By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China plans to gamble on the bulk deployment of its untested "Hualong One" nuclear reactor, squeezing out foreign designs, as it resumes a long-delayed nuclear programme aimed at meeting its clean energy goals, government and industry officials said.
China, the world's biggest energy consumer, was once seen as a "shop window" for big nuclear developers to show off new technologies, with Beijing embarking on a programme to build plants based on designs from France, the United States, Russia and Canada.
But after years of construction delays, overseas models such as Westinghouse's AP1000 and France's "Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor" (EPR) are now set to lose out in favour of new localised technologies, industry experts and officials said.
China signed a technology transfer deal with the United States in 2006 that put the AP1000 at the "core" of its atomic energy programme. It also pledged to use advanced third-generation technology in its safety review after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
But by the time the world's first AP1000 and EPR made their debuts in China last year, Chinese designs had become just as viable.
Though China has yet to complete its first Hualong One, officials are confident it will not encounter the delays suffered by rivals, and say it can compete on safety and cost.
Beijing has already decided to use the Hualong One for its first newly commissioned nuclear project in three years, set to begin construction later this year at Zhangzhou, a site originally earmarked for the AP1000.
"The problem with AP1000 – the delays, the design changes, the supply chain issues and then the trade problems – has forced their hand, and it has become Hualong," said Li Ning, a nuclear scientist and dean of the College of Energy at Xiamen University.
He added that China's licensing procedures would also be an advantage for the home grown tech. "For the Hualong, there are four reactors already under construction and one of them is near completion already. It is a Chinese design so it wouldn't be very hard to license the next four," he said.
EDF, France's state-run utility, which helped build the EPR project at Taishan in Guangdong province, declined to comment. Westinghouse, now owned by Brookfield after entering bankruptcy restructuring, also did not respond to a request for comment.
China's ambitions for the Hualong One extend overseas as well. The first foreign project using the reactor is under construction in Pakistan and the model is in the running for projects in Argentina and Britain.
"(Hualong One) is competitive," said Li Xiaoming, assistant general manager of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). "The technologies are now just about the same as those of the United States, France and Russia."
"This is the foundation that we will rely on for our future survival and our international competitiveness," Li said.
China already has four Hualong Ones under construction, with the first, in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, set to go into operation late next year, ahead of schedule, said Huang Feng, a member of the expert committee of the China Nuclear Energy Association.
"China has already become one of the small number of countries that has independently mastered third-generation nuclear power technology, and it has the conditions and comparative advantages to scale up and go into mass production," he told an industry conference.
As Beijing gets ready to commission eight reactors a year in order to meet its 2030 clean energy and emissions targets, construction speed will be a crucial consideration, benefiting local developers.
Huang said the estimated costs of Hualong One and the AP1000 were now roughly the same, and much now depended on scaling up production to cut costs and allow the Chinese design to compete not only with other reactors, but also with coal-fired power.
Li of CNNC said while foreign-designed projects would still be built, it would "make no sense" to rely on foreign technology if China's own domestic reactors were equally safe and reliable.
"There are probably some technologies where we will continue to cooperate, but overall we will gradually turn to our own," he said.
(Reporting by David Stanway; editing by Christian Schmollinger)