Intelligent Energy

WikiLeaks: U.S. fears unsafe nuclear reactors in China

WikiLeaks: U.S. fears unsafe nuclear reactors in China

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Diplomatic cables from Beijing say old designs lack passive cooling and pose a big risk. But some experts say China will show the way in modern, safe nuclear.

China is “vastly increasing” its risk of a nuclear accident by choosing older nuclear technology that lacks advanced cooling systems, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Cables sent three years ago from the U.S. embassy in Beijing express concern that China’s aggressive nuclear power expansion leans heavily on the country’s own “CPR-1000” design, which lacks passive cooling systems, the Guardian notes.

Passive cooling does not rely on external power to drive circulation of cooling fluid. In older, power-reliant cooling, pumps can fail in an outage. That’s what happened at the Fukushima plant in Japan in March, when the tsunami knocked out backup diesel generators and reactors overheated.

"As the CPR-1000 increases market share, China is assuring that rather than building a fleet of state-of-the-art reactors, they will be burdened with technology that by the end of its lifetime will be 100 years old," says one cable dated 7 August 2008. “China is vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet.”

You can read the WikiLeaks cable as provided by the Guardian here.

The Guardian says that the CPR-1000 has been “the most popular design” for China over the last 10 years, and that 20 of 22 nuclear plants under construction in 2009 used the design.

Contrary to the tone of the cables, some nuclear experts believe that China will play a leading role in the future of nuclear power by develoiping and deploying modern technologies as it constructs as many as 100 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years – nearly a quarter of the total of all reactors in the world today.

It is currently building four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, which deploy passive cooling (the “AP” stands for “advanced passive”).

It is also has ambitious research and development underway in several other nuclear technologies, including molten salt reactors, thorium, fast neutron reactors, pebble bed reactors and fusion. Some of these could be potentially safer and more effective than conventional designs.

Photo: constructiondigital.com

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure