"We didn't authorize the Chinese government to take our technology," adds Bruce Marlow, Areva's vice president for key accounts, based in California. But "I'm sure someone will copy the design." Already, the Chinese have come up with their own version of another Areva design—dubbed the "CPR-1000".
The key will be cost. The NDRC's Guobao noted that nuclear power plants in China can be as cheap as coal-fired power that has been modified to make capturing its carbon dioxide pollution easy. "In China the cost for a nuclear power plant is as low as $1,500 per kilowatt," he said.
"The relative cost of new energy is lower and lower because fossil fuel is more and more expensive," explained Lu Jinxiang, CEO of A-Power, a Chinese builder of power plants, during a visit to the company's Shenyang wind turbine factory. And "perhaps, in the future, there will be heavy taxation or strict limit on the combustion of coal."
Areva has also signed a contract to supply Chinese nuclear operating companies, including China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) and CNNC, with uranium fuel—20,000 tons of the fissile material between now and 2020 for $3.5 billion. And Areva, which handles used nuclear fuel recycling for France, is in discussions to help with China's own plans in that regard, including the possibility of building a reprocessing plant in the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province. "It shows their long-term commitment to nuclear energy," Adams says.
Much like Japan, China plans to make the most of its estimated 170,000 tons of domestic uranium supplies by setting up such reprocessing. Such nuclear fuel recycling involves taking used nuclear fuel rods, separating out plutonium and other fission by-products, and then combining the result with fresh uranium to produce usable fuel—known as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel.
Meanwhile, Japan has struggled to bring its Rokkasho reprocessing plant online, even with the help of Areva, and currently relies on France and the U.K. to recycle its used uranium fuel rods. And Japan's Monju fast-breeder reactor—which would allow both full fuel recycling and use for power generation—has been closed for years due to fires and technical glitches, including a refueling machine stuck in the reactor vessel that has shut the experimental reactor down.
It remains to be seen if China's effort will fare any better, although a pilot plant has been reprocessing limited amounts of used nuclear fuel since 2006 in Gansu. "For China we will do it in the form of recycling because we want to make the full use of our resources," CNNC Hua's said. "Right now, we just store those energy sources temporarily."
China is also expanding its efforts to acquire more uranium globally, purchasing the products of uranium mines from Kazakhstan to Niger and even Canada. And CGNPC hopes to purchase a London-based mining firm—Kalahari Minerals—for access to uranium mines in the African nation of Namibia.
Nuclear power remains one of the few energy sources that can replace coal in China. The nation has already overtaken the U.S. as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter largely because of the more than three billion metric tons of coal it burns annually—and several thousand miners die each year digging up the dirty black rock to feed China's energy needs, not to mention the health toll taken by choking air pollution caused by coal burning in the Middle Kingdom, estimated by the World Bank to cost the country $100 billion a year in medical care. "Any nuclear power plant you build is displacing a coal plant," Westinghouse's Candris says.