With Nuclear Energy, China Chooses Dependence Over Independence (Part II of II)

November 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

China’s nuclear industry increases dependence on another set of foreign countries due to technology, nuclear safety, and uranium trade.

China is now at a cross-roads that requires it to be increasingly accountable for its energy use, carbon emissions, environmental impact, and public health. Due to this nuclear energy has become one of the lauded fuels of choice for the future. However, if China steps in this direction the country might be dependent on another set of foreign countries, leaving them in another cycle of energy dependence and vulnerability.

Technology: Safety vs. Self-Reliance

Before the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, China has always been keen on developing home-grown nuclear reactors with the help of older Russian, Canadian, and French nuclear reactor models. To the Chinese, the creation of a “Chinese” nuclear reactor would help them become less reliant, while its success would also pave the way for a Chinese revolution in the nuclear industry allowing them to make reactors cheaper to export to emerging partners in Africa or Southeast Asia.

However, this strategy has always concerned the international community, since the Chinese has not always been known for their attention to quality. This, however, was never a barrier as illustrated in the current construction of 27 nuclear reactors, in which 21 of them are second generation models (China currently has the CPR-1000 second-generation model). Third generation models were not granted as many projects despite their advanced safety features because only the U.S. and France own the technology at the moment.

Nuclear Safety: Need for Foreign-Trained Staff

Another concern in the leap towards greater nuclear power are the safety protocols needed for the operational safety of the plant, as well as action plans needed to guide government officials and the international community at times of emergency.

At the moment, China has 14 nuclear reactors that account for less than 2% in 2010. This number is small and has enabled China the ability to adequately employ enough operational staff to check the safety of nuclear power production. When needed, China has even gone so far as employing foreign operators, advisers, and engineers. China has also engaged with over 20 countries in nuclear cooperation agreements to help provide China with the expertise necessary to build its nuclear program. This has enabled China the ability to increase the safety of their nuclear program, while enabling them to respond rapidly to emergencies.

Uranium: Domestic Supply

Uranium is a crucial component in the creation of nuclear power and is similar to fossil fuels in that they are non-recoverable. At the moment, China has 171,000 Tonnes of Uranium, placing it 10th in the world’s top ten proven recoverable uranium reserves. This is beneficial for China, as they will be able to domestically supply part of the material to their nuclear reactors.

The Unforeseen Impact

Despite the usefulness of advanced technology, adequate safety training, international cooperation, and the use of uranium (instead of oil, coal, or natural gas), China has opened itself to an array of vulnerabilities and dependencies unforeseen by the current government.

Technology: Reliance on the United States and France

In terms of technology, China’s heavy dependence on second-generation nuclear reactor models is a disadvantage to the growing country on the security and energy efficiency front. However, a move into third-generation models (due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, China is considering not approving anymore second-generation reactors) would put Chinese nuclear reactor models out of the market. It would also force the communist government to rely primarily the U.S.’s Westinghouse AP1000 and France’s Areva (EPR), while falling behind as they try to duplicate the technology they acquired through technology transfer agreements.

Nuclear Safety: Forced Engagement

In terms of safety training and international cooperation, China is unequipped to deal with the rapid expansion of nuclear power because of the need for many more engineers and trained personnel. Although the government has recognized this problem and has begun training nuclear operational staff, many of these individuals are new graduates and do not have actual experience. Thus, I foresee China to be much more dependent on learning best practices from both foreign countries and international organization.

This aspect of nuclear energy will significantly impact the government, as the communist party will be forced to reach out to foreign entities when they would rather develop their own indigenous techniques, experts, or technology. This can already be seen through China’s multilateral discussions with Japan and South Korea on nuclear safety. Moreover, China’s Deputy Representative to the United Nations recently urged for increased support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in nuclear safety and the promotion of international cooperation. I believe the success of this strategy will depend on China’s ability to navigate through the interests of even more stakeholders, while avoiding any additional influence on their domestic energy policies.

Uranium: Susceptible to Price and Politics

Lastly, the largest impact on the Chinese government that I foresee will be the trade on uranium. In the coming years, nuclear power and uranium will be much sought after as oil, coal, and gas become scarce and expensive. The supply and demand of global uranium will be of extreme importance to China, as it is predicted that it will need up to 60% of its uranium from overseas for the slew of nuclear reactors it is planning to have online by 2020. This is because China has been mining uranium since the 1950s and has already been importing the mineral for awhile.

This will force China to be increasingly reliant on the world’s top uranium producers, as they vie for increased control over concessions and preferential treatment of mining blocks. China will also be dependent on the international market as well, spurring the PRC to lobby for lower prices and more access. However, I believe an even more dangerous situation would be if China were to be still dependent on the Middle East for its oil use, as the communist country would need to manage its investments, businesses, and diplomatic relationships with another set of energy fuel providers. This would not only make China susceptible to the whims of future market supply, but also increasingly complicate its diplomatic ties and ability to appease its exporters.

For the latest updates on energy analysis in Asia, subscribe to www.energyinasiablog.com at the top right of the homepage.

Click here for part I analyzing China’s Cautious Expansion of Nuclear Power.

Click here for more information on China’s Dependency on Foreign Oil.


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