- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001


BEIJING — As the worst drought in a decade leaves millions short of water in northern China, a handful of officials and scientists are pushing plans to use nuclear power to desalinate seawater for drinking.
Although the technology for nuclear desalination exists, critics say, the cost is likely to be prohibitive for many years to come.
Plans are being vetted for a nuclear-powered desalination plant in parched coastal Shandong Province that would yield 160,000 tons of fresh water daily, said academician Li Zhaohuan of the China Society of Nuclear Science.
He said, however, that the plan is far from winning government approval and would take "at least 10 years" to materialize.
China has one desalination plant in operation — an electric-powered facility on Xingshan island off the coast of Zhejiang Province. It provides only 500 tons of potable water daily, and is designed to meet the needs of a local population previously dependent on water shipped from the mainland at high cost.
A similar desalination plant, to turn out 1,000 tons per day powered by remotely generated electricity, is planned for Shandong's Chang island.
For large-scale desalination, however, the only feasible energy source is nuclear power, Mr. Li said. "Nuclear power is cheap," and the expense of using conventional energy sources to remove salt is prohibitive.
Shandong — short on water and relatively wealthy — is the obvious place to start.
Mr. Li and other nuclear-desalination boosters are plugging for a 160,000 ton-per-day plant in the port city of Dalian. The project would cost "several billion yuan," or hundreds of millions of dollars, but would be able to provide fresh water at a cost of 4 yuan per ton, he said.
That is four times as much as most Chinese consumers are paying for their subsidized drinking water, but it is about on par with what they will have to pay when China's tentative policy of "rational pricing" for water takes hold, industry sources say.
Skeptics, however, say nuclear-powered desalination is a pipe dream. "The real price ends up being more like $800 to $1,600 per ton, if you include all the costs of constructing and maintaining a nuclear plant," said nuclear scientist Dong Duo of Qinghua University's Nuclear Research Institute.
"There is a very serious drought this year in Shandong, so people are kicking around this idea as one possible solution," he said. "But there is no plan for a project yet."
Shandong has no nuclear-power plant, and indeed China suspended all nuclear-power development in 1997 when a host of new thermal generators came on line, creating an energy glut.
"If they are linking nuclear power to the effort to solve China's water problems, I would say that is some very creative thinking," one power analyst told Kyodo.

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