BEIJING, July 18 (Reuters) - China's state-owned reactor builder said the start-up of the country's first advanced nuclear project based on designs by U.S.-based Westinghouse has been delayed further until at least end of 2015 due to tougher safety checks.
In an interview to official news agency Xinhua on Thursday, Guo Hongbo, a spokesman at China's State Nuclear Power Technology Corp (SNPTC), blamed the delayed start of the "third-generation" AP1000 reactor on stringent safety inspections after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
Originally set to start by end-2013, the project in Sanmen in eastern Zhejiang province was already delayed until December 2014. It has now been pushed back at least another year, after design changes and problems with some components.
The construction delays at the Sanmen project are a further indication of the challenges facing the country as it tries to develop the supply chains and the personnel required to construct and operate dozens of new reactors.
"Safety and quality must come first," Guo was quoted as saying. "We should never trade them just to meet a deadline."
China signed a deal with Westinghouse, now owned by Japan's Toshiba, in 2007 that would involve the construction of the world's first AP1000 reactors at sites on the eastern coast.
SNPTC, established in 2007, began work on four 1,100-megawatt AP1000 units in 2009. Two will be built at the Sanmen site, with the rest built at Haiyang in Shandong province. The deal also allowed China to adopt the AP1000 as the basis for its own domestic third-generation reactor design, the CAP1400.
China's nuclear safety commission said in April that it had identified problems at the Sanmen site, after workers failed to properly install the steam pipe on the reactor pressure vessel.
Xinhua said Guo rejected suggestions that the delay was caused by the U.S. side's refusal to transfer key technology.
Westinghouse was not immediately able to comment when contacted by Reuters on Friday morning, but industry experts said the delays were within expectations.
"December 2015 takes the construction time to six years and nine months, roughly, so for a first-of-a-kind unit that is not entirely surprising, and the Chinese government has always been very meticulous with regard to nuclear issues," said Ian Hore-Lacy, research analyst with the World Nuclear Association.
He said the delays were "trivial" compared to the ones affecting new nuclear projects in Europe and elsewhere.
Calls to Guo's mobile and SNPTC were not answered.
China is in the middle of a huge nuclear reactor building programme that will see total capacity reach at least 58 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2020, up from 17.78 GW at present, and Westinghouse said China could sign deals for another eight AP1000 reactors starting next year.
The country's two major nuclear operators, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the China General Nuclear Project Corporation, also have ambitions to play a bigger role in the global nuclear market.
However, the country's ambitious plans were held back by a moratorium on new approvals imposed after Fukushima and lasting more than a year as the government conducted a nationwide safety inspection at all nuclear projects.
SNPTC's Guo also told Xinhua that the company was now seeking a merger with electricity giant China Power Investment Corp, and plans had already been submitted to the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC).
He said the merger plans were not connected to the problems at the AP1000 projects, Xinhua said. (Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)