Russia and China Are Becoming Nuclear Titans
“This is how the torch of civilization is passed from one country to the next. Remember it well. We’re seeing it happen right in front of us.”
That was the comment of one reader to the story of how Bill Gates has gone to China to develop his Travelling Wave Reactor, which promises to run for 50 years without refueling and consume its own waste. After several years of effort, Gates had given up on ever getting anything approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, he signed a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation to build an experimental model in Asia.
China is indeed sprinting to the forefront of world nuclear technology. It has 27 operating reactors and 24 more under construction. The CNNC has announced plans for 50 new reactors by 2030, at which point it will overtake the United States for the most reactors in the world. At that juncture it will have retired 350 gigawatts of coal generation and may be well on the way to solving the problem of global warming.
The Chinese have reverse-engineered the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, of which it is currently building four, and have come up with their own design that they soon hope sell on the world market. Last month the Chinese startled the world by signing a nuclear agreement with Great Britain whereby it will own 33.5 percent of the Hinkley Point reactor, Britain’s first reactor in 20 years. Hinkley Point will be constructed by Electricity de France (EDF), the only nuclear corporation in a Western country that is still operating on the world stage. As part of the deal, the Chinese will also be building their own nuclear reactor within the next few years at Bradwell-on-Sea, 60 miles east of London.
The spectacle of the Far Eastern “underdeveloped” country nurturing a European country through the construction of a new reactor has horrified some observers and led to all sorts of talk of possible cyberattacks and espionage. But no one should be surprised. The Western countries - particularly the United States – have virtually abandoned nuclear development and turned the job over to the rest of the world. This produces one of the greatest ironies of all. For as much as China is embracing nuclear energy and making plans to export its technology, it is soon going to find its way blocked by Russia, which has already virtually cornered the market on bringing nuclear energy to the developing world.
Russia’s Rosatom was founded in 2007 with a mission to sell Russian nuclear technology abroad. The Fukushima accident persuaded advanced countries like German and Japan to move away from nuclear technology, but Rosatom shrugged off the incident and went right on selling. Now, four years after Fukushima, Rosatom has contracts with 12 nations to build 30 reactors over the next few years. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates these contracts to be worth $740 billion. Moreover, these nations are key players – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Argentina, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Algeria and others. Russia has long sought to gain military and diplomatic influence in these countries. Now nuclear construction will cement their relationships.
“A nuclear plant is like an embassy or a military base,” writes Ian Armstrong in Global Risk Insights. “It gives you a long-term or permanent presence in a country.” This is especially true since many of the Russian plants are being built on a “BOO” basis – “build, own and operate.” Like those solar companies in America that are putting up solar collectors on people’s rooves and then selling them the electricity, the Russians will remain owners of the nuclear plants, selling the electricity to the host country.
What has to be even more unnerving to American observers is that the on-the-ground experience is leading both Russia and China into new technologies and more efficient ways of doing things. The Chinese can now build an AP1000 from the ground up in five years, whereas it takes American and European countries 15 years with huge cost overruns to finish a project. (The two EDF reactors, Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland are approaching 10 and 15 years respectively with no end in sight.) The Russians have put a small modular reactor on a barge and are preparing to sail it into the Arctic to power isolated communities. Both the Chinese and Russians are experimenting with molten salt reactors – an American invention still on the shelf in this country. Since 1980 the Russians have been operating the world’s only fast breeder reactor, the BN600, and started operating a larger BN-800 in 2014. Fast breeders are the most advanced type of reactors that can burn any radioactive fuel and leave no waste product. We had a fast breeder experiment going in Idaho in the 1990s but it was killed by the Clinton Administration.
The four U.S. reactors now being built in Georgia and South Carolina are essentially 20th century models intended to prove that the NRC isn’t opposed to everything. They may be completed somewhere near 2020 and will add 4000 megawatts to the southern grid. But they are a technological dead end and will probably never be duplicated in this country.
Instead, the cutting edge now lies with those small start-ups that have seized molten salt technology and are using it to produce “nuclear batteries” – small modular reactors that can be built in factories and shipped anywhere. Transatomic Power, Nu-Scale, Thorcon and Flibe all have the innovative models that would shake the foundations of the current players if this were all happening in Silicon Valley. One small start-up, Terrestrial Energy, a Canadian company, has a contract to build a molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratories – proving that when the government controls everything the only thing to do is to partner with the government. But the other start-ups are being left out in the cold, Despairing of ever getting anywhere with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they are exploring the possibility of going to other countries with their experiments.
Thus is innovation being stifled in this country. By 2025 we may have to do what Britain has done and ask the Chinese or the Russians to build our reactors for us. Bill Gates’ TerraPower may not be the last American nuclear innovation to be developed in China.