Employees from China National Nuclear Corp’s Southwestern Institute of Physics install experimental research equipment at a nuclear facility in Chengdu, Sichuan province on Sept 16, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Nuclear power to play key role in China’s clean energy plans

China’s “artificial sun”-a nuclear fusion reactor that mimics the activity taking place within our nearest star-could help the country reach its target of producing fusion energy for commercial use by 2050, insiders said.

The new-generation HL-2M Tokamak began operating in December in Chengdu, Sichuan province. It has since achieved its first plasma discharge, said China National Nuclear Corp.

Designed to replicate inner sun reactions using hydrogen and deuterium gases as fuel, the apparatus will provide clean energy through controlled nuclear fusion and is expected to greatly enhance the research and development of key technologies in plasma physics research in China, CNNC said.

China plans to build an experimental reactor as early as this year and an industrial prototype by 2035, and allow it to enter large-scale commercial use by 2050, according to its fusion technology development plan.

Analysts said that as China turns on its artificial sun, this proves that relevant authorities have mastered the key technologies of the design, construction and operation of the self-developed device.

The device, so far the country’s largest in scale and highest in parameters, with a more advanced structure and control mode than its predecessor, is capable of withstanding repeated bombardment by waste particles produced by the hot gas, which carry a huge amount of energy, said Zhong Luwu, a lead scientist with the HL-2M project from the Southwestern Institute of Physics under CNNC.

Joseph Jacobelli, an independent energy analyst and executive vice-president for Asia business at Cenfura Ltd, a smart energy services company, said that while nuclear fusion is a long way off, it is believed China definitely has the will, the technological know-how and the capital to develop the technology.

“An enormous amount of research and development still needs to take place so it is difficult to gauge its future in China or elsewhere at this stage. But the country’s need for clean energy means that nuclear power generation definitely has an important place in the long term energy mix,” he said.

Jacobelli added that while safety is not so much of a concern with fusion reactors, the cost per kilowatt-hour will be important, especially as solar, wind and other clean energy solutions become even cheaper over the next few years.