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China's plan to become a nuclear energy powerhouse

If China achieves the targets outlined in its Energy Development Strategy Action Plan, it will become the world's nuclear energy leader and fundamentally change the global trajectory of the nuclear power industry.

Data: World Nuclear Association; Note: Output of currently operable reactors measured in net MWe (electrical megawatts), while output of future reactors measured in gross MWe; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios

The big picture: It's not a foregone conclusion that China will follow through on its plans, especially with the public resistance stemming from the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan. But if Xi Jinping and his administration decide to press on, China will be solidly on track to dominate the nuclear landscape.

The backdrop: In 2005, China began planning an aggressive increase in nuclear generating capacity, with a 15-year trajectory in mind. That has the country's energy future set to reach a crossroads in 2020, when the Communist Party will craft its 14th Five Year Plan.

  • China is the world's largest consumer of energy, but in transitioning to a more sustainable pattern of economic growth, its government has committed to moving away from coal toward cleaner, lower carbon fuels, per the 2018 BP Energy Outlook.
  • The country's nuclear sector relies almost exclusively on light water reactors, long considered "a safe bet" and the international norm for nuclear power, according to Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. But since the 1980s, China has been engaging in research and development of "fast-neutron" reactors, which are vastly more efficient.
  • Until now, no country has succeeded in bringing this technology to an industrial scale because of the complexity, high costs and safety risks. In fact, most countries have suspended development of fast-neutron reactors for the last 15 years. So if China were to successfully convert its R&D into commercial deployment, it would significantly change the landscape of nuclear energy.
  • Projections for China's nuclear ambitions depend on a range of factors, but Hibbs says that pre-Fukushima, experts had the figures pegged at 100 power plants by 2030 and more than 400 by 2050.

The other side: Hibbs, who is the author of "The Future of Nuclear Power in China," also said that when China came up with its nuclear plans in 2005, they were based on three key assumptions.

  1. That China's GDP would continue to grow at a level close to 10%.
  2. That power demand would continue to grow at around 8% or 9%.
  3. That fear of nuclear meltdown in the aftermath of Fukushima would dwindle.

In 2018, none of those assumptions are safe. And while the government has pledged to clean its air by transitioning away from fossil fuels, the alternative is currently more expensive and could cause more than 5 million coal miners to lose their jobs.

The bottom line: China must consider these challenges and more as it hurtles toward the 2020 nexus. But if the country succeeds in surmounting the political risks and commercializing advanced nuclear systems, there will be a push worldwide to generalize these achievements beyond China's borders.