By Geert De Clercq
LONDON (Reuters) - Toshiba-owned nuclear reactor manufacturer Westinghouse expects to connect its first 1,000 megawatt medium-sized nuclear reactor to the grid in China early in 2017 and sees the country building a fleet of them in coming years.
Four AP1000s are under construction in China, and when the first goes online, three years behind schedule, it will be a world first for a third-generation reactor.
With better safety features than the current 400 or so second-generation reactors operating worldwide, they are more complex to build and both Westinghouse and its French competitor Areva have faced years of construction delays.
Jose Gutierrez, interim chief executive of Westinghouse, told Reuters at the World Nuclear Association conference that following final-stage hot-testing of the Sanmen 1 reactor in China's Zhejiang province, fuel will be loaded end-2016, with start-up and grid connection due early 2017.
He said timing would depend on Chinese authorities.
Zheng Minghuang, vice president of China's State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC), told Reuters at the conference that he expects grid connection at Sanmen in January, with commercial operation starting by May.
The second AP1000 at Haiyang, in Shandong province, should follow about one month later, Zheng added.
"The commercial date in the contract was November 2013 start. That is a delay of more than three years ... We are doing our best," he said.
Gutierrez said that in 2017/18 Westinghouse will have four AP1000 reactors operating in China, adding that the firm's Chinese partners plan to build several more AP1000s.
"We expect to see a fleet of AP1000 reactors in China ... We don't know how many China wants to build, but it could be tens," he said.
Gutierrez said that the first two of four AP1000s under construction in the United States would come online in 2019, with the next two in 2020.
Westinghouse placed the reactor vessel in its first U.S. AP1000 reactor at V.C. Summer, South Carolina, in August and expects to place the one in the reactor at Vogtle, Georgia, in October. Each of the sites will have two AP1000s.
In India, Westinghouse is in talks with state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) about a contract to build six AP1000s. During a visit to Washington in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the intention was to have a contract in place by June 2017.
Gutierrez said he was not yet sure whether the contract for the site in Andra Pradesh would be only for reactors or would also include fuel and services.
Unlike Areva and Russia's Rosatom, Westinghouse has no mines or enrichment facilities but provides fuel to its customers via contracts with uranium miners and enrichment companies.
Westinghouse - 87 percent owned by Japan's Toshiba, 10 percent by Kazakhstan's Kazatomprom and 3 percent by Japanese nuclear equipment maker IHI - is one of the few private operators, along with GE Hitachi, in a nuclear industry dominated by state-owned players.
Westinghouse is also in talks with Bulgaria about building an AP1000 there, following the signature of a contract in 2014 for the construction of a reactor at the Kozloduy site.
The Balkan country, which operates two Soviet-made reactors, is keen to reduce its energy dependence on Russia but progress has been slow.
"Frankly speaking, we are not progressing as fast as we would like to, but we will see," Gutierrez said.
In Britain, the NuGen consortium, owned by Toshiba and Engie, plans to build three AP1000 reactors in Cumbria. Westinghouse expects to finalise the Generic Design Assessment in the first quarter of 2017.
"We are progressing extremely well with the British regulator," Gutierrez said.
Although the AP1000 is licensed in the United States and China, all new reactors need to be licensed in every new country they enter - a process that takes years.
Gutierrez said that Westinghouse is also pursuing new reactor sales in other countries, including in the Czech Republic, Poland and South Africa.
He added that the United Arab Emirates is also thinking about buying more reactors, while Vietnam and Saudi Arabia are also possibilities.
(Editing by Anna Willard and David Goodman)