After knocking about for several hours over rough roads through the sparsely populated countryside of Zhejiang Province, passing fields of bright yellow rape seed and dark green winter wheat, the caravan of foreign visitors arrived at a mile-long sea wall. The wall abutted what promises to be China's first commercial nuclear power plant. Behind the concrete embankment, two massive pits had been dug into sedimentary rock, and the reactor shield -- surrounded by scaffolding several hundred feet high -- rose out of one pit. The other pit will contain the seawater intake for cooling the reactor system. Some of the site's more than 600 workers, wearing white plastic helmets, had gathered near a tin hut on their lunch break.
The visitors' eyes were drawn from the workers to the hill behind the reactor tower, which had been cut away to offer a three-sided shield.
On the open side to the north was Hangzhou Bay, with China's largest industrial center, Shanghai, some 80 miles across the water.
Chinese hopes for a domestic nuclear power industry ride largely on the station here in Haiyan. With true nationalistic spirit, it has been named ``Qinshan,'' after the first emperor of the Qin (Chin) Dynasty of 2,000 years ago.
The Qinshan nuclear power plant has taken on new importance this spring because Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng's ambitious plans to build a series of nuclear generating stations using foreign technology and equipment have been postponed. The cost in precious foreign exchange was too high.
To help meet a national energy shortage, emphasis is now being placed on building a nuclear power industry based mainly on domestic technology with minimal foreign assistance.
``For the design and technical work, we are relying largely on our own efforts, but at the same time we'll import some advanced technology,'' said Shi Guozhen of the Ministry of Nuclear Industry. Mr. Shi has been working at Qinshan since construction began three years ago.
The total cost of the plant is estimated at $300 million, of which some $50 million will be spent on imported equipment and technology. Foreign equipment will include a reactor vessel bought from Japan, a reactor coolant pump from West Germany, computer equipment and a neutron flux detector from France, piping and steel from Sweden, cable from Italy, and a turbine generator jointly designed with Westinghouse of the United States.
Qinshan project director Yu Hongfu said that excavation for the 300 mega-watt plant is almost completed, and the Chinese-designed reactor vessel is scheduled for installation next year. If all goes well, Mr. Yu told the Chinese press earlier this month, the power station will be operating by 1989. This would be several years ahead of the 1,800 megawatt nuclear generating station being built at Daya Bay near Hong Kong. That plant is being built exclusively with foreign technology at a cost of about $4 billion. Shi said that the Chinese-designed reactor for Qinshan would be ``almost the same'' as the pressurized water reactors manufactured by Westinghouse. No foreigners are involved in the basic construction, he said, though there may be some foreign technical assistance during the equipment-installation phase beginning next year, and some foreign experts may be invited to help with the commissioning.
China operates 10 small research reactors at universities and institutes around the country. Its first experimental nuclear reactor was operating by 1958, with help from the Soviet Union. In 1984, Chinese researchers successfully produced test plasma in a controlled nuclear fusion experiment. Despite almost three decades of such experiments, there is skepticism about the safety of a commercial-size power station. Chinese engineers have only recently been given access to Western nuclear technology, and they have had no experience operating a commercial plant.
``Because this is the first reactor designed entirely by Chinese engineers, we have larger safety margins and more redundancy in the control systems,'' Shi said.
With an initial capacity of only 300 megawatts, Nuclear Ministry officials say, the Qinshan site can be expanded. Later this year, the ministry will ask the State Council for approval of two additional plants of 300 megawatts each on the same site. The ministry is also developing a proposal for two more reactors, for a total of five at Qinshan, officials said.