number of new nuclear power units. After a snapshot of the Chinese nuclear power situation today, this short article will look at two important areas where significant developments have taken place since 2011.
1. Chinese Expansion Today
It can now be argued that the Fukushima accident, perhaps paradoxically, has had some beneficial impacts on the Chinese nuclear sector. The pace of the nuclear program was threatening to become overwhelming in 2009-11 with almost every province pushing a nuclear project. This had clear risks in terms of safety regulation, human resource availability and the quality of reactor components. Following a pause for breath (including an ongoing moratorium on inland reactor projects) the program is still running ahead strongly. Of the 71 reactors under construction around the world, 29 are located in China. But the program is still very challenging. With 20 units now in operation - providing 17 GWe of electric output - and an additional 41 GWe to be commissioned in only 7 years, this is a heady pace not achieved anywhere since the United States in the 1970s and France in the 1980s. The installed nuclear capacity in 2020 is now likely to be only 58 GWe, rather than the 70 GWe (and even beyond) that was postulated pre-Fukushima.
2. Safety Regulation
One of the most important issues raised in the 2011 paper was that of the strength of the nuclear safety regulatory regime in China. The concerns expressed in Energy Policy revolved around the low heirachical status of the National Nuclear Safety Agency (NNSA), its true level of independence and – importantly – the authority and respect it was able to wield. Furthermore, the budget and staffing levels for NNSA were noted as particularly low for the number of Chinese nuclear facilities that require (and will require) safety licenses. And plant safety culture was also singled out as needing improvement. Monitoring compliance to safety codes is one thing – and is done well in China – but having a system in which operator and regulator staff members are able to proactively suggest improvements to such codes, regardless of rank, takes longer to put in place, yet this has been shown to greatly add to overall plant safety.
In the last three years there have been positive (though sporadic) developments on all these fronts. It should be noted, however, that judgements about enhancements to China's nuclear safety system are rather speculative.
After the Fukushima accident in March 2011, China slowed its NPP roll-out program. A key motivation was to examine its institutional arrangements that serve to assure that its nuclear facilities operate safely. New NPP project approvals were halted and the drafting of some new national safety standards has commenced. A safety survey was carried out covering all of the country's nuclear units. The degree of high-level introspection might never be known exactly but the slight decelleration in the NPP construction pace has certainly allowed some much needed 'catch up' to take place in terms of institutional groundwork being put in place (eg, a basic Atomic Energy Law). The government has since announced that the rate of new NPP project approvals will be a reasonable 'few' each year, and that these will be only for well-known modern reactor types for which there is extensive national and international licensing experience.
It is widely expected that the budget and workforce for the NNSA will be expanded – this may already have started but no public statements have yet been made.
At the supra-national level, China has been supportive of efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to bolster treaty-level agreements on nuclear safety (such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety) and the development and implementation of a post-Fukushima international 'Action Plan on Nuclear Safety'. And more recently, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and China have formalized an agreement to cooperate on nuclear energy issues, including that of safety. In such fora, safety culture is always a prominent topic and China should – if willing – be able to draw from the experience of those in the West about bolstering this component of their nuclear safety landscape. This could be a precursor for China formally joining the OECD-NEA (as Russia did in 2012, a few years after it had signed a similar agreement). Thus, China continues its gradual progress toward full integration into the world nuclear industry.
3. Skilled Workforce Levels
The 2011 Energy Policy paper pointed out that China's nuclear energy sector was grappling with difficulties in training sufficient numbers of appropriately qualified engineering personnel for staffing their ambitious NPP construction program. Issues impacting the available workforce included: a small number of universities offering nuclear engineering degree programs, difficulties keeping students in nuclear engineering programs (a report was cited suggesting that only about ~30% stay to graduate, with the remainder switching disciplines), teaching quality concerns (especially with some of the shorter supplementary 'nuclear-add-on' 1-year training programs aimed at students graduating in other engineering disciplines). It was also suggested that the level of technical R&D activity that helps supports a nuclear energy infrastructure was somewhat inadequate and needed a boost in terms of funding levels and overall priority.
The university program issues will be familiar to those in the West concerned that too few engineers graduate to meet the needs of a country's industrial sectors. But it may not now be as gloomy in China as was described in the 2011 paper. In that study, data from 2004 was used, yet this was before the 'nuclear rennaisance' had really taken hold. It also pre-dates the establishment of a few major 'new-generation' reactor projects which are now able to excite and inspire talented new researchers and engineers. Also, efforts by the Chinese nuclear utilities (CGNPC and CNNC) to attract and retain good nuclear engineers with good pay and benefits may now have had time to work. The adequacy of its nuclear workforce remains a very important issue for China and the seriousness with which is taken is underscored by major Chinese companies (including CNNC, CGNPC, CPI, SNPTC) setting up their own "nuclear universities" as centrepieces of their efforts. All-in-all, the situation is no doubt better than in 2011 – though having said this, new data needs to be gathered in order to make less speculative assessments about workforce projections.
There are some good reasons for the reported paucity in nuclear energy R&D activity in China in 2011. While there has always been a fairly good level of broader nuclear research in China, much of this was institutionally located within (and guided by) the country's military nuclear program, and the skills therein are/were not always transplantable into the civil NPP sector. Also, following a 'technology rationalization' decision in the late 1990s to focus on using the industry 'standard' work horse - the pressurized water reactor (PWR) - for China's nuclear power expansion, there was a natural swing away from starting new projects with large amounts of innovative but risky content. Rather it was better to apply nuclear-trained personnel to the job of putting new PWR projects in place and then completing them.
Since 2011 there have been some strongly positive developments in terms of the establishment of some major flagship R&D programs concerning new and pilot reactor projects, as well as the planning for large nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure (such as the establishment of a used-fuel reprocessing capability in Gansu province). Also, in 2012 former Premier Wen Jiabao explicitly mentioned the government's intention to ramp-up levels of nuclear R&D as a component of their stated commitment to nuclear safety enhancement.
Each of the points made in the 2011 Energy Policy paper remain very relevant to China's nuclear energy policy makers. With regard to maintaining and improving its nuclear safety regulatory system, continuous effort is still warranted. And for assuring a deeply skilled workforce to serve its ever expanding nuclear generating industry in China, the country will need to invest further in university teaching programs and in running bold and exciting nuclear reactor/fuel cycle projects. On some counts the required boost in committment may be a bit slow (support and upgrading NNSA). There are good signs that the nuclear energy R&D environment is helping the workforce issue but more data is needed about how university programs are managing their nuclear engineering student numbers.
 Y. Zhou, C. Rengifo, P. Chen, J. Hinze, « Is China ready for its nuclear expansion? » Energy Policy, v39 pp771-781 (February 2011)