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China’s Nuclear Energy Gambit

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China Power

China’s Nuclear Energy Gambit

Nuclear power has emerged as an option for Beijing as it continues its struggle to transition to a cleaner, low-carbon future.

China’s Nuclear Energy Gambit
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China, the world’s biggest climate polluter, recently released a comprehensive three-year action plan on how to clean up its air and soil. The country intends to employ a number of tactics to cut down on its emissions, from developing green forms of transport to making industries more efficient to instituting a nationwide cap-and-trade program. Despite these initiatives by policymakers, however, China’s need to decarbonize is so acute — the country faces around 1.6 million premature deaths a year due to pollution — that further efforts will be critical for China to meet its climate commitments. One of the options Beijing has been turning to is nuclear energy.

The State Council has repeatedly affirmed this need for further initiatives to control air pollution and ensure that the air quality continues to improve. “[China] should further markedly reduce the density of fine particulate matter and the number of days of heavy pollution within three years,” read a statement released following last month’s executive meeting, identifying the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as the “main battlefield” in the fight against air pollution.

One essential element of this war on smog is finding a new source of baseload power to replace coal, which still provides over 60 percent of China’s energy mix. Analysts have projected that China’s coal consumption will peak between 2020 and 2040, though some have argued that the peak may have already occurred and that from now on, China’s economic growth will be decoupled from its coal usage. Some statistics seem to back this up — though national energy consumption increased by 1.4 percent in 2016, coal’s share of consumption fell from 64 percent in 2015 to 62 percent the following year.

In most countries, emissions have yet to peak. Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy use shot up 1.6 percent in 2017, a climb fed by both emerging and developed countries. In India, greenhouse gas output increased by a full 4.4 percent. In the European Union, the world’s largest carbon market, energy emissions increased by 1.5 percent. At present, few countries have concrete plans compatible with the Paris Agreement’s goals — even Germany, for example, has admitted that it will miss its 2020 climate targets by a wide margin. While China traditionally hasn’t been known as an environmental champion, it now seems determined to be at the forefront of reversing the trend of rising emissions.

In order to wean itself off coal and reduce environmental pollution while continuing to grow its economy, Beijing is increasingly turning to nuclear energy to feed the country’s hunger for power in a more sustainable way. China currently has 39 nuclear power reactors in operation, with another 20 currently under construction, and plans for still more reactors. According to the 13th Five-Year Plan for power production released by the National Energy Administration (NEA), nuclear is expected to provide 8 percent to 10 percent of China’s electricity needs by 2030. Despite the administration’s zeal for advancing its nuclear capabilities, however, China’s domestic industry is struggling to find the deep expertise needed to reach these targets.

As a result, China has been looking for nuclear know-how from abroad. Russia has emerged as one viable supplier of nuclear technology, particularly now that many countries — including Japan, Germany, and Switzerland — have abandoned nuclear in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, while others, such as the United States, are decidedly refocusing on fossil fuels. Earlier in June, China National Nuclear Power Co. Ltd. and Russia’s Rosatom inked a multibillion dollar agreement, the biggest nuclear energy deal between the two giants over the last decade.

Under the deal, Russia is set to build four generation three-plus VVER-1200 reactors: two at the Xudabao power plant in China’s Liaoning province, and two others at Tianwan in Jiangsu province. Given that the latter location has already been pegged as a testing ground for Russian nuclear technology, the latest deal confirms China’s ongoing commitment to a bilateral energy partnership in which Russian technology provides a springboard for a state-of-the-art nuclear industry in China.

One potential reason why China has chosen to enter into closer cooperation with Russia rather than other exporters of nuclear technology is its past experiences with European and American-run projects, which have been characterized by persistent delays, technical problems and cost overruns. For example, China’s first third-generation AP1000 reactor designed by U.S.-based Westinghouse is projected to be completed by November this year — more than four years behind schedule, after being beset by safety concerns and design changes.

In a similar vein, the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) in China’s Taishan, partly managed by French state utility EDF, finally carried out its first nuclear chain reaction earlier this month. This was a world first for the technology; a similar reactor in Finland, built by a consortium between Areva and Siemens, is now on target to be completed a full 10 years late, while the Flamanville EPR project in France is running more than six years behind schedule, despite its cost ballooning to more than three times its initial budget.

Given this pattern of delays and bloated budgets, it’s not surprising that China is looking to Russia instead to provide the technology it is hoping will slash its carbon emissions. A variety of factors, however, including China’s desperate need to provide low-carbon baseload power to underpin the large amounts of renewable capacity it is bringing on board, mean that the Chinese market has ample demand for Russian-built nuclear projects as well as those from other international partners.

In fact, gaining experience with a variety of countries’ latest-generation technologies could be a strategic move for China’s domestic nuclear industry, which could then incorporate the best of each into its own designs. China’s huge population and high rate of economic growth will always be a challenge as it seeks to keep its skies blue, but the recent nuclear deal and the release of its three-year-plan are encouraging signs that China is trying to do its part to transition to a cleaner, low-carbon future.

Anthony Kleven is an economic risk consultant. The views expressed here are his own.