China Turns On to Nuclear Power

Qinshan reactor is one of seven the nation will build to relieve electricity shortage in east

DOWN a road blocked by lurching ox carts, past boatmen nudging barges on a still canal, China has begun an ambitious program to reap electricity from the atom.

Since its start up in December, the Qinshan power station has generated the initial current for some 6,000 megawatts of nuclear energy that China hopes to produce by the year 2000.

The 300-megawatt Qinshan plant is the first of at least seven reactors China plans to build this decade to relieve a severe electricity shortage in eastern China.

To paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the pressurized-water reactor south of Shanghai is the "Glory of the Nation."

Mr. Deng's praise for the plant comes as no surprise. It is one of the most conspicuous fruits from his enriching policy of market-oriented reform and opening to the outside world.

The policy of reform and the "open door" has given China the wherewithal to fund the costly nuclear industry and the opportunity to adopt critical technology from abroad, say nuclear industry officials.

Still, for the foreseeable future, nuclear power will be only a small supplement to coal-fired electricity, according to the officials.

Qinshan has a rough, Spartan look that betrays the immense financial and technical difficulties for the first developing country to create a home-grown program in nuclear power.

The austerity of the plant illustrates how, since China exploded its first atom bomb in 1964, most spending on nuclear technology has gone toward achieving military might rather than electric power.

Qinshan technicians work in unheated offices and control rooms just yards away from the humming core of China's hottest and most potent source of electricity.

China has made no effort to make Qinshan look pretty, unlike the approach of many developed countries anxious to ease public distaste for nuclear power.

The scraggy behemoth on Hangzhou Bay was seemingly formed in concrete by the coarse hands of farmers, much like the surrounding squat stone dwellings hauled together during the Qing Dynasty or before.

Nuclear-power inspectors say the inattention to cosmetics at Qinshan does not mean a neglect of safety.

Chinese nuclear officials "are doing their best to make their power plants safe," says Jean-Paul Bember, an inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Agency inspectors have been "very impressed that the Chinese are really following our advice and are very eager to learn," says Mr. Bember, who inspected Qinshan in 1989 and 1991.

But China has not invited the agency to inspect the operation of the plant.

"So I cannot say whether Qinshan is safe in operation," Bember said in a telephone interview from agency headquarters in Austria.

China built Qinshan for $650 million, and it will take 20 years of the plant's 30-year operational life to recoup the cost, says Yao Qiming, deputy general manager at Qinshan.

The plant will serve as a base to train nuclear technicians and is a forerunner for the 600-megawatt plants that will be the standard for the country's nuclear program, according to Mr. Yao.

The official press has not mentioned the essential part that foreign components play at Qinshan: a United States turbine control system, a Swiss steam bypass system, a west German cooling pump, a Japanese reactor-containment vessel, a French reactor-display instrument, and Swedish heat-transfer equipment are included in the installation.

Official paeans to the plant have also neglected to mention that it opened two years behind schedule.

"Before Qinshan, we didn't have any experience in the construction of nuclear-power plants, so it is perfectly normal that it took longer to build than we thought," says Yao.

The plant has been needed for years to help alleviate a debilitating shortage of electricity for industry in eastern China.

Factories in Shanghai and other cities must shut down for several days each month because of a meager power supply, one of the chief hindrances to the rapid growth of the robust coast. Nuclear power will help China overcome a harsh paradox: The country is rich in energy resources, but they are located far from where they are needed, say officials.

Some 90 percent of China's coal reserves are in the northwest. China must allot two out of every five freight cars on its overburdened railways to hauling oil or coal south and east for energy production.

"We must develop nuclear energy in the east; there is no other way out for China," says Li Yinxiang of the China National Nuclear Corporation.

Next year, China plans to start up a 900-megawatt nuclear-power plant at Daya Bay, 30 miles from Hong Kong in the rapidly growing but energy-starved province of Guangdong. The China National Nuclear Corporation will launch a second reactor at the site with the same wattage in 1994 and is considering building another reactor funded largely by Guangdong at Daya Bay, outside Shantou, or at another site in the province.

Moreover, China this year began constructing two 600-megawatt reactors at Qinshan that are scheduled for completion in 1998.

In this decade, it also plans to build two 1,000-megawatt Soviet reactors in Liaoning Province, says Mr. Li, who is the director general of the corporation's administration office.

CHINA'S plans are far from certain; for years its nuclear ambitions have dangled far beyond its grasp.

Because of insufficient funding, China in 1988 scrapped widely publicized plans to build nuclear-power plants with a total output of 10,000 megawatts by the next century.

"In the early 1980s China had very big plans for nuclear energy, but it took time for us to realize we have to invest a lot and master very complicated technology," says Li.

"Now we are on a more practical footing." Despite the new down-to-earth approach, there is apparently confusion over where China will store its nuclear waste.

Beijing insists that the areas that build nuclear plants must take responsibility for storing their own low- and medium-level radioactive waste. The government will accept only highly radioactive materials for storage, says He Jiachen, an engineer at the China National Nuclear Corporation.

But Qinshan's home province of Zhejiang has only enough space to hold 15 years' worth of waste. Once its storehouse is full, it will count on Beijing to ship the waste to Gansu Province or other areas in the northwest, according to manager Yao.

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