China’s Nuclear Power Industry: A Strategic Growth Sector

China’s nuclear power industry has been designated as a strategically important sector by national policy, emphasizing the development of both conventional and advanced reactor technologies. This focus is part of a broader strategy to enhance domestic capabilities and exploit export potential in the global market. As Seaver Wang from the Breakthrough Institute notes, this long-standing […]

China’s nuclear power industry has been designated as a strategically important sector by national policy, emphasizing the development of both conventional and advanced reactor technologies. This focus is part of a broader strategy to enhance domestic capabilities and exploit export potential in the global market. As Seaver Wang from the Breakthrough Institute notes, this long-standing prioritization reflects China’s commitment to nuclear energy as a foundation for its power generation system.

Historical Context and Growth Plans

China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) laid the groundwork for this commitment in December 2011 by announcing plans to add up to 300 GWe (gigawatts of electric capacity) of nuclear energy over the following 10 to 20 years. Despite these ambitious goals, by 2022, nuclear energy accounted for only 3.8% of China’s power generation. This slow uptake was partly due to the cautious approach adopted after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

However, the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) marked a significant shift. Released in March 2021, the plan called for the construction of 150 new nuclear reactors over 15 years, aiming for a production goal of 200 GW of nuclear energy by 2035. This buildout, requiring an estimated investment of $370 billion to $440 billion, aims to meet China’s increasing energy demands and support its carbon neutrality goals by mid-century.

Drivers of Nuclear Expansion

China’s accelerated nuclear policy development is influenced by several factors:

  1. Climate Policies: Nuclear energy is pivotal for reducing carbon emissions and achieving President Xi Jinping’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2060. Replacing coal-fired power plants with nuclear reactors could significantly cut annual carbon emissions, aligning with global climate targets.
  2. Economic and National Security: Reducing reliance on imported oil, especially in potential conflict scenarios where the U.S. might block oil supplies, is a critical consideration. Enhancing energy security through domestic nuclear power production supports this strategic aim.

Current and Future Projects

China is advancing rapidly with nuclear projects. By mid-2023, major operators like CGN, CNNP, and SPIC had a combined 56 nuclear plants producing 53.1 GW of electricity, with an additional 24 plants under construction to provide another 23.7 GW. The construction of 27 new reactors underscores China’s goal to install 6 to 8 new reactors annually, adding 5,000 to 8,000 MW of capacity each year.

Technological Innovations and Collaborations

China’s nuclear industry has progressed through both technology transfers and indigenous development. A significant milestone was the 2008 agreement with Westinghouse to license its AP1000 technology, leading to the development of China’s CAP1400 reactor. Despite some instances of industrial espionage, China’s advancements in nuclear technology have been notable.

In 2020, the first Chinese third-generation reactor, Hualong One, was launched, showcasing homegrown technology based on Western designs. This reactor represents China’s strides in nuclear innovation, supported by continued collaborations and the adoption of best practices from global partners.

Advanced Reactor Developments

China is pioneering several advanced reactor technologies:

  1. Shidaowan-1 Power Plant: The world’s first fourth-generation nuclear reactor features high-temperature, helium gas-cooled modular pebble bed reactors, demonstrating significant advancements in safety and efficiency.
  2. Linglong One: The first multipurpose Small Modular Reactor (SMR) to receive approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set to generate enough electricity for over 525,000 homes annually by 2025.
  3. Thorium Reactors: Scheduled to launch in 2024, the TMSR-LF1 in Gansu province will be the world’s first thorium-based molten salt reactor, highlighting China’s innovation in using alternative nuclear fuels.
  4. Floating Reactors: The ACPR50S, designed to withstand severe weather, is set to power offshore oil rigs and islands, showcasing China’s adaptability in deploying nuclear power in diverse environments.

Future Prospects and Fusion Research

Looking ahead, China aims to build a prototype fusion reactor by 2035, with commercial production envisioned by 2050. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has already achieved significant milestones, and the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR) is set to further these efforts.

In addition to reactors, innovations like miniature atomic energy batteries by Beijing Betavolt New Energy Technology Company are poised to revolutionize power supplies for various applications, indicating the breadth of China’s nuclear technology ambitions.

Conclusion

China’s comprehensive approach to expanding its nuclear power industry underscores its commitment to energy security, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. Through strategic investments, technological innovations, and international collaborations, China is positioning itself as a global leader in nuclear energy, with far-reaching implications for the future of clean energy and climate change mitigation.