China Still Committed to Nuclear Power

It remains a key part of achieving the country's clean energy goals

Given the recent Japan nuclear crisis--which thankfully seems to be somewhat stabilizing at this point--many have wondered about the fate of the ballyhooed global nuclear renaissance. Particularly, what will happen to China's industry after Beijing announced a temporary freeze on new approvals for nuclear plants. I thought I'd weigh in quickly, as I just posted a dispatch over at the Foreign Policy blog "The Call" on this matter. Bottom line is I don't think Beijing is reversing course on its nuclear expansion.

In the midst of strident declarations that the global nuclear renaissance is over, it is worth pointing out that in China at least, the rebirth of nuclear power is for all intents and purposes a done deal, especially now that Japan's nuclear crisis seems to have turned a corner. Many thought Beijing's immediate announcement of a safety review and a freeze on new approvals meant the industry was effectively on life support. But that's not true. Nuclear power features prominently in the 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) as an essential base-load alternative to coal. And because there are no easy substitutes, nuclear power is a key part of achieving China's clean energy goals.

The recently ratified 12th FYP contains binding targets to have non-fossil fuels account for 11.4 percent of China's primary energy mix and for a carbon intensity reduction of 17 percent by 2015. Those goals are likely to be reached only by meaningfully expanding nuclear power because renewables alone (including hydro) are unlikely to be sufficient in offsetting coal and meeting the plan's objective. Nuclear capacity is expected to quadruple from the current 10.8GW to around 40GW by 2015. The State Council has reportedly already approved 34 plants totaling 36.9GW, with work on 25 of those projects (totaling 27.7GW) having already started. Even if the new regulatory review delays construction of the remaining nine projects on the drawing board, China's nuclear power capacity would eventually still be just shy of 40GW.

The review process will have some effect though. Yet-to-be approved projects may be shelved. Existing projects and those yet to break ground could temporarily see delays or receive more scrutiny to determine whether they need to be retrofitted. But decommissioning reactors seems unlikely. China's fleet of reactors is relatively young, compare to the 40-year-old ones in Fukushima. Siting future plants in interior China, such as in Chongqing and Hunan, may also be reconsidered because of their proximity to notable quake zones. It is also worth noting that though China stated in 2010 that it is aiming for 70GW-86GW of installed capacity by 2020 (with some proposing total capacity as high as 100GW), that figure could ultimately err on the conservative side once Beijing reassesses its energy needs for the 13th FYP. But even at 70GW, China would be one of the largest nuclear markets in the world.

The support for nuclear energy reflects the political strength of its champions in the Chinese government. Top energy officials, such as former National Energy Administration (NEA) head Zhang Guobao and current NEA chief Liu Tienan, have publicly stated in recent days that China needs to develop its nuclear industry, with safety as a prerequisite. Other officials from the environment ministry, which has a hand in managing the nuclear sector, have also argued that China needs nuclear power to ensure energy security amid growing demand. Indeed, energy security and clean development have been invoked as compelling arguments. The head of the China National Nuclear Corp., one of the country's two nuclear giants, recently pointed to data indicating that China's existing nuclear capacity reduced annual emissions (67 million tons less of CO2 and 250,000 tons less of SO2) compared to equivalent coal-fired capacity.

Yet the effusive support elides legitimate concerns about whether China can produce a sufficient number of properly trained operators and managers that can keep up with the expansion of plants. (The Chinese obviously would prefer technicians like those handling the Fukushima crisis.) And the Japanese crisis has lent ammunition to some critics of the pace and scope of China's nuclear pursuit, with some likening it to a "great leap forward." The episode could perhaps inspire a more open debate about China's nuclear trajectory. It is also possible that bottom-up populism, particularly in a more "progressive" province such as Guangdong, could fight local governments over future plant sites. But ultimately, a sudden reversal of the civilian nuclear program that began in earnest 20 years ago seems unlikely.