China switches on world’s first ‘third-generation’ nuclear reactor

China switches on world’s first ‘third-generation’ nuclear reactor

By Luke Vargas   
Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Company
Courtesy: Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Company

A new generation of nuclear reactors incorporates 'passive' safety features designed to function in power outages or other emergencies.

WASHINGTON – China flipped on a new generation of nuclear energy reactor on Friday, a milestone that nuclear campaigners hope makes the technology more appealing as the world seeks to limit carbon emissions.

The “third-generation” reactor known as EPR was manufactured by French and German engineers and contains redundant safety features like fail-safe valves that remain either open or closed, or use battery power, to maintain reactor cooling in blackouts or other emergencies.

There are even more of those “passive” safety features in another third-generation reactor, the AP1000 designed by the U.S. firm Westinghouse.

Dr. Ashley Finan is the executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

“One example is a pool of water above the reactor which would drain into the reactor if the reactor lost the ability to circulate coolant. So you have gravity that drains the reactor. Gravity always works.”

But just because third-generation nuclear reactors are cutting-edge, that doesn’t mean they’ll be popping up all over the U.S. just yet, thanks in part to the low price of natural gas.

Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

“Right now, at least in the United States, new nuclear is not particularly competitive. And so the big challenge for industry is to come up with ways in which they can construct new nuclear plants to be cheaper than they are now.”

Finan says even if market forces limit the appeal of building new nuclear plants in the U.S., the U.S. can’t afford to sit out the nuclear renaissance unfolding overseas.

“Chinese and Russian leadership in the global nuclear energy trade has really overtaken the U.S., and it strengthens their ability to use nuclear energy as a geopolitical lever. We have an immediately but perishable opportunity to support our technology innovation domestically and to support our industry in the expert market so we can regain a leadership position.”

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