China is Using the Balkans as a Testing Ground to Expand its Nuclear Industry

China is using the Balkans as a testing ground to expand its nuclear industry. Its pursuits in Romania highlight its rush to become a global player.

With the current U.S. administration proving unwilling to assume leadership on climate change, the burden of responsibility on climate progress in the next four years will mostly fall upon the European Union and China.

While Beijing has already rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax, some of its intended nuclear projects, including one quickly advancing in Romania, fail to reflect an authentic commitment to protecting the environment and the fight against global warming, and are likely to substantially set back any climate-related policies and practices.

In January 2016, China General Nuclear Power (CNG) announced that is had received a Letter of Support from the Romanian Government in relation to the development, construction, operation and decommission of Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant’s Units 3 and 4.

These would be 700 MWe CANDU 6 reactors. The project’s total cost is estimated at around $7.7 billion, with the construction expected to be finalized seven years after the contract is signed.

The negotiations regarding the project are still in process. On March 9, 2017, the current Romanian ministry of energy announced that it intends to speed up the negotiations with CGN on the reactors, after they were already extended three times in 2016.  The government is now trying to initiate as soon as possible a government memorandum to be granted a negotiating mandate regarding the CGN.

The project is intended to transform Romania into a regional electricity hub and generate 16,000 jobs. Meanwhile, China is pursuing an expansion of its nuclear projects in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with negotiations that started in December 2016 with the Bulgarian government concerning the Belene nuclear power plant, which would be situated near the Danube. This project had been shelved in 2012, allegedly due to a lack funds.

With the Romanian and Bulgarian nuclear initiatives, China seems to be using Eastern Europe as a testing ground to expand its nuclear industry.

Nuclearelectrica in Romania and CNG are negotiating a possible agreement to establish a joint venture, which would be the sole platform to develop the Cernavoda Project in the future. CGN would own at least 51 percent of the share capital.

Cernavoda Units 3 and 4 were initially supposed to be built by RWE, Iberdrola and GDF Suez, which withdrew their involvement in 2011 due to the impact of the financial crisis on their capital and increased market uncertainties surrounding the project. The investment would have been $4 billion for units of 720 MW.

Situated around 48 kilometers from the Black Sea, the Cernavoda Plant has already had two operational CANDU Units since 1996 and 2007, respectively. In November 2015, these were declared  to demonstrate a high level of security, according to a delegation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

The evaluation found that the plant’s zones of activities were among the safest in the world. The plant’s director, Daniela Lulache, emphasized that the results are due entirely to the staff’s professionalism.

The question remains whether or not, in building the two new units, CNG will continue to uphold these same high standards – especially given the arrangements for the Hinkley nuclear project that the Chinese company is currently developing in Great Britain.

A rapid expansion vision

These plans are all part of China’s tremendous nuclear ambitions worldwide. There are already 36 nuclear power reactors in operation in mainland China, 21 under construction and more to start in the coming years. According to Power Construction Corp of China, a state-owned enterprise, China’s most recent five-year plan anticipates that China will have more than 200 reactors in the coming decades – 110 by 2030 – making it the only country in the world substantially expanding its nuclear energy program. But much of China’s nuclear construction is slated to be built far beyond its own borders.

According to Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based nuclear energy consultant and lead author of The World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, since the 2000s, ‘the Chinese industry has considerably expanded its fabrication facilities, especially of large components, in a situation perceived as a global fabrication bottleneck, getting homologation under the ASME and other international technical standardization criteria.’

Schneider added that the most spectacular effect of the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear disaster in Japan, was, apart from the German nuclear phase-out decision, the Chinese government’s resolution to freeze the licensing procedures for new sites in China for four years, in order to improve their safety and oversight.

This, according to Schneider, remains a highly underreported fact.

“Even though authorization for eight new reactor construction projects have been granted in 2015, it cannot hide the fact that nuclear development in China has significantly reduced in scope and speed,” he said.

Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, expanded on that point: apart from obvious gains, such as financial profits and influence, China’s reason for exporting nuclear power equipment is to gain influence over technology products sold in various foreign countries.

Hibbs added that foreign projects, including in Romania, the UK, South Africa and Argentina, will “boost China’s credibility, because exports will imply that their technology is in demand, affordable and deemed safe to operate.”

Tech export questions

China trying to conquer foreign markets – and influence standard-setting on technology sold there – is, of course, not exclusive to the nuclear sector, but is part of an all-round geopolitical strategy. In November 2016, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China announced that the Asian country had set up a $11.15 billion investment fund to implement projects in Central and Eastern Europe for infrastructure, high-tech manufacturing and consumer goods. According to Xinhua, China has launched the Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative striving to connect China with Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia through two different routes. The B&R consists of infrastructure projects, accompanied by a host of bilateral and regional trade agreements.

Still, nuclear energy technology production is much likelier than most other sectors to raise global eyebrows and make some leaders nervous.

In an interview with The Washington Post in December 2015, He Zuoxiu, a physicist who worked on China’s nuclear power program, compared this nuclear advancement to a ‘clumsy Great Leap Forward,’ bound to lead to disastrous accidents, especially given the extreme speed at which the reactors would be built.

His concerns are likely justified, given China’s poor record of industrial and workplace safety in general. In the first half of 2016, China’s State Administration for Work Safety reported 13,723 work-related deaths, which is 75 deaths each day. Deadly industrial accident are commonplace, since China has prioritized economic growth over safety standards. According to Greenpeace, between January and August 2016 alone, around 29 chemical-related accidents took place each month.

Could Romania be getting a nuclear power plant built with unreliable and unsafe parts? It’s not an unreasonable concern.

Moving upstream

According to Hibbs, one of the most controversial issues facing China’s nuclear expansion is the prospect of reactors far inland, as a scenario in which inland water resources would be contaminated by radioactive release is unbearable.

This is no longer merely a domestic fear now that China is developing nuclear reactors 48 kilometers inland in Romania. Countries like Romania bear these risks if they become host to China’s ambitions. And China is does not intend to stop there.

Becoming a global peer

Hibbs stressed that the biggest barrier to China’s expansionist pursuits in nuclear technology right now is the fact that it is entering a crowded field, dominated by France, the U.S., Russia, as well smaller players South Korea and Japan. China needs to demonstrate that its technology is just as reliable and good as the one offered by others, given its short track record.

There is one big problem with this entire strategy: Thus far, China has only sold one nuclear power plant – to Pakistan, which was inaugurated in December 2016.

Schneider pointed out that, from a geopolitical standpoint, “selling, building and operating” a nuclear plant in a European industrialized country, would mean entering an exclusive club. For him, however, the bigger problem is that there currently is no market, with most of the ‘planned’ reactor projects around the world being ‘obviously fantasy.’

Thus, China’s hopes for a high-profile project in a major European economy – to make its mark – are tempered by the political reality that there is little European appetite for nuclear expansion at the moment. So, China has been settling for deals like that struck in Romania.

Cutting corners?

There is one exception, the aforementioned project in England, but its very existence and execution strengthens the skeptics of China’s projects in places like Romania (or China itself). The British government announced the project in 2010 and a nuclear site license was granted in November 2012, but the construction has been postponed multiple times, finally receiving approval in September 2016. Hinkley has been criticized as too costly and taking too long to build. It’s also been criticized as being bad for UK consumers, and making the UK excessively dependent on foreign sources for its energy, while efforts should really be placed in renewables.

Still, this is China’s symbolic high-profile project, while all other initiatives, including the Romanian one, are secondary. This project, led by France’s EDF, will cost $24 billion, making it the most expensive ever built and double the investment made in the two Romanian Units.

CNG would have one-third of the stake, which is also significantly lower than the 51 percent expected from the Romanian joint venture. A 2017 completion deadline has long since been shifted to 2025, undercutting China’s efforts to build a reputation on this symbolic project. The British project also intends to create 25,000 new jobs, more than both Cernavoda Units.

Between these schedule delays in Britain and the vastly “cheaper” cost China has projected for the Romanian deal, one has to wonder what corners are being cut to give such a good deal to Romania at Cernavoda. Will China take the same care there that it does when the spotlight is on in a major economy?

Whither the nuclear waste?

The Romanian government has received some criticism of its intentions to expand its nuclear energy. In October 2015, Greenpeace reacted to Romania’s decision to invest in nuclear power by stressing that the project is not justified, since, due to its industrial decline and expanding consumption efficiency, Romania has not experienced increasing energy demand.

Greenpeace argues that present and future energy needs could be secured by using less expensive energy sources with a higher degree of flexibility to market demands, given that the nuclear plants produce constantly, even when consumer needs might be low.

Greenpeace has taken a stance against the project since the first deal was reached with GDF Suez in 2012, when it emphasized that the substantial financial, health and environmental risks that Romania would be taking in constructing these two new units were unnecessary.

According to the nonprofit, Romania’s wind energy potential is around 11,000 and a preferable solution.

China’s immense nuclear ambitions around the world also raise serious concerns due to nuclear waste management disposal, which has clear implications for Romania. Nuclear fuel maintains high levels of radioactivity for thousands of years after no longer being used in a commercial reactor.

The solution at the moment is to move the highly radioactive fuel rods to pools of water to cool on racks, submerged in over 20 feet of water. The risk is in case of water leakage from the pool, there is a high likelihood of high levels of radioactive substances spreading in the environment. After the 2011 earthquake, at Fukushima’s Unit 4, water was boiling away in the spent fuel pools due to the hot fuel, reaching close to the top of the fuel assemblies. Only good fortune and makeshift measures prevented disaster from taking place.

The hazard has started to be reduced by transferring the spent fuel in the safer dry cask, which are steel and concrete cylinders that are welted or bolted closed, for up to ten years. The problem is that this can only be done after the radioactive fuel rods have cooled off in the pool for five years.

Still, neither the pools nor the dry casks are permanent solutions for disposing of nuclear waste. The currently proposed permanent solution is burying the waste deep in an underground repository. According to Greenpeace, it is however hard to predict if that will be enough to prevent radioactive leakage of catastrophic proportions for future generations.

According to Hibbs, those planning China’s electricity supply system are counting on nuclear power to reduce up to one half of the country’s total carbon emissions reductions, with the rest being provided by renewables, especially hydroelectricity, solar and wind power. However, Schneider points out that nuclear power ultimately proves itself to be costly, slow and an unviable alternative to other options and that even in countries such as France, where nuclear energy serves as a model, one in five families is energy poor.

As mentioned previously, China has not displayed a record of safety standards that would imply it could handle nuclear waste effectively with a focus on preventing disaster, especially given the speed at which the country is planning to build scores of power plants. The risks would fall mostly on the territories in which China will be building the nuclear units, including Romania.

As the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents have shown, a nuclear disaster has multi-faceted and lingering global consequences that no country, however well developed, currently has the capacity to handle.


Cover photo credit: Wiki Commons

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Raluca Besliu

Raluca is a journalist originally from Romania. She has published extensively on refugees and human rights as well as environmental and international issues. She holds a Master of Science in Refugees and Forced Migration from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from Vassar College. You can follow her on Twitter: @Raluca_Besliu