China gears up civilian nuclear power
(Agencies/China Daily)
Updated: 2008-06-09 10:51

China's nuclear power firms aim to join the auto and electronic companies as export powerhouses, analysts say, but massive domestic expansion plans may not leave them the capacity to make an overseas push for more than a decade.

A $1 billion deal signed late last month with Russia to build and supply a uranium enrichment plant in China was another step toward civilian nuclear independence, less than two decades after its first nuclear generator came on stream.

The country last year sealed deals with France's Areva and US-based, Japanese-owned Westinghouse for several third-generation reactors, and the blueprints to allow them to develop domestic version.

And they have mastered the construction of older models at a speed that is impressing Asian neighbors who cannot afford or are not allowed to buy nuclear models sold by Western firms.

Countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are keen to build plants to convey a sense of modernity and to cut their fuel bills.

"They know the Chinese have a lot of money and they're not necessarily as rigid as Western investors," says Eurasia analyst Bob Herrera Lim.

"The Chinese could be the accelerator. They could say 'we're willing to take a longer-term look because these countries have a strategic value to us'. And obviously there's a lot of policy behavior in many of their companies."

And the timing couldn't be better for China, as the fight against climate change and the search for cheaper energy sources revives global interest in nuclear power.

"Their technology will improve, and worldwide demand is big so when it starts to grow at a high pace again, Areva, Westinghouse and other nuclear reactor suppliers cannot meet it on their own," says Colette Lewiner, analyst at Capgemini.

"I know it is serious because (the Chinese) told me they are looking for partners to export the technology."

But China is also ramping up its domestic nuclear expansion plans, targeting a total of 60 gigawatts by 2020. Its current nuclear capacity is only 9 GW, under 2 percent of its total installed power generation capacity.

And its own experts admit they will have to devote most of the country's technical know-how and a large portion of both listed and State-owned firms' capital to what will be the fastest nuclear build-out the world has ever seen.

It will need to start construction on about 4 new generators a year through 2015 to meet its ambitious target.

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