Staff members work in the main control room of Taishan Unit 1 of Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Taishan, south China's Guangdong Province on Dec. 20, 2018. (Xinhua/Deng Hua)
GUANGZHOU, Jan. 12 (Xinhua) -- It was in late 2011 when a crucial decision needed to be made by Deng Zhengping, assistant general manager at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant and his colleagues -- shall they make Taishan the world's first EPR project to be completed?
EPR, or European Pressurized Reactor, is a third-generation nuclear power solution supplied by the French giant Framatome. The "double-wall" containments designed for Taishan EPR units can protect the reactors from accidents such as earthquakes and even a direct hit from a plane.
With higher safety and quality standards than previous reactors, the solution has been adopted in several countries.
Construction of EPR projects in Finland's Olkiluoto Unit 3 and France's Flamanville Unit 3 began in 2005 and 2007, respectively, four and two years earlier than at Taishan. But Deng saw his chance to catch up and even surpass his European counterparts.
"Some people didn't believe we could make it. But I was confident based on our ability and experiences," Deng told Xinhua. "But if we wanted to be the first, we'd better get prepared as soon as possible."
Of course, they wanted to be the first. But it was risky -- to take the lead in the construction of a new type of reactor meant that they would encounter numerous challenges and difficulties, which would probably result in severe expense overruns and project delays.
It also meant that they could not learn from others' lessons. Instead, they had to write the textbook for themselves and for EPR projects worldwide.
They made the decision in the second half of 2012 and gained positive feedback from other major companies involved in the project, especially Framatome, the designer of EPR.
New chapters have since been written by Taishan Unit 1 -- dome roof lowered into place, cold and hot functional tests completed, linked to the grid and finally passed a 168-hour demonstration run in mid-December 2018, fully ready to be put into commercial use.
Taishan Nuclear Power Plant is built and run by TNPJVC, a joint venture founded by China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), Electricite de France (EDF) and Yudean Group.
He Yu, chairman of CGN, the world's largest nuclear construction contractor, said that the Taishan project would offer valuable lessons and solutions for the construction of similar reactors worldwide, and it will play a demonstrative and supportive role in the joint construction of the Hinkley Point C project in the UK by CGN and EDF.
Jean-Bernard Lévy, EDF Chairman and CEO, praised the commissioning of Taishan 1 as "a key achievement for the entire French nuclear industry," as it demonstrates its capacity to develop third-generation nuclear technology.
CGN and EDF stressed that the Taishan project has benefited from 35 years of strategic cooperation between the two companies, which started with the construction of China's very first commercial nuclear power plant at Daya Bay in Shenzhen, China's special economic zone.
Their cooperation is also in pace with China's reform and opening-up in the past four decades, when the country turned from a follower to an active player in the global sector of nuclear power and clean energy.
The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant is located in Chixi Town in the city of Taishan in the southern coastal province of Guangdong. Rice planting was once the pillar industry there.
Two huge gray color domes are the new landmarks -- with an unprecedented capacity of 1,750 megawatts each, unit 1 and unit 2 of Taishan are the largest and most powerful nuclear reactors in the world.
Liu Yu, a construction manager with TNPJVC, joined the project in 2009 with excitement. "My major in university was reactor engineering. So building these third-generation reactors means a lot to me."
"At the beginning, we just followed the pace of Olkiluoto-3 and Flamanville-3. It was comparatively easy, as they were carving out the way for us," Liu added.
Fabrice Fourcade, senior vice president of EDF and its chief representative in China, told media during a press conference in Beijing that EDF has contributed operating experience from the construction of its Flamanville-3 EPR, and the use of this experience was a crucial factor in successfully completing the initial phases of the Taishan project.
However, the situation changed quickly. In 2011, Taishan progress caught up with Olkiluoto-3 and Flamanville-3. In addition, Liu found that his partners from EDF and Framatome were expecting more advise from him than before.
He was as nervous as he was excited. "It was our turn to carve out the way for them. Our European counterparts had shared their knowledge with us generously, and we would offer our hands to them as much as we could."
In the past 40 years, China saw the fastest development of the nuclear power industry in the world. The Chinese mainland currently has more than 40 operating nuclear power units and the largest number of units under construction in the world.
Guo Ruiting, vice engineer-in-chief of construction with Taishan, also worked at Daya Bay and Ling'ao nuclear power plants, witnessing the rise of these units.
"At first, we were like pupils and the French engineers were our teachers," Guo recalled. "But now we've become equal partners, with our own strengths."
From his perspective, it was China's accumulation of construction and operating experience that made a difference.
"China has been building nuclear units continuously over the past 30 years and developed an excellent team of construction, operation and management, as well as generations of outstanding technicians and skillful workers."
Fourcade shared a similar view. He emphasized that China has been building two or three nuclear plants on average annually over the past 15 years, which is similar to what happened in France 30 years ago.
Liu found that more and more Chinese experience was sent to Europe, as were Chinese engineers. And Deng Zhengping once dispatched over 30 of his technicians to Finland to assist in the construction of Olkiluoto-3.
According to Deng, the Chinese engineers provided important advice on dome roof hoisting, large volume concrete integral pouring, equipment manufacturing and system debugging, which were proven useful in Europe.
EDF revealed that Flamanville-3 will complete fuel charging in 2019. Fourcade said that the success of Taishan is a huge encouragement to Flamanville-3 in France and Hinkley Point C in the UK.
Apart from Flamanville-3, Unit 2 at Taishan is also approaching a milestone in 2019. According to Guo Limin, general manager of TNPJVC, Taishan 2 is now in hot functional test mode and will be ready for commissioning next year.
Besides construction, other Chinese elements may also contribute to EPR projects worldwide, Deng said.
"We have both foreign and Chinese suppliers, and all of them are industry leaders," He explained. "They work together closely to improve quality and reduce cost. These materials and equipment will make EPR more profitable to the power plant proprietors and therefore, provide cheaper clean energy to the users."
"One example was the plugging material that we used to block tiny holes. Our Chinese supplier can produce low-price material that fully meets European standards," Deng added. "And Chinese manufacturers can also make large steam turbines. Cost reduction will make EPR more competitive and benefit both the clients and the developers like EDF and Framatome."
Most equipment used for the Taishan EPR project was designed and developed by European and Chinese companies. Guo Limin believes that the fruits of these cooperations will be more obvious during the project's long-term operation.
Chinese experience and expertise will not only serve other EPR projects but also other new types of reactors, said Guo.
Both CGN and EDF took advantage of the complementary relationship between the Chinese and French nuclear industries to increase their knowledge base and gain new business opportunities.
The two companies have joined hands in international market exploring and are working together to build three nuclear power projects in the UK.
Besides Hinkley Point C, the two companies are also partners in the Sizewell C EPR project and the Bradwell B project, which adopt China's Hualong technology.
Just two days before Taishan 1's commissioning, the first load of a total 4,500 tonnes of concrete was poured on the foundation raft of Hinkley Point C, marking the commencement of its main construction.
Fourcade told media that the construction site in Somerset in southwest England is now the biggest in Europe, equalling 245 standard football pitches.
The Bradwell B project is now under site investigation. At the same time, Hualong technology is going through Generic Design Assessment (GDA) by British authorities and has reached the third phase.
EDF has provided great support in Hualong's assessment, based on its abundant experiences in the British market, said CGN.
Gao Ligang, president of CGN Power company, said during a press conference that from Daya Bay to Taishan and Hinkley Point C, the nuclear power sector has become a key area of China's opening-up. CGN will carry on its in-depth cooperation with their French partners and strive for the development of clean energy at home and abroad.