Q: Can you talk a bit about the Qinshan project? How has it fit in with China’s broader nuclear strategy?
A: The contracts were signed in 1997, and the project was was completed six-and-a-half years later. We were proud that it was completed slightly below budget, and also slightly ahead of schedule; we actually exceeded our contract commitments. We’re also proud that Qinshan reactors are among the top three performing reactors in China. The other significance of that project was that it did break the idea that China has a one-reactor policy. Certainly, China has pursued pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology very strongly, but the Qinshan project demonstrated that the country is quite ready to use other technologies to complement its fleet of PWRs. So that gave us a lot of encouragement that CANDU has a role in China.
Q: How much domestic involvement was there in the Qinshan project?
A: There was a fair amount. Qinshan was an adaptation of a pre-existing design that we used in Korea, where we built four units. The most efficient way to do the detailed engineering was a single team, located in two places: in our head offices in Mississauga, Ontario, and onsite in China. However, the actual construction of the project was entirely in the hands of Chinese companies. China also bought significant amounts of equipment itself, from offshore and within China. The project was accompanied by technology transfer, whereby information and training was provided, so Chinese engineers and reactor operators are now much more well-trained and independent; the plant is run entirely by Chinese crews. The final piece that I think is important is that we also supplied support for them to build a fuel plant, so China makes its own fuel for these two reactors.
Q: AECL has been effectively locked out of the current round of nuclear construction. What is your take on China’s decision to focus on PWR development?
A: It has been a concern in the past that China was very committed to its so-called one reactor policy. But we also knew that while it was building a fleet of PWRs, China has continued to research and develop other types, such as fast breeder reactors, and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors for the future, without necessarily defining their role. What we believe we’ve done in the last two years is to establish from a policy point of view that the CANDU reactor is a good complement to the PWRs.
Q: Is there an opportunity for more involvement in the future?
A: For our company, the opportunity is very much connected with the capability of our reactor designs to burn alternate fuels. China has limited uranium resources, and so as it expands its program, particularly as it expands the program of PWRs, it’s going to have to import large quantities of uranium. That’s a cost and security-of-supply issue for the Chinese policy makers: They really don’t like the idea of being dependent on offshore sources of fuel. But China does have very large quantities of thorium, which, once placed in a reactor, gradually becomes a fissile material. China wants to bring this material into play and to use it as a nuclear fuel. What we have done with our Chinese partners is to carry out some feasibility studies which show that burning thorium in a CANDU is entirely feasible and practical, and in fact that with quite minor changes, the Qinshan design that we delivered to China can be adapted to burn a combination of uranium and thorium fuel. From the Chinese point of view, this looks like a really attractive first step. There are many more steps to perfect the use of thorium, but this would be a very low-risk, very economical way to get started.
Q: But is China interested in taking on the burden of supporting two kinds of nuclear fuel?
A: China always seems to have a long-term view. They’re always able to look many, many years ahead. And it’s certainly true that for thorium use to become truly economical, to replace uranium on a large scale, that requires recycling of the thorium material used in the reactor. Making the best use of the fuel depends on investing in a recycling plant. That’s true even for uranium-based fuel, but the world has more often than not simply taken uranium fuel through the reactors and then stored the resulting spent fuel without trying to recycle it. With thorium, the benefits of recycling are very large. As China’s concerned about fuel supply for its nuclear fleet, going down that path is very important, but it does involve an investment.
Q: What role would the CANDU play in that?
A: Where CANDU comes in is that in effect, China could build two more CANDU 6 units, such as the ones we have at Qinshan, and with very minor modifications they could burn either natural uranium, as we do today, or a thorium-uranium combination fuel. In the long view of the Chinese, CANDUs have a unique role in being able to get this thing started. For us, the next step is to bring a CANDU thorium project on to the Chinese national five-year plan. We know that our client, Chongqing Nuclear Power Corp (CQPNC) is advancing that through its parent company, China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC), and then through the National Development and Reform Commission, which would be the main forum for deciding whether such a thing should go ahead.
Q: There are some concerns that the speed of China’s nuclear rollout could raise safety and quality issues…
A: We were very satisfied with the quality of work on the Chinese side. The fact that the project was built on time doesn’t mean that any corners were cut. On the contrary, it means that the plant was built exactly as we intended. However, I think that it’s possible to imagine an expansion that goes beyond the pace at which trained staff can be made available to build and operate the power plant or even manufacture the equipment. There has to be proper development of human resources and manufacturing facilities. On the other hand, every project faces that same problem. In a very large country like China, even if you have nine projects as opposed to one project, that does not mean there is going to be a problem. Certainly, countries like France and the US built multiple units per year and, while there were stresses and strains on quality, in particular in the US expansion, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The US fleet today operates with very high reliability and also very high levels of safety. We know from world experience that it’s possible to have a major program like China’s and get it right.
Q: Technology transfer has been a key part of foreign involvement in China’s nuclear industry. Do you expect those requirements to increase?
A: Yes, I think we would expect that. We would see a greater degree of technology cooperation, a greater degree of technology transfer. Our company’s main offering is a technology offering, which comes with a great deal of detailed experience in building the power plant that we have. But we’ve had numerous different types of models where we deliver a power plant and carry out technology transfer as part of that, where the host nation – our customer and their associate businesses – takes on roles in the project. By being hands on, they’re getting real-life, practical technology transfer. The project model in China and the role that AECL would play in it I think is certainly up for discussion.
Q: Is the ultimate goal, in a sense, to put AECL out of a job?
A: I think that remains to be seen. I’ll give you the example of Korea, where back in the mid-1980s, Westinghouse – then called Combustion Engineering – signed a deal which had a very strongly established round of technology transfer. The Koreans have built quite a number of PWR-type plants since then and the Westinghouse rol
e has been successively been reduced, but it has never gone to zero. So there’s a soft-landing model where technology transfer doesn’t lead to no involvement, it leads to a new kind of involvement.