Every day for the past month, Chinese engineers have carefully fed bundles of fuel rods into the core of a nuclear reactor at Taishan power station on the edge of the South China Sea in Guangdong province. Inside these metallic cylinders are millions of uranium pellets, each capable of producing as much electricity as a tonne of coal. It is an increasingly common exercise across China as the country expands its nuclear sector to meet soaring energy demand. But fuel loading at Taishan – one of the last steps before it starts producing electricity – carries wider significance beyond China. Taishan, operated by China General Nuclear Power Corp, the state-owned energ y company, is on course to become, within months, the first plant in the world to operate a European Pressurised Reactor – the Franco-German technology plagued by delays and cost overruns since it was designed in the 1990s. “The Taishan 1 fuel loading is a very important milestone,” says Xavier Ursat, head of new nuclear projects for EDF, the French state-backed utility that owns 30 per cent of the project. “It will bring a new image to the EPR.” Few technologies are in greater need of a makeover. When work started on the first EPR as a joint venture of Areva of France and Siemens of Germany at Olkiluoto, Finland, 13 years ago, it was supposed to herald a new era of growth for atomic power. Instead, as construction timetables slipped and German support melted away, the EPR has become a symbol of the nuclear industry’s struggle to remain competitive. EDF, the main surviving corporate champion behind the EPR, is hoping that completion of Taishan will mark a turning point in efforts to convince sceptical investors, policymakers and potential buyers that the reactor can still be a success. At stake is the future of the wider French nuclear sector, which is relying on the EPR for long-term growth, at a time when the country’s dependence on atomic power is being questioned by President Emmanuel Macron ‘s administration. Taishan is the furthest advanced of four EPR projects around the world and, at a mere five years late, the least delayed. Olkiluoto is due to come into service next year, a decade late and nearly three times over budget at €8.5bn. It is a similar story at EDF’s flagship Flamanville plant in France, which is seven years late and €7bn over budget. A further project involving two EPRs at Hinkley Point, south-west England, is not due for completion until the end of 2025, eight years after EDF once predicted it would be finished.

FT 17th May 2018 read more »


Published: 17 May 2018