1 July 2019

Second European Pressurized Water Reactor Starts Up… in China

WNISR, 30 June 2019

On 28 June 2019, China connected the second European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) at Taishan to the grid. The first unit, Taishan-1, had generated its first power on 29 June 2018. Despite its name, Europe is still waiting for an EPR to come online. One reactor has been under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland since 2005, and another one since 2007 at the Flamanville site in France. Both projects experienced multiple design problems, management failures and quality issues leading to decadal delays. Grid connection still remains subject to uncertainties due to anongoing schedule review at Olkiluoto-3and the decision by French nuclear safety authorities to impose repairs of welding defects in the main steam line at Flamanville-3. As a consequence, the Flamanville EPR will likely see its grid connection delayed to 2022, if it is not joining the long list of abandoned nuclear construction sites (nearly one hundred around the world).

With the startup of Taishan-2, China is now operating 46 reactors, while 11 remain under construction; these provided just over 4 percent of the country’s electricity in 2018. The Taishan nuclear plant in Guangdong province is 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 Taishan project has had its own quality problems. However, Unit 1 started construction in 2009 with Unit 2 following in 2010, four and five years respectively after building began on the EPR in Finland. While the original startup dates 2013/2014 were missed by five years, it is still a remarkable achievement to “come in first” with a “first of its kind” (FOIK). Majority owner China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN-Power) admitted to a cost increase of 40 percent for the two units at Taishan to US$11 billion, which is still less than the current cost estimates of around €11 billion (US$12.4 billion) per unit for the European EPRs. There is no independent assessment of the Chinese numbers.

Evidence of major quality control, production and regulatory oversight failure emerged in June 2014 at the AREVA Creusot Forge plant. In addition to the supply of the vessel heads for the Flamanville EPR, the heads for Taishan were also manufactured at Creusot Forge. The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), described in 2014 the difficulties in following what was happening at the Taishan site. In June 2017, ASN reported that the problems with the Flamanville vessel heads could also impact the top and bottom heads at Taishan EPRs. However, following the ASN decision to limit the license for the Flamanville vessel head to 2025, the National Nuclear Safety Administration of China (NNSA) issued a fuel loading permit for unit 1 in April 2018. NSSA required nevertheless CGN to develop a testing method for its reactor vessel head “as soon as possible”, and that, “if developments fail or test results are unfavorable, the cover shall not be used by the end of April 2025.”

The other major components for Taishan-1 were also 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 all of the main components were made in China: the pressure vessel and two of the steam generators by Dongfang Electric Co (DEC), and the other two steam generators by Shanghai Electric.

The Taishan EPRs have 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 for example that the steam deaerator (a 47-meter long and 5-meter wide piece) 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.