Nuclear power has played a relatively minor role in China’s overall primary energy strategy over the past two decades. While nuclear power has risen from roughly 1% of total primary energy supply in China at the beginning of the 2000s, it hovers around 4% today. China prioritized natural gas, oil, hydro, and even wind and solar energy over nuclear energy in their efforts to reduce their reliance on coal. This percentage is congruent with a 2020 target the NDRC set in a development document from the early 2000s, increasing nuclear power from 910 MW capacity to 40 GW installed capacity. This goal was revised to 58GW in 2017 when it seemed possible that more capacity was feasible. Yet, by the end of 2020 China operated 51 nuclear facilities—only with an installed capacity of 52 GW. Another 17 nuclear units are under construction, with an expected installed capacity of 19 GW.
China’s nuclear power stations are dotted around the country with most currently concentrated around the Yangzi-Delta provinces, the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and some units in Shandong and Liaoning in China’s North. China drew its nuclear technology mainly from traditional nuclear nations like France, Canada, and Russia, with the majority of technology for local development being based on French elements. China and France also operate reactors together in Southern China.
Over the past 20 years, China’s nuclear energy research and development has progressed at a slower pace than the development of other energy sources like cleaner coal. While early strategy papers called for equal weighting of nuclear power in the energy mix development of China until 2020 together with the development of carbon capture technologies and renewable energy forms, other forms of energy generation took over.
China’s government realized it was insufficiently equipped to pursue autonomous nuclear energy research, being highly dependent on expertise from abroad. Lack of skills, technological expertise, the long timespan for design and construction as well as the prohibitive per-unit costs for equipment and construction that were three to four times higher than coal power prevented nuclear energy from playing a stronger role in China’s energy structure development.
Unlike Japan or France, which rely or have relied heavily on nuclear to power its activities, China does not have the scale or experience to rely on the energy source. In addition, China’s authorities have pursued a highly cautious and conservative approach to this sensitive form of energy with its potential for devastating accidents. According to one report, stringent requirements on safety checks during construction and slow approval of new reactors have contributed to the slow development of this energy form. Hence, China has not produced significant headlines regarding nuclear reactor incidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Sellafield, or Chernobyl.
Nevertheless, it is expected that China will expand nuclear power generation and overtake the big nuclear nations over the next decades as the development of nuclear energy expertise has become a strategic goal of the government, both with the aim to aid in the battle against carbon dioxide emission and in the country’s pursuit of international technological leadership.
China’s government categorizes nuclear power as “clean energy”, stating in its annual statistical report that “[…] clean energy consumption, such as natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power and wind power accounted for 24.3 percent [of total energy consumption], 1.0 percentage point higher [than 2019].” Recent estimates foresee an increase to 10% by 2030 and or 13.5% by 2035 of the overall energy mix from its current level. Additionally, the government is expected to approve the construction of six to eight reactors each year to gradually push forward its nuclear development between 2020 and 2025. Furthermore, China has recently commenced constructing its first underground research laboratory, in the remote Gobi Desert to further study the geological, hydrological, geochemical, and engineering characteristics of the site’s rocks to assess suitability for final storage of high level radioactive waste.
China’s government is pursuing a three-stage approach to finding a final disposal place for highly radioactive waste. Stage one – laboratory studies and preliminary site selection – is to be completed in 2020. The second stage, underground in-situ testing, has just started and is expected to run until 2050. The final stage – the construction of the disposal facility – is planned to take place from 2041 to 2050, assuming the in-situ testing confirms the area’s suitability.
China Nuclear Energy Association
Address: 28 F, Building B, World Trade Tower | 72 West Sanhuan North Road | Beijing, Haidian Qu
National Energy Administration (NEA)
Address: 38Yuetan South Street | Xicheng District | Beijing 100824
汪永平 赵守峰 袁玉俊 饶爽 刘群 丁睿洁 . “2020年中国核能发展战略研究”
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard China Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach