Mark HibbsRethinking China’s Fast Reactor

At the beginning of 2017 a little more information percolated to the outside world concerning the hazy official particulars of China’s aspirations to “close the nuclear fuel cycle” by deploying fast breeder reactors and reprocessing plants. What’s coming across adds to other information suggesting that this program for some time has been subject to an ongoing internal and high-level re-evaluation.

This is the first of two posts on this subject. The second post will treat recent information concerning industrial-scale spent fuel reprocessing.

Toward the end of the first week of the new year this item appeared in my e-mail queue. The report was interesting because, in announcing a new contract for fuel to be provided by Russian fabricator TVEL for the 20 MWe China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR), it suggested that CEFR will continue indefinitely to use highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

Since the CEFR project was launched in the 1990s, and as late as 2013, scientists at the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE), who are leading the way for China’s breeder program, indicated that CEFR would after a trial period be fueled with mixed plutonium/uranium oxide (MOX), and that MOX would be chosen as the initial fuel for the first of a line of industrial-scale, power-generating breeders; construction of the first reactor was aimed to get underway before 2020.

Six years after the reactor went critical and approaching two years after MOX fuel was scheduled to be loaded, so far neither Russia nor China has announced that any MOX fuel would be delivered for CEFR, nor that any MOX has been inserted into the reactor.

During the 2000s China aimed to set up a MOX fabrication plant based on Belgian technology on the Plant 404 site at Jiuquan in Gansu Province. Belgium, according to European officials, would not agree to terms set by China and the project was scuttled. Instead China designed and built an indigenous pilot installation to make 500 kilograms of MOX per year and began operating it in 2013.

I looked around this month and found no information from China pointing to any loading of MOX in CEFR. I’m told on good authority there’s no MOX in the reactor. If CEFR has not yet loaded MOX, two possible and complementary explanations come to mind.

The first is that the Chinese plant has so far not been able to make the fuel (or enough of it) for CEFR. Russia—a country with deep fast reactor experience and China’s partner for the CEFR since the project got underway during the Soviet era—may not be prepared on relatively short notice to make this fuel for Chinese specifications at mutually acceptable terms.

A second possible explanation for continued HEU use in CEFR is that China may be reconsidering the fuel strategy for its future fast reactor program. If that’s the case, China might be looking at going forward right off with alternative fuels, for example, zirconium-uranium/plutonium metal fuel that China and U.S. national laboratories, under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in the Bush administration, committed to cooperate on beginning in 2007. If so, it would not make sense for China to design, qualify, license, and manufacture a tiny amount of MOX fuel–at considerable expense–for a pilot fast reactor that has hardly operated and might not serve as the design basis for breeder reactors that China builds in the future. U.S. officials say U.S.-China fast reactor cooperation has been more limited since the Obama administration defunded most of GNEP. But China’s breeder program remains interested in the development of zirconium fast reactor fuel technology that is also planned for the U.S.-supported Terrapower breeder reactor initiative, and the longer term vision for China’s fast reactor program includes an eventual transition to metallic fuel.

Other developments would suggest that China’s fast reactor strategy has been under review. The essential facts are these:

  • After an R&D effort that got underway a quarter-century ago, China has one pilot fast reactor, CEFR. It went critical in 2010 and has infrequently operated since. Most of the know-how and key equipment for CEFR was provided by Russia.
  • After CEFR finally started up, the next planned step in China’s breeder partnership with Russia was construction of one or two BN-800 fast reactors in China. The BN-800 is an industrial-scale power-generating reactor (800 = 800 MWe). The deal for BN-800 in China—according to some Russian sources—collapsed over money, technology transfer terms, and intellectual property rights.
  • Nonetheless, last Nov. 7 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia that included joint work on design and development of advanced fast reactors.
  • Since the mid-2000s China and France have been cooperating on the nuclear fuel cycle on the basis of an MOU that links China’s biggest nuclear state-owned enterprise, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), with French nuclear industry champion Areva. This partnership includes plans to build a spent fuel reprocessing plant in China. But there is no cooperation between Areva and any Chinese organizations on fast breeder reactor design, development, or deployment.
  • There are unconfirmed rumors that GE-Hitachi is approaching China about its Prism sodium fast reactor design.
  • What remains concerning foreign technology opportunities for China is a potential project to build a breeder reactor with Bill Gates’ Terrapower outfit. This emerged as a possibility after the U.S. firm a couple of years ago raised its game in China by proposing a second reactor design more attractive to CNNC. Gates’ first approach—a “traveling wave” reactor meant to burn a plug of uranium like a cigarette without interruption for half a century—didn’t get a lot of CNNC traction. There are two power reactor-sized designs at issue for China: TWR-P, a prototype, followed by a commercial model called TWR-C. Does the U.S. government support Gates’ project in China? Yes.
  • China is part of two international cooperation arrangements to advance progress on development of new fast reactors. One is the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). The other is the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO). But these programs do not provide China any intellectual property to build an industrial-scale fast reactor.

All the above leaves China with the option of designing and building an industrial-scale demonstration breeder reactor on its own.

According to Chinese media in 2015, CIAE’s longtime leading breeder scientist, Xu Mi, said that China was ready to build a 600 MWe fast reactor at a site called Xiapu in Fujian Province (Fujian had been tagged in earlier reports as the selected location for the two BN-800 breeders that didn’t materialize).

This report said construction would begin in 2017. That’s right now. So if this is for real, what’s the design for this reactor? Who did the engineering? Is all the IP Chinese? Is the project beyond the preliminary design? Is there a detailed design? What is the fuel cycle for the reactor? Who will make the fuel? What happens with the spent fuel? Did China’s nuclear regulator, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), certify the design for a big fast reactor and award the requisite approvals? Who will pay for the project, for its anticipated cost overruns (just ask Germany, France, US, UK, Russia, India, and Japan about whether that is likely), and for the extra cost for power generation associated with the reactor? (Chinese utilities know very well that electricity production in non-PWR nuclear power plants will be more expensive than in PWRs).

According to Chinese industry sources, several years ago CIAE had changed its mind about a demo 600-MWe breeder and began advocating construction of a 1,000-MWe reactor instead. If a 600-MWe unit is currently again favored, the calculation of the balance of plant will be different than for the bigger reactor.

The sum total of these developments so far suggests that China’s default strategy for industrial fast reactor deployment may, like France and Japan previously, begin with a large demonstration nuclear power plant. But not all the components for this way forward in China are in place. The design of the reactor is not complete. If China, like France or Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, builds a one-off demonstration or prototype unit, that installation could likewise become a stranded asset. The ultimate bottom line is that if China wants to operate an industrial-scale fast reactor for electricity production using plutonium fuels anytime during the 2020s, it will need an inventory of separated plutonium that right now it doesn’t have.


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

    Re your last para, does this have implications for warhead stockpile growth at a time when MIRVs are coming on line?

  2. Mark Hibbs (History)

    Michael, your question approaches a discussion we could have and inside governments no doubt has occurred concerning the relationship between China’s “civilian” nuclear power program and its defense program. “Civilian” is in quotes because there is no strict distinction between the two in China in certain areas. CNNC, the company responsible for industrial-scale nuclear fuel cycle activities in China, has been involved in both peaceful-use and non-peaceful-use processing of nuclear fuel. The same goes for France, where Cogema, the company out of which Areva was created, was involved in defense and peaceful nuclear activities including in areas where power applications and defense applications were not strictly separated. That said, the amount of separated plutonium that China would need to start up a plutonium-fueled industrial-scale prototype or demonstration fast reactor would approach what is commonly assumed to be China’s stockpile of military plutonium, i.e., something between one and two metric tons. In part for this reason the logic has been that if China in the future, as CIAE and other proponents advocate, deploy a number of big fast reactors, they would need a capability to produce much larger quantities of plutonium than would be available in China’s military program, so long as China indefinitely continues to suspend production of weapons fissile materials, which has been since the late 1980s. Hence the rationale for the long-envisaged reprocessing plant that would be built in China on the basis of cooperation with Areva, an installation that could provide China’s breeder program maybe 8 MT Pu/year–amounts of Pu that dwarf what’s in China’s military stockpile. Nonetheless, the assumption in France is that an Areva reprocessing plant operating in China would be under IAEA safeguards. We could speculate about why.

  3. Halvor (History)

    Interesting considerations! Is there any reason why China would object to INFCIRC/66 on a reprocessing plant meant for civilian applications? Halvor.

  4. Mark Hibbs (History)

    Halvor, I could think of one major objection: China is an NPT nuclear weapon state. To my knowledge, there’s no safeguards by design program for a 200 MTHM/y reprocessing plant based on indigenous IP, that China is setting up. That’s not the case for preparations for an Areva plant that would be built in China at a later date should that still happen. My sense is that if you ask 10 people in government whether it makes sense to safeguard a reprocessing plant in a NWS including China, 5 will say yes, and 5 will say no.

  5. Halvor (History)

    Thanks, Mark! Yes, there’s obviously a question of cost/benefit by doing something that expensive in a NWS. Two valid reasons may be strengthening PRC’s own transparency credentials, and not least assuring the world that the SNM from that facility stays in the civilican nuclear sector, like in the US – India deal.

  6. djysrv (History)

    The URL cited from Neutron Bytes mis-reads the text. What I wrote was the prototype is expected to be under construction between 2018 and 2023.

    “The first TWR, a 600 MW prototype, is expected to demonstrate key plant equipment, qualify the fuel and materials for longer term use, and provide the technical, licensing and economic basis for commercial TWRs. This prototype is expected to be constructed between 2018 and 2023. After testing and optimization, 1150 MW commercial plants are expected to be licensed with start up in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

  7. Mark Hibbs (History)

    Thanks for your clarification on what the Chinese have told you about the timeline for reactor construction for a 600-MWe breeder. No idea where that 5-year schedule is from…perhaps their experience in replicating Gen-II PWRs?

    Neutron Bytes published this:

    According to English language news media in China, that country’s government plans to begin building a pilot fast nuclear reactor in Fujian province in 2017.The report first appeared in Shanghai’s China Business News in mid-August.

    According to that report, Xu Mi, a frequently cited researcher at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said construction of a pilot project for a fast neutron reactor in Fujian’s Xiapu province is set to begin at the end of 2017. The pilot plant will be a full scale facility with a capacity of 600 MW.

    I’ve seen other Chinese commentary citing Xu Mi as claiming 2017 is when they could start construction. Xu Mi talks to a lot of people in the outside world, including especially non-Chinese, to generate support for his project. He’s been doing that for a long time. I met him the first time in 2007.

    In response to this blog post this week, I have been shown non-public materials that also refer to the 2017 date for this project.

    If as you say the dates you were given were 2018 with a finish in 2023, that’s even more reason to question how solid the project planning for this is. Five years is a tall order for a country to build and commission an electric power reactor using a non-PWR technology with hot sodium circuits, plutonium fuel that it doesn’t have so far, and so far no experience in fabricating and irradiating MOX fuel. It took China almost 20 years from start to finish for the CEFR pilot breeder. That may be special case and the Chinese know how to shorten learning curves. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch that in five years’ time they will put a big industrial demo breeder on line after operating a 20 MWe reactor for (so far) what amounts to less than a year of full-power operation. Might be prudent to finish the design of the reactor before predicting when it will be finished…

  8. djysrv (History)

    The TerraPower reactor is separate from the other 600 MW advanced reactor. China is placing multiple “bets” on these types of designs.

    • Mark Hibbs (History)

      I agree it is separate. But this is the New Normal in China, as President Xi says. They aren’t likely to build a number of different fast reactor concepts at industrial scale. One concept will prove to be expensive enough. TWR’s fuel cycle is totally unrelated to what they would have in mind if they in fact go through with using MOX in a 600-MWe demo breeder. Of course if Terrapower were to pay China for the privilege of building the project in that country–as some Chinese would like to see happen–then all bets, as you say, would be off…!

  9. nuclearhead212 (History)

    Two questions, Mark.
    1) What source do you have for the rumors behind China and GE discussing PRISM cooperation?
    2) Theoretically, what is holding China back from investing time in adopting a development of PRISM?

    • Mark Hibbs (History)

      Who told me about Prism in China would not appreciate me outing him, sorry. Suffice it to say that Jack Welch for many years made sure that GE was never a player in China’s nuclear free-for-all and his successor’s interest in it came too late to figure in China’s LWR decision making. Prism is what is left. There may be some design features in Prism that are interesting to CNNC. I can’t gauge China’s potential interest and off the bat I wouldn’t bet on them building Prism unless someone else pays for it–like what we hear are Chinese ideas about building TWR: “You pay us to build your reactor and you also give us the technology.” The ultimate kowtow.

      Theoretically China could build it or a permutation. But there would have to be 1.) commitment by China’s top leadership to do it including at the CPC, 2.) resources including personnel that know about fast reactors and aren’t tied up by CNNC for projects it already favors and is overextended on already (incomplete design for CDFR, no fuel cycle expertise, etc.) and of course the money. They could probably find investors, but at some point China would have to explain to them that building Prism isn’t just like cookie-cutting another Gen-II PWR and that by doing this they would be assuming serious project risk.

  10. djysrv (History)

    TerraPower involved its China partners early in design work including supercomputer simulations of reactor core. See my published interview from May 2016 with CTO John Gilliland here

    While TerraPower has not made public the financial details of their relationship with CNNC, it is plausible to assume that cost sharing, as well as technology transfer, are elements of the deal.

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