China’s Cautious Expansion of Nuclear Power (Part I of II)

November 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

China uncharacteristically expands nuclear power at a slower than expected speed due to the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011.

When China opened its economy to the world in the early 1980s, the communist country was heavily reliant on oil and coal. These two fossil fuels were relatively abundant domestically and helped secure China’s national security at a time when the country was cautious of foreign influence. However, this energy policy set the pattern for China’s energy needs over the next three decades despite China’s net importation of oil since the early 1990s and coal in 2009

As a result, nuclear energy has played a minor role in China’s electricity generation, where in 2010 China’s 10 gW of installed nuclear capacity accounted for less than 2% of the country’s power generation.

However, recently China has been undergoing a clean and green technology revolution where government officials have been emphasizing the need for low carbon and energy efficient technologies and fuels. In China’s recent 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), the government set targets to reduce carbon intensity by 17% and energy intensity by 16%. This has made government officials much more keen on incorporating non-fossil fuel sources like hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, biomass, and biofuel into their energy mix. These non-fossil fuel sources are to account for 11.4% of China’s primary energy consumption by 2015, with a greater goal of 15% by 2020. (In 2010, non-fossil fuel energy accounted for 8.3% of total primary energy consumption)

The majority of this goal will probably be met by wind and hydro power, however, an increasing share will be taken over by China’s nuclear sector. In the beginning of 2011, Chinese government officials have already set goals to increase their domestic capacity to over 40 gW by 2015 and a supposed 80 gW by 2020. This means that in addition to their current 14 units and 27 units under construction, the nuclear power sector will petition and plan to build an additional 50 reactors by 2020.

Effects of Recent Events on China’s Nuclear Energy Policy

The 12th Five Year Plan and nuclear targets were set in early 2011. The Chinese were confident in their ability to fulfill these goals, but were dumbstruck when they witnessed the devastation of the Fukushima- Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 forcing them to rethink their nuclear policy.

Many analysts have argued that recent events have done little to change China’s overall plan. Although I agree with this general statement, I must assert that the Chinese government seldom entertains changes in their targets and national plans. But because of the Fukushima-Daiichi incident, we can see that China does not have 100% confidence in their nuclear policy. For instance, when the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster occurred China uncharacteristically ordered a safety review of all their operating plants and nuclear reactors under construction. The Chinese government also increased safety protocols around nuclear reactors and failed to accept or consider any new petitions for reactors.These reactions to the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster illustrate China’s trepidation at launching full-speed ahead into their nuclear targets, illustrated by their 10% reduction in targets for 2020 earlier this month (target to now be 60-70 gW by 2020, not 80 gW).

Although I do not expect China to abandon their nuclear goals completely, I do expect the Chinese government to be wary of safety protocols and environmental concerns. But without a doubt nuclear power will be on the agenda as the energy sector has already seen diminishing returns on energy efficiency based on the results of their 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), where the country managed to reduce their energy intensity to 19.1% instead of the target of 20%. The added goal of reducing carbon intensity also places pressure on the Chinese government to rely more on nuclear power’s low carbon profile than other non-fossil energy sources like hydro power. This creates a unique nexus for China as nuclear power becomes not only vital in diversifying their energy mix, but also necessary to meet their global commitments to reducing the effects of climate change and environmental damage.

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Click here for background information on China’s naval energy security.

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