World’s First High Temperature Reactor Goes Commercial… in China

Internationally, the commitment to developing nuclear power is strong, and the nuclear energy industry is alive and well, as was seen at the World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE) that took place in Villepinte, on the outskirts of Paris, Nov.28 to 30. However, of the more than 700 exhibitors from 76 nations, only 29 were from Germany, where the government’s anti-nuclear policy is driving an erstwhile pioneer in the technology into irrelevance. But other countries, in particular China, are developing technologies that were originally designed by Germans. That is the case of high temperature reactors, for which a testing installation was in operation in Jülich from early 1974 to late 1987.

As the Villepinte exhibit was ongoing, the World Nuclear Association reported that the Chinese had begun commercial operation of a High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor Pebble-Bed Module (HTR-PM), following a successful 168-hour demonstration run of two such modules, each with 200 MW, in August and September. That makes China the world leader in the research, development and application of fourth-generation nuclear power technologies.

The HTR-PM, based in Shidaowan, uses helium as coolant and graphite as the moderator. The fuel embedded in graphite pebbles has high inherent safety characteristics at temperatures even higher than in extreme accident situations, according to the China Nuclear Energy Association. The core technology incorporates quite a bit of the original German approach, but the Shidaowan reactor has more than 2,200 sets of first-of-a-kind equipment, and the supporting fuel element production line has the largest production capacity in the world.

The project is a collaborative effort, involving Tsinghua University the China Huaneng Group and China National Nuclear Corporation. A Tsinghua spokesperson explained that the tests confirmed that “commercial-scale reactors could be cooled down naturally without emergency core cooling systems for the first time in the world. It is the so-called inherently safe reactor. The major purpose of HTR-PM is to co-generate high temperature steam up to 500℃ and electricity. It is cost effective currently in the Chinese market to supply steam and electricity for the petrochemical industry to substitute the burning of natural gas and coal. This breakthrough technology is recognised to play a positive role in optimising energy structure and achieving China’s ‘dual carbon’ goal. Several commercial projects are under preparation in China.”

Beyond being an important step in China’s national industrial development strategy, the HTR-PM is relevant also for future exports to other countries, particularly those where fresh water resources are too scarce to serve as a coolant for reactors. This is the situation in many countries of the Global South, whose governments are committed to nuclear power development.

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