If figures released by the China Electricity Council in January are to be believed the Chinese added an astonishing 105 GWe of new generating capacity last year, taking their installed capacity to more than 622 GWe (compared with about 517 GWe in 2005) – a growth rate of over 20%. These are extraordinary numbers even by Chinese standards, nevertheless, at only 0.5 kW per person, the Chinese remain well down the international league table in terms of installed kW per capita – about half the developed country average and six times less than the USA. But they are catching up fast.

Coal remains the biggest single fuel source for power generation, with coal fired capacity rising by 23.7% in 2006 to 484 GWe, according to the CEC, and indeed slightly increased its share of the generating capacity total in 2006, while the proportion attributable to big-hydro declined a little (even though, as CEC reports, big-hydro capacity increased by 9.5%, to 128.6 GWe).

The Chinese government’s National Development and Reform Commission estimates that wind generation capacity increased by 80% in 2006, albeit from a relatively small base, rising from 1300 MWe to 2300 MWe, while the China Renewable Energy Industries Association talks of a target for wind generating capacity of 8000 MWe by 2010.

Markedly increased support for renewables and rapid development of very large (1000 MWe class) wind farms in places such as Inner Mongolia are also envisaged in China’s current (2006-2010) five year plan – now called the “Five Year Guidelines”, to reflect China’s transition from a planned to “socialist market” economy. (Although the high hopes engendered by the new Renewable Energy Law, which came into effect in January 2006, have yet to be fulfilled and it seems to be generally agreed that to really get the wind business moving in China some further reforms will be needed, including changing from an auction pricing system for projects to a feed-in tariff.)

Nuclear power is also very much on the Chinese agenda, as attested by recent developments. This again must be seen against the backdrop of the 2006-2010 Five Year Guidelines, one of the aims of which is to “aggressively promote nuclear power generation.” The wording represented a marked change from the 2001-2005 Five Year Plan, which merely spoke of the need to “moderately develop nuclear power.”

Like wind, however, the baseline is relatively modest – particularly when set against China’s total installed capacity, present and projected. There are currently only nine nuclear units in commercial operation in China, with a total installed capacity of about 6.6 GWe.

Two 1000 MWe Russian supplied pressurised water reactor reactors, at Tianwan, originally scheduled to enter service within the time frame of the previous Five Year Plan (ie by the end of 2005), are expected to be declared in commercial operation within the next few months (following delays reportedly due to corrosion in the steam generators).

There are another four PWR units (amounting to about 3 GWe) currently under construction, while present long term plans (or at least what can be discerned of them) appear to suggest that we might reasonably expect to see a total installed nuclear capacity of about 40 GWe by 2020.

As well as expanding its nuclear generating capacity, China is also showing considerable interest in developing and adopting innovative reactor designs, and seems destined to emerge as a technology leader in the not too distant future.

For many years China has been doing pioneering work on the high temperature reactor and according to China Daily, Huaneng, described as China’s largest power company, has just “officially launched the construction” of a 200 MW high temperature reactor (HTR), at Shidowan, Shandong Province. This is in collaboration with China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Corp and Tsinghua University and will build on experience with a 10 MW HTR prototype designed and constructed by the University’s Institute of Nuclear Energy Technology.

China is also becoming something of a proving ground for innovative pressurised water reactor technology, and in view of the onerous technology transfer requirements that it commonly places on foreign suppliers, this certainly is an area where we can expect the Chinese to take on a leadership role in the coming years.

The Tianwan plants, for example, represent a major evolution of Russia’s VVER technology, with inclusion of a number of passive safety features (see pp 10-12).

But perhaps the most significant step China has yet taken in the area of light water reactor technology was its selection, as announced just before Christmas, of Westinghouse’s AP1000 as “the technology basis” for four new 1000 MWe nuclear units, to be constructed at the Sanmen and Yangjiang sites.

Against the background of the gargantuan scale of China’s power aspirations, 4000 MWe of PWR capacity may not look much in numerical terms. But the potential importance of the AP1000 units for the development of Chinese nuclear technology, and the repercussions for Westinghouse and its (presumably much relieved) new owner, Toshiba – and for that matter the nuclear industry in general – should not be underestimated.

The AP1000, which can be regarded as a Generation 3+ design, incorporates a much higher level of passive safety than any other pressurised water reactor commercially offered to date (including the EPR tendered by runner-up in the Chinese contest, Areva, which has adopted a much more evolutionary design approach, eschewing new passive systems, qualifying the EPR as Generation 3 rather than 3+).

Although the AP1000 is under consideration for about a dozen of the next generation of nuclear units now being planned on Westinghouse’s home turf, in the USA, the Chinese plants, assuming the projects go ahead as planned – final contract details have yet to be negotiated – will be the first AP1000s to enter the construction phase.

Of course, as Atomstroyexport has found, at Tianwan, and Areva, at TVO’s Olkiluoto EPR project in Finland, winning the contract is one thing, but constructing first of a kind nuclear plants to schedule is quite another.

It turns out that one factor contributing to the delays at Olkiluoto (still regarded by TVO’s president, Pertti Simola, as “the best reactor in the world” (according to a statement on 19 December)) was that when site work started the detailed design was only 38% complete. Bearing in mind that a “36 month construction schedule” has been touted for the AP1000, this is clearly a situation that Westinghouse/Toshiba will be seeking to avoid as their hard won and ground-breaking Chinese projects progress, as we hope they will.