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China starts up world’s first high-temperature gas-cooled reactor

The sun, by Rajiv Bajaj/Unsplash
Beijing-based utility China Huaneng Group (CHGC) has announced the start up of its gas-cooled HTR-PM small modular reactor (SMR) after a nine-year construction, research and technological development project.

The reactor is an advance in China’s development of both SMRs and “gen IV” reactors. Because the HTR-PM is gas-cooled, it could be used inland away from large bodies of water.

So far there are no fourth generation nuclear units in commercial operation, but when they do come online over the course of the next 10 years, they are expected to be superior to the current fleet of second and third generation reactors in safety, fuel efficiency and lifetime cost.

China is working on a number of gen IV reactor designs. The HTR-PM is the world’s first pebble-bed modular high-temperature gas-cooled unit (HTGR). Its developers hope that the design, once it is tested and commercialised, will have huge market potential as a generator of electricity and as part of a hydrogen production plant.

In China, its role will also be to replace coal-fired power plants in the country’s interior, in line with President Xi Jinping’s pledge that China would become zero carbon by 2060.

The reactor achieved its first chain reaction on Sunday, 23 days after the fuel loading process began, and 24 days after the National Nuclear Safety Administration gave its final approval.

CHGC said it would now carry out zero-power physical tests to verify the performance of the core and control rods, as well as the instrumentation. If all goes well, the reactor will be connected to the grid later this year.

The project is being carried out at the Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Plant, in northeast China’s Shandong province. The aim is to develop two HTR-PM reactors and connect them to a 210MW turbine.

CHGC holds a 47.5% stake in the development consortium, with the remaining shares distributed between China Nuclear Engineering Corporation (CNEC) (32.5%) and Tsinghua University (20%). Academics at the university are the research and development leaders of the project. Construction was being led by Chinergy, a joint venture between Tsinghua and CNEC.

Breakthrough technology

Wang Wenzong, a vice president of CHGC, said in a promotional video: “We’ve mastered a series of global and industrial bottleneck technologies, and verified their engineering transformation. Features such as the inherent safety of the HTGR will hopefully expand nuclear power from coastal to inland regions.”

World Nuclear News notes that the project uses more than 2,000 sets of equipment for the first time, and more than 600 types of new equipment, including the world’s first high-temperature gas-cooled reactor spiral coil steam generator.

It also has the first high-power, high-temperature thermal electromagnetic bearing structure for the main helium fan, as well as the world’s largest and heaviest reactor pressure vessel.

No cost has been given for the project, however a report by Tsinghua University said the process of commercialisation should reduce the cost of each reactor by about 60%.

According to World Nuclear News, 18 reactors in total are planned for Shidao Bay.

China is also proposing a scaled-up version called the HTR-PM600, in which one massive turbine will be driven by six HTR-PM units to generate 650MW. Feasibility studies on this concept are reported to be under way in four provinces.

Image: The sun, by Rajiv Bajaj/Unsplash

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