Why China’s nuclear energy ambitions are falling flat

It’ll be ready in just six years.
It’ll be ready in just six years.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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At a time when other countries are scaling back their nuclear energy programs, China has been plowing ahead. Its largest nuclear energy companies are considering initial public offerings to raise over $2 billion, and Chinese researchers are racing to build the world’s first nuclear plant that runs on thorium. China’s nuclear reactors account for almost 40% of the world’s total. This year alone, the country plans to add 8.6 gigawatts of nuclear power capability—almost as much as the United Kingdom’s annual nuclear power capacity.

But even as impressive as those numbers sound, nuclear power still accounts for less than 2% China’s electricity. For the past few years, others forms of low-carbon energy sources have widened their lead over nuclear.

Today, about 70% of the country’s electricity is generated by coal-fired plants. Hydropower is the country’s largest source of renewable energy; it produces about 20% of the country’s installed power capacity and accounted for over 30% of new generation capacity installed last year. Wind is also quickly gaining ground:

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Thus, nuclear power’s contribution to China’s goal of reducing its reliance on coal—and, crucially, reducing the air pollution that is choking many of its major cities and contributing to global warming—is likely to be modest for decades to come.

Here’s the latest projection from the US Energy Information Administration:

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Nuclear power has been underwhelming in China for many of the same reasons it has struggled elsewhere: it’s technically difficult, expensive, and resisted by parts of the public. Because nuclear power plants take so long to build, and China’s energy demands are imminent, other forms of renewable energy like wind and hydropower have taken precedence. (Nuclear reactors typically require at least six years to build, compared to around two years for geothermal power plants and just a few months for wind farms.)

Engineering problems and delays are also a major culprit, and may prevent China from meeting its scaled-down nuclear power goals. As Grist points out, even if all Chinese nuclear capacity currently under construction were to become operational in the next six years, China would have reached only 45 gigawatts by 2020, well shy of its 58 gigawatts goal. Advanced plants that could bring higher efficiency, like a thorium reactor, will still require years of work to resolve engineering issues, researchers say.

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Moreover, one of the benefits of nuclear power is that it can be installed close to where it is in demand—in contrast to wind and hydropower—lessening the distance that electricity has to travel along a power grid where some of the power is inevitably lost. But China is spending over 1 trillion yuan ($162.8 billion) to upgrade and expand its grid. As of last year, 84% of the country’s wind capacity was connected to the grid, from 72% in 2011, and the amount of wind-generated electricity wasted in transfer has fallen to 11% from 16% over the same period, according to Fitch Ratings.

Public resistance to nuclear is also a problem in China, which imposed a six-month hiatus on the construction of new nuclear plants after the partial meltdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima in 2011. Last year, a nuclear fuel processing plant in the southern province of Guangdong was canceled because of local protests.