A Double First for China as Taishan EPR and Sanmen AP1000 Connect to the Grid
WNISR, 1 July 2018
The Chinese nuclear program scored a double world first in the space of 24 hours, when on 29 June 2018 Taishan-1, the first European/Evolutionary Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR), was connected to the grid, followed on 30 June 2018 by Sanmen-1, the first AP1000. The startup of these reactors marks an important milestone in the Chinese nuclear program, but they also highlight the overall failure of the nuclear industry’s claims and ambitions for the EPR and AP1000 global expansion.
The Taishan reactors in Guangdong province are the largest cooperative energy project between China and France. The project is operated by TNPJVC, a joint venture established between CGN (51%), EDF (30%) and the provincial Chinese electricity company Yuedian (19%). The construction of Taishan-1 began in 2009, whilst that of Taishan-2 began in 2010. Both reactors, at that time, were due online in 2013. The two units were respectively the third and fourth EPR reactors to get underway world-wide. According to CGN, Taishan-1 will now undergo a period of gradual power-up tests. Once the reactor has passed all these exams, it will then be tested in steady-state conditions at full power. Framatome, the EPR vendor, stated: “The successful grid connection of the Taishan 1 nuclear power plant is a historical moment for Framatome and for the whole nuclear industry.” In December 2017, CGN Power announced that the expected commercial operation of Taishan-2 would be in 2019.
While successfully achieving grid connection, the Taishan EPR-project has experienced major delays, cost increases, and there remain major unresolved safety issues.
Taishan-1, originally scheduled to be completed in 2013, experienced a revision of this target in 2012 that put completion “in principle” at the end of 2015. Initially the delays at Taishan were due to the knock-on effects from the major delays in the AREVA EPR projects at Olkiluoto in Finland (construction start in 2005) and Flamanville in France (construction start in 2007). However, further delays emerged as result of disclosures of problems in the steel material used in the construction of parts of the pressure vessel, including top and bottom heads, at the Flamanville EPR.
Evidence of major quality control, production and regulatory oversight failure emerged in June 2014 at the AREVA le Creusot Forge steel plant. In addition to the supply of the vessel heads for the Flamanville EPR, the heads for Taishan were also manufactured at le Creusot. The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), described in 2014, how it was challenging to know, what is happening at the Taishan site in contrast to the European EPR projects. The issue is fundamental to nuclear plant safety, as excess carbon zones in Category 1 pressurized components increases the risks of fast fracture and rupture. In June 2017, ASN reported that the problems with the Flamanville vessel heads could also impact the top and bottom heads at Taishan EPRs, manufactured by le Creusot Forge. In October 2017, the ASN finally granted approval for the vessel heads at Flamaville, but specified that the feasibility of inspections “cannot at present be confirmed for the closure head” of the EPR and “that the current closure head cannot be used beyond 2024.” Unless AREVA / EDF can demonstrate the integrity of the vessel head, it will require to be replaced only a few years after start up.
In reaction to the news that the metal used in the reactor pressure vessel head and bottom was potentially unsuitable due carbon macrosegregation and reduced toughness, the Chinese government announced that it would not load fuel into the reactor until further investigations had occurred. Tang Bo, a nuclear safety administration official, told the Beijing-based newspaper China Environment News: “Only when problems in reactors… are identified and solved will we allow nuclear fuels to be loaded into the Taishan plant for the first time and for it to begin to operate.” However, following the ASN decision, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) issued a fuel loading permit for unit 1 in April 2018, it required CGN to develop a testing method for its reactor vessel head “as soon as possible”, and that, “if developments fail or test results are unfavourable, the cover shall not be used by the end of April 2025.”
The other major components for Taishan-1 were all imported: the pressure vessel from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) of Japan and the steam generators from AREVA (now Framatome) Chalon/St. Marcel in France, for Taishan-2 are all made in China: the pressure vessel by Dongfang Electric Co (DEC), two of the steam generators also by DEC and the other two by Shanghai Electric.
The Taishan EPR has also experienced multiple other problems, many related to the quality and inspection of materials, including welding. In December 2017, a Hong Kong based investigative new agency reported that the steam deaerator in Taishan-1 cracked during testing and had to be replaced. At the time, CGN only admitted that there were ‘partial defects’ in the welding of the deaerator. CGN/EDF had subcontracted the manufacturing of the deaerator to Harbin Boiler, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Harbin Electric.
In terms of EPR Taishan project overall costs, they remain unclear. In 2016, it was reported that CGN’s 51 percent share was a total registered capital of 28.6 billion yuan (€3.6 billion). Due to increased construction costs, investment expenditure had increased 30 percent to around US$3,300/kW. EDF had invested 1 billion Euros in equity as of June 2018.
The gird connection of the AP1000 Sanmen-1 in Zhejiang Province, was announced by Westinghouse Electric Company plant owner China State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) and CNNC Sanmen Nuclear Power Company Limited (SMNPC): “Today, we witness our first AP1000 plant, Sanmen 1, began its process of generating electricity and providing our customers in China with safe, reliable and clean energy,” said José Emeterio Gutiérrez, Westinghouse president and chief executive officer. He added: “This milestone would not have been possible without the constant collaboration and partnership with our China customer.”
Sanmen-1 is the first of a fleet of four new AP1000 plants in eastern China, with Sanmen-2 scheduled to begin operation later in 2018; two units under construction at Haiyang, in Shandong Province, with the reactors scheduled for operation in the coming months for unit 1 and in 2019 for unit 2. All four have experienced delays and cost overruns. The AP1000s at the Sanmen and Haiyang sites were the very first constructions of this design anywhere in the world. When construction started at Sanmen, the Shaw Group, which was the Westinghouse contractor managing the doomed VC Summer project in South Carolina, but also contracted to work on supply of components to Sanmen stated that looked “to bringing this plant on line as scheduled in 2013.” Cost estimates in 2017 indicated that Sanmen and Haiyang were, “over 10 billion Chinese yuan (US$1.5 billion)” over budget. The delays and cost overruns at Sanmen and Haiyang prompted one Chinese energy analyst to warn in 2015: “The only way Westinghouse can win contracts in China is to demonstrate they can build reactors quicker and cheaper than anyone else in China’s market and win hearts with actions, not words… Westinghouse so far hasn’t demonstrated such abilities.” Five years later than scheduled, the startup of Sanmen-1 makes the prospect of additional AP1000 reactor contracts in China highly uncertain.
Reality of scaled back EPR and AP1000 construction
In 2010, Westinghouse was promoting the AP1000, with ambitions for 12 reactors in advanced planning stage, with a further six in China and six in India. Instead, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in 2017, with three AP1000 still under construction in China and two in the U.S, and two cancelled. The prospects for additional AP1000s in China remain uncertain, while India has recently announced a large scale-back of its nuclear power plans from a target of 63 GW to 22.4 GW by 2031. According to reports these are to be based largely on indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHRW) and Russian VVER1200 designs. Similarly, EPR contracts have not materialized. It remains unclear whether the proposed six EPR project will actually move forward, despite the recent signing of a memorandum between France and India. AREVA/Framatome’s global ambitions for multiple orders for the EPR have failed, with three are remaining under construction, and two are planned in the UK. This is in contrast to the 16-20 EPR’s that the company had sought but failed to secure contracts for during the last decade in Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Finland and France, as well as the United States.