Azara Blog: Pebble bed nuclear reactors in China

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Date published: 2005/02/08

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

China is poised to develop the world's first commercially operated "pebble bed" nuclear reactor after a Chinese energy consortium chose a site in the eastern province of Shandong to build a 195MW gas-cooled power plant.

An official representing the consortium, led by Huaneng, one of China's biggest power producers, said the proposed reactor could start producing electricity within five years.

If successfully commercialised, the pebble bed reactor would be the first radically new reactor design for several decades. It would push China to the forefront of development of a technology that researchers claim offers a new "meltdown-proof" alternative to standard water-cooled nuclear power stations.

China and South Africa have led efforts to develop "pebble bed" reactors, so called because they are fuelled by small graphite spheres the size of billiard balls, with uranium cores. The reactor's proponents say its small core and the dispersal of its fuel among hundreds of thousands of spheres prevents a meltdown.

Advocates of "modular" pebble bed reactors argue they offer the hope of cheap, safe and easily expandable nuclear power stations a potent appeal for China, which is struggling to meet huge growth in energy demand while avoiding environmental disaster.

Pebble bed reactors are small, which suits remote and rural areas and makes them easy to expand.

The reactor's supporters also argue that the technology is secure from proliferation. The low-enriched uranium fuel consists of half-millimetre-sized particles of uranium dioxide encased in graphite and silicon carbide, which in turn is encased in a graphite ball. Experts say it is expensive and difficult to process such spent fuel. Plans for a rival pilot plant near Cape Town, developed by Eskom, the South African power utility, US-based Exelon and British Nuclear Fuels, have been stalled by environmental challenges.

Well you can never believe any claims made about a new technology (like everything else in life, it is over-sold) but hopefully China will be able to make something of it. Soon the West will not have to worry about preventing technology from reaching China, they will have to worry that technology is not going the other way.

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