China’s decision to focus on pressurized water reactors (PWRs) in developing domestic nuclear capacity left General Electric (GE.NYSE) and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) out in the cold. Neither GE’s boiling water reactor (BWR) nor AECL’s CANDU heavy water reactor was eligible for selection as the basis for China’s third-generation nuclear fleet.
While they were excluded in this round, however, they may find opportunities for future involvement. As China looks beyond the third generation, it may choose to allow the development of a range of reactor technologies, as it did prior to the PWR decision.
AECL believes there will be plenty of room for the CANDU in China’s future power network. "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," said Jerry Hopwood, vice president of product development at AECL.
A key selling point is the CANDU’s ability, with slight modifications, to use thorium – a radioactive element about three to four times as common as uranium – as fuel. China has limited uranium resources, which has driven it to secure uranium mines overseas: CNNC International (2302.HK), the Hong Kong-listed arm of China National Nuclear Corp, recently signed deals giving it access to uranium mines in Niger and Mongolia.
"China needs something like 18,000 tons of uranium per annum by 2020," said Philip Li, a spokesman for CNNC International. "Today, China itself has discovered around 2,000 tons [domestically]. That’s a huge amount to fill in."
Thorium, however, is plentiful in China – and a panel appointed by China National Nuclear Corp recently said that its use in the Enhanced CANDU 6 reactor was "technically practical and feasible."
Other opportunities may lie in fast reactors, which are capable of reusing uranium fuel; traditional light water reactors only use a small proportion of the total energy available. But given the sufficient global sources of uranium, there is little demand for them at present.
"Sometimes I say we have too much uranium," said Yury Sokolov, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of the agency’s department of nuclear energy. "If we have enough uranium now for light water reactors, people prefer to build light water reactors instead of developing fast-reactor technology."