China’s contested nuclear future

The expansion of China’s nuclear power production faces some serious challenges

Xu Yi-chong

Environment & energy, Trade and industry | East Asia

5 February 2016

China has ambitious plans to grow its use of nuclear power, writes Xu Yi-chong.

At the November 2014 APEC summit the Chinese government announced its target to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 or earlier, and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy from 11.2 per cent in 2014 to 15 per cent by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2030. As electricity generation and consumption contribute over 40 per cent of the country’s total CO2 emissions, China has been rapidly expanding renewable sources of power generation, hydro, wind, solar PV and nuclear.

As of the end of 2014, Chinese renewables accounted for 16.7 per cent of the global total, up from just 1.2 per cent a decade earlier. Electricity generated by nuclear power plants also grew at a rapid rate, more than doubling between 2007-2014. By the end of 2015, 31 nuclear reactors with 25.5 Gigawatt (GW) capacity were in operation, producing about 2.4 per cent of the total electricity in the country, with another 23 units under construction.

China has set ambitious targets for renewable sources of power generation for 2020: 420GW of hydro (although this has been revised down to 350GW already), 200GW of wind power, 100GW solar power, and 58GW of nuclear. These targets may be necessary for China to reduce its reliance on coal (which currently generates about 80 per cent of the country’s electricity), but the expansion of nuclear power faces some serious challenges.

First, to meet the target of 58GW nuclear power capacity in operation by 2020, China would have to more than double the size of the current nuclear capacity. This means at least another 40 reactors would have to be built.

At present, China has 31 reactors in operation located in 16 sites, all along the coastline. An immediate challenge is where to put another 40 reactors. The nuclear industry in China does not think it is ready to build them in highly populated inland provinces, even though some provinces have been pushing for the central government to allow them to build nuclear power plants. Two related siting challenges are: firstly, it has become increasing difficult to get public acceptance of large infrastructure projects, especially nuclear power plants; and second, reactor models adopted and developed in China are all large-scale ones, with a capacity of 1000 MW each – the larger a unit is, the more land it needs, and the broader impact it will have.

More on this: The new nuclear race | Micha’el Tanchum

The second issue is the reactor and its associated technologies. The nuclear fleet in China consists of reactors from all major producers – the American Westinghouse AP 1000, the French EPR 1400, Canadian Candu reactors, Russian VVER, in addition to two main branches of the Chinese models. Technology selection has been a serious issue in China from the very beginning as the more models one has, the more difficult to mature and standardise technologies of reactors and those of associated elements, such as the cooling system, turbine pumps, condensers, and many others. All that means it is difficult to reduce costs.

It also makes very difficult to regulate the industry. The fragmentation of China’s nuclear industry and rivalry among the major players has seriously undermined its capacity to develop a globally acknowledged brand name and accepted technologies. The recently approved Hualong reactor is supposed to be an advanced model and the product of collaboration between the China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Corp (CGN) but the two are still fighting for position in Chinese nuclear development.

The third challenge is regulation. The first set of regulation on nuclear energy development and safety was adopted in 1980, as required by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to start a nuclear energy program in China. It was a carbon copy of the American nuclear law, drafted with the help of IAEA and a group of scholars brought in by IAEA.

In 2010, the central government decided to upgrade nuclear regulations and develop a nuclear safety law. The initiative was driven in part by China’s international obligations as a member of IAEA and a signatory country of international conventions, and in part by the need to clarify the role of government regarding its military and civilian nuclear programs, and by the tension between the central and provincial governments over who has what power over nuclear development. Public demand is a further factor, with increasing public awareness of issues relating to the siting and operation of major nuclear companies.

The efforts to develop a set of regulation have so far failed because of the disagreement among various government agencies, nuclear companies and the tension between the central and provincial governments. The fragmented regulatory authority, the rivalry among government agencies, and inadequate human capacity of regulatory agencies are the key factors undermining the governance and regulatory capacity in China.

Finally, China’s nuclear future faces the challenge of the energy reality: as the economy has been undergoing structural changes, demand for electricity has slowed down. Nuclear expansion may help China deal with some of the problems of air pollution and CO2 emissions, because its development will inevitably affect coal-fired thermal power generation – and this utilisation rate has already fallen dramatically. But traditional power companies, nuclear companies and those engaging in wind and solar power development are competing for market share, for resources, and for government attention and policy support, often backed by local governments and their industrial allies.

The nuclear industry is a global industry: its future depends on its safe development not only in China but also elsewhere. Its safe development depends on technology maturity and effective regulation, both of which remain problematic in China. An aggressive overseas expansion of CNNC (in Argentina, Pakistan, and its ambition in Africa and Eastern Europe) and CGN (in UK, Thailand, Vietnam and others) adds only more uncertainties.

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Xu, Yi-chong. 2017. "China’S Contested Nuclear Future - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/chinas-contested-nuclear-future/.

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