Processing spent nuclear fuel becoming an urgent issue for China

Want China Times | Staff Reporter | August 29, 2015

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The Tianwan Nuclear Power Station during construction, in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, Dec. 24, 2014. (File photo/CNS)

China’s restart of new nuclear power projects brought attention back to the issue of handling spent fuel, which is projected to reach over 100 tons a year in 2020, according to the National Business Daily.

China approved its first nuclear power project in December 2014 after a suspension following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and the speed of approvals has picked up since, the newspaper said.

According to the China Nuclear Energy Association, a total of 25 nuclear reactors have entered commercial operations with a combined installed capacity of 23 gigawatts (GWs), as of the end of June.

The country’s target to achieve an installed capacity of 58GW of nuclear power is expected to create more than 1,000 tons of nuclear waste a year, the newspaper said.

“The processing of spent fuel is an urgent issue,” said Wu Wangsuo, dean of the School of Nuclear Science and Technology in Lanzhou University, who added that China needs to at least be able to handle the country’s own waste.

It China cannot establish an industry to process the spent fuel, the country will face the problem of finding space to store the nuclear waste, according to the newspaper.

China National Nuclear has built the country’s only facility to store spent fuel outside a power plant before further processing, but designing and building a processing plant that can extract uranium from the spent fuel will take over 10 years, the newspaper added.

The ability to process spent fuel will also help China export its nuclear technology, since it will be part of the negotiations for countries that are unable to handle nuclear waste, said Li Yingfa, a former senior engineer at the Nuclear Power Institute of China.

The Chinese government set up a fund for processing spent fuel in July 2010 for investment in the transportation, storage and handling of the waste and 0.026 Chinese yuan (US$0.004) of the price per kilowatt-hour paid by the grid to nuclear power plants is set aside for the fund, according to the newspaper.

Concerns have been raised over the lack of sufficient funds for the construction of a processing plant, while one industry insider said the government’s rule of not handing out the funds when an unapproved project is in a preparatory phase makes it impossible for any project to begin.

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