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Sino-French nuclear ties expand from power plants to 'artificial sun'


The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France, September 9, 2021. /CFP
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France, September 9, 2021. /CFP

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France, September 9, 2021. /CFP

China and France expanded their collaborations in the nuclear sector from power plant constructions to the quest for an artificial sun.

The two countries have yielded fruitful and beneficial development since they established diplomatic ties six decades ago.

China has contributed significantly to the international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), reflecting the big progress in China's national fusion program, said ITER Director-General Pietro Barabaschi.

ITER is a globe-spanning collaboration of 35 nations set in motion in 1985. China, among the seven principal members of the project, is responsible for the development and manufacture of the whole magnet supporting system, or about 9 percent of the project's construction and operation.

The ITER, or "artificial sun," a carbon-free source of energy, is designed to yield 500 megawatts of fusion power from 50 megawatts of input heating power for at least 400 seconds continuously. Built in southern France by seven ITER members – China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States – the facilities will be the world's largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment device and the largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor.

China has been contributing extensively to the development of the "artificial sun." The latest breakthrough was in August 2023, when the new-generation "artificial sun" achieved high-confinement mode operation with a plasma current of 1 million amperes for the first time, proving China's controllable nuclear fusion capabilities.

"I'm really very impressed. When I worked in ITER in the 1990s, China was not part of the project. I gained a lot of experience more recently, and I also witnessed in my recent trip to China the level of development in fusion research in general," said Barabaschi in an interview with Xinhua in December.

The nuclear project between the two nations dates back to 1987, when China's energy appetite soared amid an economic boom.

Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant. /CFP
Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant. /CFP

Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant. /CFP

Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant is China's first large commercial nuclear power plant, and it marked the beginning of nuclear power cooperation between China and France. At the present, a quarter of the electricity used in Hong Kong is generated by this plant, which has been running safely for three decades.

The construction of the nuclear power station started in 1987 and was completed after seven years in 1994. French companies helped train Chinese engineers to operate the nuclear power plant, and many of the main technologies were also imported from France.

According to Li Li, director of China General Nuclear Power Corporation, the entire reactor was imported from France, which is the core component of a nuclear power plant. "At that time, it was the world's highest safety-rated nuclear reactor. I have full confidence that it can continue to operate for another 30 years, or even longer."

"We continue benchmarking with French nuclear power plants. We have consistently found there are many aspects in which we still need to learn from them. Of course, peers in France would also come to us for benchmarking. Decades ago, we were students, and peers from France were teachers. Now, we are friends."

Since Daya Bay, China and France have also collaborated on several other nuclear power projects, such as the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong, which is developed and operated together by the two countries. In 2023, the two countries also signed new cooperation agreements in nuclear energy during French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to Beijing, paving the way for further collaboration.

At present, China boasts over 50 operational nuclear reactor units. The domestically designed third-generation nuclear reactor Hualong One has been applied for commercial use in many plants, which makes China the fourth country globally, after the United States, France and Russia, to possess the core technology of third-generation nuclear power technology.

China also completed the core module assembly of the world's first commercial small modular reactor (SMR), Linglong One, in August 2023. This marked a historic step in the miniaturization of global nuclear energy and confirmed that China is at the forefront globally in terms of modular SMR construction.

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