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« Watch: Alberta advocate pushes for nuclear energy | Main | Shelved nuclear power plans leave UK government's energy policy in hot water »

China’s Inland Civil Nuclear Strategy: Making the Case at Home First

Western environmental and energy policy communities have long berated China for refusing to abandon its reliance on thermal coal, the lifeblood of its industrial economy. But China’s commitment to expanding renewables has actually been extraordinary. Solar energy only became a viable solution in most OECD economies in 2013, after China had poured into the market and made cells affordable. A similar story occurred in 2016 with batteries for electric vehicles and hybrids; these only became a reality once Chinese component-makers could produce batteries cheaply enough to create economies of scale.

But China’s coal emissions have not peaked. While renewables are taking a larger share in China’s energy mix, they are still mired in curtailment and subsidies, both upstream and downstream. Fossil fuels are slated to dominate China’s energy generation until at least 2030.

But one important policy change will affect not only China’s emissions targets, but also the future energy options of less developed countries: China’s subsidized inland nuclear power reactors. Nuclear is set to expand from 43 gigawatts electrical (GWe) in 2018 to as much as 281.8 GWe by 2030 (see Figure 1). This would take nuclear-generated electricity from 2 percent to up to 20 percent of China’s energy mix.

of next-generation nuclear reactors using river water for coolant, though, has no precursor in terms of scale. However, if China’s model proves successful, I expect to see it replicated across river systems throughout the developing world. China is planning to expand energy equipment capacity transfers and energy equipment exports. This means both exporting nuclear energy components and equipment as well as exporting the factories and technologies to manufacture them. While initial nuclear exports have targeted advanced economies such as France and the United Kingdom, the majority of the rollout will be directed toward the Middle East, Africa and South America.

This essay builds on emerging literature from energy-policy scholars and practitioners working on China’s energy policy landscape (Wu 2007, Qin et. al. 2015, Zhu and Krantzberg 2014).1 It looks at China’s expansion of civil nuclear energy capacity and the weighting of inland capacity in the expanded energy mix of 2020-30. It then considers the extant policy of exporting energy equipment and capacity, and the possible effects of this current policy and possible future additions to it. Finally, I consider the role of domestic Chinese standards and safety in the development of a Chinese civil nuclear policy that will shape global energy capacity and, in particular, the energy outcomes for less developed countries.


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