Bucking the Trend: Nuclear China in a Post Fukushima World

Bucking the Trend: Nuclear China in a Post Fukushima World

By Tim Daiss

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) anticipated World Energy Outlook, which projects energy trends to 2035, was released on November 12.

In its report the IEA states that global nuclear generating capacity will reach some 580 GWe in 2035, 10 percent less than the IEA forecasted a year ago.

However as often is the case, China bucks the trend. The report states that while “ambitions for nuclear have been scaled back” by some countries following Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, capacity is projected to rise, led by China, Korea, India and Russia.

Not only is China bucking the trend by increasing its nuclear capacity, its share of projected energy demand is staggering. The IEA projects global energy demand to increase from 12,380 million tons oil equivalent (toe) in 2010 to 16,730 million toe in 2035. China will account for the largest share of this growth, with its demand increasing 60 percent by 2035, followed by India and the Middle East.

The IEA expects global electricity demand to grow over 70 percent by 2035 to almost 36,637 TWh – over half of this growth will be from China and India.

It’s this rapid growth in energy demand that has caused so many problems for the Middle Kingdom, including power outages, over reliance on coal and hydrocarbons as well as unprecedented pollution. According to a 2007 World Bank report, economic loss in China due to pollution was 6 percent of GDP. That figure has undoubtedly grown in the last five years.

Facing twin pressures of chronic pollution and skyrocketing power demand, China’s nuclear ambitions have also soared. However, the country has a long way to go. In 2011, China’s power generation mix included coal at a whopping 83 percent, followed by hydropower at 14 percent, wind at 1 percent and nuclear power at just 2 percent.

As of May this year, China had 15 nuclear power reactors in operation for a total capacity of 12,538 MW. But that will soon change. The country has 26 new nuclear power reactors under construction that are expected to be operational by 2015, totaling 37,020 MW, three times the current level, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


China’s nuclear expansion plans can best be described as aggressive. The country had set a goal to make nuclear the foundation of its power generation until Japan’s Fukushima disaster in March 2011 put the breaks on China’s plans. China, which was propelling itself forward at an unprecedented rate in its nuclear ambitions, pulled back, issuing a moratorium on all new nuclear plant approvals and announcing that full safety checks of existing reactors would be conducted.

According to a UPI report, just prior to the Fukushima disaster, China announced a plan to become the world’s leader in nuclear power by 2020, with more reactors to be built by that year than the rest of the world combined.

However, on October 24 the pendulum started to swing in the other direction again when China’s State Council ended the year-and-a-half moratorium on new nuclear projects. The move is also expected to help China fulfill its commitment of cutting carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 17 percent from 2010 to the end of 2015. Then further by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level, according to the China Daily.

As soon as news broke that the moratorium had been lifted, China’s nuclear machine kicked back into high gear. As on cue, Xinhua reported on October 31 that China had built its first experimental fast neutron reactor, which will help make better use of nuclear energy.

According to the report, the reactor passed official checks after 20 years in development. The China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE) said that the breakthrough makes China one of the few countries to have experimental, power-generating fast reactors.

On November 11, it was announced that China Nuclear Engineering Company (CNEC) was planning an initial public offering (IPO) to support its nuclear projects. CNEC, China’s leading nuclear project builder, plans to issue 525 million A-shares on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, worth 1.8 billion Yuan ($286 million) to fund six projects. This was the company’s second IPO attempt. Its first IPO in early 2011 was cancelled due to the impact of the Fukushima disaster.

Yet, China appears to be proceeding with caution. The country will only approve a small amount of new reactor plans before 2015 with the stipulation that only the highest possible third generation safety standards would be permitted.

The State Council stated that China will not construct any nuclear projects in inland regions, but only construct a few projects in coastal areas that have gone through adequate “justification processes.”

Albeit, state-owned China National Nuclear Corp., (CNNC) which operates more than 40 percent of the country’s nuclear sites, announced on November 12 that it would speed up overseas uranium mining exploration, to meet growing demand.

The World Nuclear Association states that China will soon possess some of the world’s most advanced nuclear reactors, which will give a five-to-six fold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 60 GWe by 2020, then 200 GWe by 2030, and 400 GWe by 2050.

To put all of this into perspective, of the four countries that the IEA forecasts nuclear capacity to rise in, India has 20 reactors, 7 under construction, 18 planned and 39 proposed, while South Korea has 23 in operation, 4 under construction, 5 planned but none proposed. Russia has 33 reactors, 10 under construction, 24 in the planning stage and 20 proposed. China, with 15 operating nuclear reactors, has 26 under construction, 51 in the planning stage and 120 proposed.

The Paris-based international think tank Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said last week that China’s economy is expected to become the largest in the world, toppling the US from its lead by 2016.  If so, the Middle Kingdom will need all the help it can get fueling that growth – particularly from nuclear power.

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