| The new technology is expected to reduce China's heavy reliance on energy from coal-powered plants [GALLO/GETTY]
Chinese scientists have announced a breakthrough in nuclear fuel reprocessing technology that could end the country's energy supply problems, state media have said.
The technology developed by state-run China National Nuclear Corp will enable the re-use of irradiated nuclear fuel, China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Monday.
The technology developed and tested at the factory in the Gobi desert in the remote Gansu province will be able to boost the usage rate of uranium materials at nuclear plants by 60 folds.
"China's proven uranium sources will last only 50 to 70 years, but with the new technology [the] existing detected uranium resources can be used for 3,000 years," the CCTV report said.
The development is an important step forward in China's plans to increase the share of alternative power sources in its energy mix to reduce pollution and achieve energy security.
China has stepped up investment in nuclear power in an effort to slash carbon emissions and reduce the nation's heavy reliance on polluting coal, which presently accounts for 70 per cent of its power needs.
China, as well as France, the United Kingdom and Russia, actively support reprocessing as a means for the management of highly radioactive spent fuel and as a source of fissile material for future nuclear fuel supply.
But independent scientists argued that commercial application of nuclear fuel reprocessing has always been hindered by cost, technology, proliferation risk and safety challenges.
China has 171,400 tonnes of proven uranium resources spread mainly in eight provinces – Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hunan, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Liaoning and Yunnan.
With a massive plans to push into nuclear power, China is making an effort to wean itself off coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. It now has 12 working reactors with 10.15 gigawatt of total generating capacity.
Beijing has set an official target of 40 gigawatts of installed nuclear generating capacity by 2020, but the government indicated it could double the goal to about 80 gigawatts as faster expansion was one of the more feasible solutions for achieving emissions reduction goals.
As such, China will need to source more than 60 per cent of the uranium needed for its nuclear power plants from overseas by 2020, even if the country moves forward with a modest nuclear expansion plan, Chinese researchers say.
China, now the world's second-largest economy after surpassing Japan in 2010, aims to get 15 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.