China has big plans for the nation’s nuclear energy sector. While the nuclear energy targets set by Beijing have been massively delayed, the nation is still on track to take over the global nuclear energy industry over the next ten years. While the devastating spread of COVID-19 in China starting late last year has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the country’s energy industry ambitions, however, the biggest setbacks for the Chinese nuclear energy industry can actually be attributed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that took place in Japan in 2011, which has made it far more difficult and time-intensive to approve new atomic energy projects. A three-year freeze on new nuclear plant approvals only just ended last year, which “has thinned the pipeline for this decade, according to BloombergNEF’s lead nuclear analyst, Chris Gadomski.”
Despite the fact that China will, in all likelihood, miss its target number of 58 gigawatts of nuclear energy by the end of this year, its capacity is still likely to increase exponentially in the coming decade. Researchers from the Chinese government have published numbers that show that the nation’s “nuclear capacity could more than double to 130 gigawatts by 2030” as summarized in a Bloomberg Green article from this week. That being said, the national Chinese energy mix will still “heavily feature coal and other fossil fuels.” In fact, 130 gigawatts of nuclear power only represents 10% of national power generation, but even a proportionately small amount of energy in China makes a big impact on a global scale due to the sheer size of the nation’s energy industry. “Such is China’s heft in energy markets,” Bloomberg Green writes to put it in perspective, “[130 gigawatts of nuclear power] would still save the amount of carbon that Germany emits annually from burning coal, oil, and gas.”
And with this 10%, China will quickly rise through the ranks of the world’s top nuclear energy producers. “GlobalData Plc predicts that China will pass France as the world’s No. 2 nuclear generator in 2022 and claim the top spot from the U.S. four years after that,” says Bloomberg Green. To understand just how big of a deal it is for any country to unseat the United States as the world’s top nuclear energy producer, you have to understand that the U.S. is responsible for fully one-third of the entire world’s nuclear energy supply.
But China is gunning for them. The country already had “almost 49 gigawatts installed as of 2019 and should get into the mid-fifties this year,” reports Bloomberg Green. “At the annual parliamentary meeting in Beijing that ended last week, delegates suggested China should start construction on 6 to 8 reactors a year.” This will also play nicely into China’s post-corona employment initiatives, as “a typical 1-gigawatt reactor could create 50,000 jobs, according to one company official.”
What’s more, the United States’ nuclear energy industry is shrinking. It’s in major trouble and it has been for quite a while. “In the United States, the common sentiment about the nuclear industry is that it is doomed,” Oilprice reported last year. “As cheap natural gas prices out nuclear, more and more plants are going offline, and many of those that are hanging on are doing so in large part thanks to sizeable government subsidies. And then there is the crushing cost of nuclear waste management that is already weighing on taxpayers and will only get worse.”
This week, in a plea for the United States to step up its nuclear efforts to maintain its “atomic edge,” RealClear Energy wrote that “The huge reactors we are used to seeing need to relicense again or they will shutter. While these reactors were initially licensed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, they are still producing 55 percent of clean energy in America. If that fleet goes, so too does demand for fuel, which led the Administration to establish the Nuclear Fuel Working Group on how to maintain this vital national asset.”
What is certain is that more nuclear energy, from either the U.S. or from China (or from anyone else for that matter), almost unilaterally leads to less reliance on fossil fuels, and therefore fewer greenhouse gas emissions. While spent nuclear fuel most certainly has its own issues and nuclear is not a blameless form of energy production, it does bode well for the climate under any flag.