BEIJING, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Scientists in China have developed nuclear fuel reprocessing technology that would extend the life of the country's uranium deposits from 70 to 3,000 years, Chinese state media said.
The technology, developed at state-run China National Nuclear Corporation, is capable of boosting the usage rate of uranium materials at nuclear plants 60 fold, CCTV said.
The World Nuclear Association says that uranium demand in China is expected to reach 20,000 tons annually by 2020 but the country would be able to produce just 2,400 tons that year. China's detected uranium resources are estimated at slightly more than 170,000 tons.
"We're among the few countries that can implement the recycling of nuclear fuel … we, to some extent, lead the world in this field," Sun Qin, general manger of CNNC, China's largest nuclear generator, was quoted by CCTV as saying.
China aims to boost its nuclear power capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2020 from the current capacity of just more than 9 gigawatts. There are 12 nuclear power plants operating in the country and 25 reactors under construction. Nuclear power accounted for about 2.2 percent of China's electricity generation by the end of 2009.
China now relies on coal to generate 70 percent of the country's power.
Lin Boquiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, pointed out to English-language newspaper China Daily that the technology is still at a very early stage but if it can be employed for practical use China could be self-sufficient.
While the United States, Europe, Russia and Japan may have been the first to develop the nuclear reactor, "the Chinese are catching up quickly," Ziggy Switkowski, outgoing chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Where China is likely to take the lead, Switkowski said, is that it is building reactors "faster than any other country."
An editorial in China Daily, while somewhat skeptical of the technology, said the new development was "a marvelous leap forward" and would help ease the country's growing energy needs.
"Technological feasibility aside, the new-found capability inspires us to hope, that one day the radioactive properties of all spent fuels from our nuclear reactors may be recycled and fully exploited," it stated.
Pointing to the dangers of China's current approach of keeping spent fuel containers in special water tanks, the editorial said there is no guarantee that "each and every precondition to ensure safety will always remain satisfied."