Update on China’s nuclear breeder and fuel reprocessing plans

The China Institute for Atomic Energy (CIAE), a research and development affiliate of China’s leading nuclear state-owned enterprise, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), began operating a small 20-megawatt (MW) test breeder this summer—a quarter-century after the project was first planned. This was built with cooperation from Russia. CIAE now aims to set up a series of progressively bigger FBRs in China with Russian help, beginning with a 600-MW to 900-MW reactor to be finished by 2020 and, just eight years later, a unit as large as 1,500-MW.

CIAE has firmed up its plans for what comes next after the 20-MW test breeder: an 800-MW reactor designed by Russian engineers decades ago but not yet built and operated. Russia has built a few smaller breeders of a similar design, but the largest of these have burned mostly uranium fuel. An agreement for the design of the Chinese project was made with the Russian nuclear vendor Atomstroyexport (ASE) last year, and advocates of this project at CIAE and CNNC are now pressing to begin construction in 2011.

During the last few years, Beijing has been negotiating agreements with foreign governments and companies to obtain assistance in setting up its future nuclear fuel cycle. It concluded one agreement last month to permit Belgian firms to negotiate a commercial contract with Chinese counterparts to set up a pilot plant in China to make a small amount of MOX fuel.

China may take a far bigger step should it conclude, as anticipated, an agreement with France to allow Areva—the government-owned nuclear flagship vendor in France—and CNNC to sign a future contract worth perhaps more than $20 billion to establish commercial-scale reprocessing and MOX fuel infrastructure in China.

Areva made an offer to CNNC intended to recoup and capitalize on its comparative advantage over Westinghouse—which has no plutonium fuel expertise—to help China set up a reprocessing and MOX fuel complex. Officials then described the offer as a replication of Areva’s plants in France, in particular its 800-MT reprocessing plant at La Hague called UP-3.

This month, Areva and CNNC signed a memorandum of understanding affirming their resolve to negotiate a commercial contract for setting up reprocessing and MOX fuel facilities in China. Under French law concerning nuclear fuel cycle cooperation with foreign countries, however, no such contract can be signed without a bilateral government-to-government agreement in place that establishes the nonproliferation, technical, and political commitments of both sides. This Sino-French agreement is still under negotiation.

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