At a time when tensions between China and the West are at an all-time high, the 51-point China-France joint statement issued on April 7, after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China, not only advanced mutual political trust, but is also a valuable attempt to seek a balance between power competition and cooperation to solve global challenges.
Justin Vaïsse, the director general of the Paris Peace Forum, emphasized that geopolitics is slowly killing global governance. He believes that China, the United States, and Europe should show more leadership and propose a third way to reach a stable triangle – rather than bilateral confrontation between China and the U.S. In other words, the three sides need to combine competition with cooperation to solve global challenges.
Civil nuclear energy is an area where China and France could seek a balance between cooperation and competition. It used to be one of the priority fields for China-France collaboration in the past four decades, and today their competition on Generation III reactors is also creating potential to cooperate in third-party markets and cutting-edge technology development.
Two months ago, China and France agreed to enhance collaboration in civil nuclear energy, the aerospace industry, and healthcare during the 23rd China-France Strategic Dialogue. They also signed a fourth round of model projects for third-party market cooperation, including seven projects in areas like infrastructure construction, environmental protection, and new energy, covering Africa and Central and Eastern Europe.
From a Master-Apprentice Relationship to Reciprocal Strategic Cooperation
China-France cooperation in civil nuclear energy has been going on for more than 40 years, covering technology research and development, industrial supply chains, personnel training, and post-operation. Their first cooperation agreement on the use of nuclear energy was signed in 1983, covering research, development, production, and application of nuclear energy. Over the four decades since, the China-France dynamic in the nuclear energy sector has shifted from a “master-apprentice” relationship to a reciprocal strategic cooperation.
At present, China and France still maintain close relations at the nuclear power technology, supply chain, and market levels. French nuclear technology played a significant role in China’s third-generation nuclear power technology development. In the 1980s, China Guangdong Nuclear Corporation (CGNPC) imported the M310 nuclear power plant and used its technology to develop China’s first nuclear power model, the CPR-1000, which became the most widely built Generation II-plus nuclear power plant in China. CGNPC went on to develop the ACPR-1000 and ACPR-1000+ based on the CPR-1000, which became the CGNPC solution for the Hualong One.
Today, the French nuclear power industry continues to be a major supplier of machinery and parts to China. For example, the French Famatron AREVA Thermomont main pump is essential for China’s nuclear power facilities, and it needs technical support from French businesses to be maintained and operated daily. CGNPC signed contracts worth $572 million with several global nuclear giants, including Famatron, in November 2022.
In addition, the French electric company Électricité de France (EDF) is the primary foreign investor in China’s energy sector. The company has partnered with China to build and operate three nuclear power plants with six units, and two more units are under construction. EDF continues to own 30 percent of the joint venture in the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant and takes part in daily operations via a contract for technical assistance.
The Taishan nuclear power plant unit 1 – the world’s first French EPR Generation III reactor – was jointly inaugurated by Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018.
Balancing Between Competition and Collaboration
China and France are the main competitors on the international market for Generation III reactors. Currently, according to the World Nuclear Association, “[a]bout 100 power reactors with a total gross capacity of about 100,000 MWe are on order or planned,” and more than 300 more have been proposed. Many of these future reactors will use Generation III reactors is still mostly used in the world’s planning nuclear power facilities.
Companies that own Generation III technology include the U.S. firm Westinghouse Electric Company Limited (the AP1000 reactor), Framatone and EDF (the EPR reactor), the Russian OKB Gidropress (the VVER reactor), and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) and China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), who jointly developed the Hualong One (HPR1000). These companies will compete for over 400 planned or proposed nuclear reactors in the world.
Besides Generation III reactors, the advanced Small Modular Reactor (SMR) has become an emerging battlefield of nuclear energy, with its better safety, flexibility, and efficiency. In October 2021, Macron announced his “France 2030” investment plan, which allocates 1 billion euros to the development of small nuclear reactors. Nicolas Mazzucchi, an energy expert at the French Foundation for Strategic Studies, notes that most countries lack the means to pull off massive nuclear reactors. Thus, a strategic shift to tiny modular reactors will enable France to better adapt to international market demand – and better compete with China.
However, small modular nuclear reactors are still in the early stages of development and have not yet been put to the test in real-world applications.
Besides their competition in the nuclear energy industry, however, China and France remain important partners in expanding into third-party markets. The construction of nuclear reactors requires large-scale financial and technical support, which one company (or even one country) usually cannot afford. Thus, cooperation in the global nuclear energy market helps companies maintain their competitiveness.
Back in September 2016, CGNPC signed a cooperation agreement with EDF and the U.K. government, identifying China’s participation in three projects in the United Kingdom: Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C, and Bradwell B. These three projects are important attempts at Sino-French cooperation in the construction of nuclear reactors in the third-party market. Among them, the first two use the French EPR, while the third Bradwell B is planned to use the Chinese Hualong One.
However, the cooperation did not go smoothly, as the British government bought out all of CGN’s shares in Sizewell C. The construction of Hinkley Point C has also been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic disruption, unexpected inflation, and deterioration of Sino-British relations.
Nevertheless, France will not easily give up the opportunity to cooperate with China in third-party markets. In particular, the nuclear power market in neighboring countries along the “Belt and Road” has huge potential. By 2030, 107 new nuclear power units are proposed to be built in the countries that have joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will add 115 million kilowatts of nuclear power, accounting for 81.4 percent of the world nuclear power market outside China.
On the other hand, European countries are divided in developing nuclear energy. France has been frustrated in its attempts to promote nuclear power in the EU’s renewable targets, while Germany and Spain insist on excluding nuclear power from EU renewable energy goals. In late February 2023, French Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said that she had held a “productive discussion” with her German counterpart at a meeting of EU energy ministers, but did not resolve their differences. Thus, the European nuclear energy market remains uncertain despite France’s ambitions.
Finally, the two nuclear powers can work together to improve existing nuclear technology and develop Generation IV, with their rich experience in cooperating on nuclear power plants. The Generation IV International Forum (GIF), launched in 2000, identified six conceptual systems for Generation IV nuclear reactors: the gas-cooled fast reactor (GFR), the lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR), the molten salt reactor (MSR), the sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR), the supercritical-water-cooled reactor (SCWR) and the very high-temperature reactor (VHTR). Thus, unlike Generation III – which focused on pressured water reactors (PWR) – the scope for research cooperation will be expanded based on these six conceptual systems. The progress of R&D on Generation IV varies among major nuclear powers and different systems; and some companies’ Generation IV technology is estimated to enter commercial operation before 2030.
France is slightly behind China in the development of Generation IV reactors. Due to financial issues, France’s planned 600 MW Generation IV SFR was suspended in 2019. On the other side, China’s high-temperature reactor Gas-Cooled Reactor-Pebble-bed Module (HTR-PM) reached its initial full power successfully in December 2021.
Furthermore, the EDF also maintains close academic exchanges with The China Institute of Nuclear Industry Strategy (CINIS). In their virtual conference in June 2022, François Dassa, head of Prospective and International Relations of the EDF, noted that CINIS’s and EDF’s R&D groups have similar research bases and look forward to further strengthening exchanges and cooperation to conduct multi-dimensional thematic research and improve nuclear contribution to carbon neutrality. Based on diversified and close relations mentioned above, the potential of Sino-French cooperation to develop Generation IV related technologies, and even SMRs, still exists.
In conclusion, a balance between cooperation and competition is critical in China-France relations of civil nuclear energy, but also contributing to a stable triangle among China, Europe, and the United States. Although France and China compete in the global market where Generation III technology dominates, they still maintain potential cooperation in third-party markets and Generation IV technology development. With their commitment to strengthen “mutual political trust” and “promote global security,” the China-France relationship is a possible example to combine power competition with cooperation.