China goes nuclear

Additional reporting by David Whitford and Scott Cendrowski

The containment vessel for the AP1000 nuclear reactor rises like a colossal lighthouse on the coast of the East China Sea. Jutting 230 feet into the air, the steel and concrete tower under construction will house two steam turbine generators, a 312-ton water and coolant tank, and a fission reactor. Come 2015, this atomic furnace will turn out 1,100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes — and there’s more on the way. Another reactor is being readied at the same site in Sanmen, with two more under construction elsewhere and another eight planned, as China drives to nearly quadruple its nuclear energy capacity by 2020.

Developed by Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric, the AP1000 at Sanmen Nuclear Power Station in China’s Zhejiang Province is the first of its kind and reportedly cost $3 billion to build. Four more Westinghouse reactors, the most advanced design certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are under construction in the U.S. — two at the Vogtle plant in Burke County, Ga., and another pair at the V.C. Summer station in South Carolina — the first of which are expected to begin operations in 2017. And three more will be built in the U.K.

Yet no country comes close to matching China’s appetite for atom-splitting power. The People’s Republic is currently building 29 reactors (designed by Westinghouse and others), according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. That’s four out of every 10 new plants in the world. Russia, the world’s next most active nuclear-plant builder, has 10 reactors under way; India has six.

MORE: Asia’s fission frenzy

The drivers behind China’s nuclear ambition are straightforward: a soaring demand for electricity (China became the world’s largest consumer of energy in 2010) and the population’s desperate cries for clean air (see the related feature story). “Pollution is one giant problem,” says Harvard professor Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom. That’s largely due to China’s heavy use of coal, a fuel source that comes with a logistical challenge too, Bunn says: the need to move it in massive amounts around the country. The nuclear transition addresses that as well.

China’s mad rush of reactor-building is a remarkable bright spot for an industry that has largely been in hunker-down mode since the 2011 accident at Fukushima. The mammoth earthquake and tsunami that pummeled Japan’s coast three years ago, leading to a nuclear meltdown, tempered talk of a budding renaissance for the industry. Fukushima, along with a global recession, “resulted in a bit of a pause,” says Jeff Benjamin, senior vice president for nuclear power plants at Westinghouse — a pause that he says “refocused the debate” on nuclear-plant safety.

But outside experts say the latest-model reactors are designed with new safety features, using forces like the pull of gravity, condensation, and natural convection to reduce the risk of meltdown. In the case of Fukushima, safety systems reliant on electricity to operate water pumps and valves failed when the power went out; in the new reactors, tanks atop the containment vessel are poised to rain down cooling water, even if the electricity falters. In the event of an accident, the systems would operate for 72 hours with no human action required.

Though most of the blueprint for the new reactor was approved by the NRC two years before Fukushima, Westinghouse president and CEO Danny Roderick says his company carefully studied the lessons of the disaster and determined “that the AP1000 would have withstood those events.” He predicts that his company will sell 30 reactors across the globe by 2030, as governments consider factors like energy security and pollution concerns and utilities weigh the steady cost of nuclear-power generation against the volatility of natural-gas prices.

The big question is whether the atomic building boom will come to America. The U.S. has 100 commercial nuclear reactors (in 62 plants) in operation today, but virtually all are decades old. Prior to the Vogtle Plant in Georgia, where the two Westinghouse reactors are being built, the most recent construction permit for a new plant was issued in 1978. Given that reactors have a typical lifespan of 40 to 60 years, Roderick believes we are headed for an “energy cliff ” if planning for replacement reactors doesn’t happen very soon.

Meanwhile China is roaring ahead. The country is eager to develop and export its own nuclear-energy technology. Within two decades, says Benjamin, China may top the U.S. to become the largest nuclear market in the world.

This story is from the April 28, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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