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Will China gamble on a nuclear future?

China plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, but how it gets there remains an open question. Nuclear is likely to play a role, but the exact contribution of it, renewables and other energy sources is still unclear.

Ten years ago, when the disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan brought concerns over the risks of nuclear power to the fore, China was a decade into a steady nuclear expansion.

China did not connect its first nuclear power station to the grid until the early 1990s, but by 2011 it had the worlds fastest expanding fleet. Today it has the worlds third-largest nuclear power capacity, after the US and France. Within a decade, it will have the largest, says the International Energy Agency.

In the wake of Fukushima, China curbed its enthusiasm for nuclear power and undertook a safety review with no plants approved between 2016 and 2018. However, approvals have started up again, and with China’s new Five-Year Plan targeting an increase in nuclear power by 2025, it will likely play some part in Chinas electricity mix for decades to come.

fishermen-casting-a-net-next-to-PV-panels-over-fish-ponds
Fishermen casting a net next to a photovoltaic power station built on top of fish ponds in Yangzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The real question for China is how large nuclear’s role will be. China took the world by surprise last year when it announced plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, a move that will require a widespread move away from coal power. Many experts believe it will look increasingly to nuclear to provide baseload and dispatchable power alongside more variable wind and solar.

Chinas nuclear fleet

Today, nuclear accounts for around 5% of China’s electricity generation, while rapidly growing solar and wind power already make up 8%.

The Fukushima disaster led to a slowdown in approvals of new nuclear plants because Chinese regulators reviewed and updated safety standards against the possibility of similar accidents. The country fell short of a goal to have 58GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2020, reaching 52GW instead. It also missed a goal to have another 30GW under construction by 2020: some 12GW are now in the process of being built.

That target fell very badly short,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent research organisation. “There is now no time for reactors that aren’t yet under construction to come online by 2025. But a lot happened in the industry in the past year, with five reactors entering construction, the first domestic reactor design connected to the grid and the future role of the technology becoming clearer.”

Fukushima was “the primary reason” China did not meet its 2020 nuclear targets, believes Sha Yu, co-director of the China Program at the University of Maryland, US, who last year published an analysis on the role of nuclear in Chinas future. However, the country’s rapid deployment of solar and wind is another factor, she says, pointing to the huge investments in renewables over the past decade.

One big question, says Myllyvirta, is what goal China will set for nuclear plants under construction by 2025. The country’s latest Five-Year Plan, unveiled in early March, outlines a target to increase capacity to 70GW by 2025, up from 50GW at the end of 2020. Around half of these new plants are already under construction. A more detailed sectoral plan for nuclear is expected later this year.

“It is a pretty big surprise there is such a target in this plan,” says Myllyvirta. “It is one piece of the puzzle along with wind and solar. This does seem like a significant push to accelerate new projects.”

The case for nuclear

Coal provides 58% of Chinas energy and continues to expand. The country built 38GW of new coal-fired power capacity in 2020, more than three times the rest of the world combined, and approved a further 37GW. Cheap and widely available, it will be difficult to break the country’s coal dependence.

However, Chinas pledge to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060 mean its energy portfolio will have to change drastically, even as overall energy use continues to grow. China will need to replace coal with clean energy and create additional clean energy to meet growing demand.

Right now for China, it is more about renewables integration. Yan Qin, Refinitiv

As in all countries, this means two major changes: a rapid electrification of sectors that traditionally use oil and gas – such as transport and heating – and an enormous ramping up of clean electricity. Hydropower, solar, wind, nuclear and potentially coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) are the main contenders for this clean electricity supply, but what China’s 2060 electricity mix might look like remains unclear. “Nuclear is not the only option,” says Yu.

Solar and wind are expected to skyrocket over the next decades. It is a given” China will reach a very high penetration of wind and solar, Myllyvirta says. The country recently unveiled plans to require regional grid companies to buy at least 26% of power from non-hydropower renewable sources by 2030, up from 11% in 2020. It is a strong signal renewables will be prioritised,” says Yan Qin, a carbon analyst at Refinitiv, a financial markets data provider. Right now for China, it is more about renewables integration.”

Some experts argue that nuclear can be a low-carbon, dispatchable source of energy that is needed to complement the expansion of renewables. This truly allows you to weather the peaks and valleys created by the intermittency of renewables,” says Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It will be too difficult and expensive to build storage to decarbonise with solar and wind power alone, argues Buongiorno. Something that looks like nuclear is needed if you realistically want to achieve deep decarbonisation targets at minimum cost and in a short time,” he says.

Nuclear in China in 2050

Projections of Chinas nuclear capacity by 2050 range from 150GW to 500GW, according to a 2020 study led by Yu. If you look at the modelling studies, you see significant growth, not only in terms of absolute capacity, but in percentage of generation,” says Yu. “In a lot of models you will see something that ranges between 15% and 20% of generation.”

However, the large ranges given by different models and projections reflect ongoing uncertainty around the extent to which China will really double down on nuclear.

An influential low-carbon scenario from Tsinghua Universitys Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) puts nuclear generation at 327GW by 2050. This figure would be a six-fold rise on todays levels and provide 16% of Chinas electricity. As this scenario is closely affiliated with the Chinese government, it provides a strong signal of current government thinking.

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One of the most optimistic projections is a scenario from Chinas Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, which suggests nuclear could generate 28% of Chinas electricity by 2050.

At the other end of the scale is the China National Renewable Energy Council’s 2019 projection, which put the proportion at just 10%. Other analysts have attempted to map out what a high renewables-focused scenario might look like for China. A 2015 “high renewables” scenario by campaign group WWF and the Energy Transition Research Institute puts nuclear at 78GW in 2015, supplying just 5% of China’s electricity, while wind and solar supplied 75%.

Lara Dong, an expert on power and renewables in China at information provider IHS Markit, says her company’s research shows nuclear taking a 12% share in Chinas power generation mix by 2050. Nuclear will be indispensable in Chinas low-carbon future,” she says. The 2060 carbon neutrality goal is such a Herculean task, that China will have to pull out all the stops to achieve it.”

Potential competitors

Hydropower and fossil fuels with CCS are the two main alternatives to nuclear for clean baseload power. However, not everyone agrees modern grids need baseload power. China’s growing proliferation of long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines, which allow renewables to be transported over large distances, supports this argument.

“In the future power system, there will be mostly variable renewables on the supply side, and also varying demand including demand-side response,” says Qin. “The power system will have almost no need for a constant fixed amount of power generation. However, the [need for] constant baseload could last slightly longer for China, which will see power demand continue to grow, and coal and nuclear could fulfil this need.”

China has the worlds largest hydroelectricity capacity, which is by far its biggest source of clean electricity. However, scope for further expansion is thought to be relatively low. The ICCSD scenario puts hydro capacity at around 415GW in 2050, up from 356GW in 2019, a relatively modest 17% increase. Hydro is very limited, I think everyone agrees,” says Qin.

Something that looks like nuclear is needed if you realistically want to achieve deep decarbonisation targets at minimum cost and in a short time. Jacopo Buongiorno, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The ever-promised coal or natural gas with CCS could play a similar role, and also feature in the ICCSD study, although China only has only one large CCS plant in operation. However, CCS is also dependent on the storage capacity available, says Buongiorno. China does not have the favourable geology of say Texas or other places in the US,” he explains. “The other thing is cost: CCS is very, very expensive.”

CCS remains far less mature than nuclear and not economically viable, agrees Dong. We dont think it is comparable in terms of application.” Politics will also play into these decisions, says Myllyvirta. Coal with CCS is pretty prominent if you look at the plans for meeting that 2060 target, but very little is happening on the ground so it really serves as a placeholder for ‘this is the part of emissions we still have to figure out’.”

Nuclear has disadvantages. Hesitancy over safety remains after Fukushima. No nuclear power plants have been built inland in China in the last ten years due to public opposition and concern over river pollution and water use during droughts. China’s disposal capacity for radioactive waste has been described by officials as deficient. Nuclear costs are also expected to rise following higher safety standards, says Dong.

In addition, Chinas big state-owned utilities have in the past been lukewarm towards nuclear, mainly because they did not have a stake in earlier projects, says Myllyvirta. This is changing with new projects with “ownership stakes by the big power utilities, like Huanang and Huadian, which could be a political backwind for the industry”, he adds.

Just days before the Five-Year Plan was released, China’s state grid released its own carbon-neutral plan, with 2030 targets for 80GW of nuclear and 1,000GW of wind and solar in the regions it covers. This implies around 110–120GW of nuclear nationwide, since around a third of current capacity is in the Southern Grid outside the state grid’s service area, says Myllyvirta.

Hualong One: a new export?

Chinese nuclear power has a lot going for it, many believe. It is significantly cheaper than in Europe and the US, according to a major 2018 report led by Buongiorno. This found that nuclear was typically close to being the cheapest energy source in China. Buongiorno attributes this difference to loss of know-howin the Western nuclear industry. “Companies that build nuclear power plants in China, Korea, India and Russia have been building them continuously over the past 20–30 years,” he says.

China is doubling down on its own nuclear technology. In January, the first of the much-discussed Hualong One units began commercial operation. This is the first Chinese-designed and developed third-generation pressurised water reactor. With Covid and the trade war [with the US] there is a lot of discussion about China relying on its own nuclear technology,” says Qin. Politically, China would like to have the entire value chain in the country.

China is also developing a multipurpose small modular reactor (SMR), known as the ACP100, and exploring the use of nuclear power in district heating. Further, it is testing the worlds first fourth-generation, high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor, a technology that allows operation at the very high temperatures used in industrial processes such as ammonia and soda ash production, says Buongiorno.

The country has ambitions to increase its nuclear exports and is actively promoting the Hualong One reactor as part of its ‘go global’ policy. As China comes under increasing pressure to green its Belt and Road strategy, home-grown nuclear technologies could become strong infrastructure export contenders. Cost will be key to the success of this policy, says Yu.

How the project to decarbonise the worlds biggest emitter will play out remains to be seen. However, the recent Five-Year Plan and state grid announcements show nuclear will play an important role, “delivering similar amounts of power generation as solar power and a bit less than wind power”, says Myllyvirta. He, for one, is happy “China’s clean electricity strategy stands on three legs rather than two”.

Energy Monitor is publishing a series of articles about nuclear power and the energy transition to mark the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami led to a sea change in the role of nuclear power around the world. In Japan, nuclear plants made up less than 5% of the electricity mix last year, down from 30% before Fukushima. In Germany, the accident led to the immediate shutdown of eight nuclear plants and the definitive decision to exit nuclear power entirely by 2022. Ten years later, as countries face up to the climate crisis, Energy Monitor examines the role of nuclear power in the energy transitions in Japan, the US, China, France, and the EU.

Other articles in this series:

Jocelyn Timperley is a freelance climate journalist based in Costa Rica.