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China to the rescue?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

China's nuclear power program grew rapidly before the Fukushima disaster … then slowed for a few years as the implications of the disaster were assessed … then picked up pace … then slowed once again. Currently, China has 45 operable power reactors (43 gigawatts (GW) capacity) and 13 under construction (12.8 GW).

The most likely outcome over the next 5‒10 years is that a small number of new reactor projects will be approved each year, well short of previous projections and not nearly enough to match the decline in the rest of the world.

China's National Energy Administration said in March 2018 that by the end of the year, announcements would be made about sites for the construction of 6‒8 new nuclear reactors, ending a two-year freeze on new starts.1 That didn't eventuate. Perhaps announcements will be made this year.

Mycle Schneider, coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, noted in a January 2019 article:2

"While China has accounted for 35 of 59 units started up in the world over the past decade and has another dozen reactors under construction, the country has not opened any new construction site for a commercial reactor since December 2016 (a demonstration fast breeder reactor not comparable to a commercial project was launched in December 2017). The nuclear industry is awaiting a central government decision over future technology choices and project siting. Construction is expected to be relaunched during the year 2019. However, there is no official government statement as to timing and ambition of future nuclear planning."

Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted in an August 2018 article that the growth of renewables in China "dwarf the nuclear expansion".3 Kidd wrote.

"Many of the negative factors which have affected nuclear programmes elsewhere in the world are now also equally applicable in China. Despite many new reactors starting up, it is clear that the programme has continued to slow. The most obvious sign of this is the lack of approvals for new construction starts. There have been no new approvals for approaching three years, so the number of reactors under construction has been falling sharply. Other indications of trouble are uncertainties about the type of reactor to be utilised in the future, the position of the power market, the structure of the industry with its large state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the degree of support from state planners and the level of public opposition to nuclear plans. ...

"Perhaps surprisingly, a big issue today affecting the Chinese nuclear programme is its economic viability. With nuclear power only currently representing 3-4% of China's electricity supply, one would think that there is still plenty of room for dramatic growth. However, the slowing of the Chinese economy and the switch to less energy-intensive activities, together with over-investment in power generation capacity, means that there is now more than can be carried in the grids in some provinces. It cannot therefore be assumed that new nuclear units will run at the 80-90% capacity factors necessary to pay back the funds invested in their construction.

"Tariffs that producers receive when they sell power to the grid are also under threat. The central government wishes to liberalise the Chinese power sector and make it more responsive to economic criteria and this may not help nuclear. The rising costs of building Gen III units are also a factor. Reactors may have to load-follow, which is not ideal in the technical or economic sense. Nuclear has to compete against other generation options. ...

The threat in China is that nuclear may become no more than a niche, bridging technology, as a route to something better in the future."

Peter Fairley, an MIT Technology Review contributing editor, noted in a December 2018 article:4

"Officially China still sees nuclear power as a must-have. But unofficially, the technology is on a death watch. Experts, including some with links to the government, see China's nuclear sector succumbing to the same problems affecting the West: the technology is too expensive, and the public doesn't want it.

"The 2011 meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant shocked Chinese officials and made a strong impression on many Chinese citizens. A government survey in August 2017 found that only 40% of the public supported nuclear power development.

"The bigger problem is financial. Reactors built with extra safety features and more robust cooling systems to avoid a Fukushima-like disaster are expensive, while the costs of wind and solar power continue to plummet: they are now 20% cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants in China, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Moreover, high construction costs make nuclear a risky investment.

"And gone are the days when nuclear power was desperately needed to meet China's soaring demand for electricity. In the early 2000s, power consumption was growing at more than 10% annually as the economy boomed and manufacturing, a heavy user of electricity, expanded rapidly. Over the past few years, as growth has slowed and the economy has diversified, power demand has been growing, on average, at less than 4%. …

"The government has lately said little about nuclear policy. Its official target, last updated in 2016, calls for 58 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity to be installed by 2020 and for another 30 GW to be under construction. All experts agree China won't reach its 2020 goal until 2022 or later, and pre-Fukushima projections of 400 GW or more by midcentury now look fanciful."


1. Dan Yurman, 2 April 2018, 'China to start building 6-8 new nuclear reactors in 2018',

2. Mycle Schneider, 3 Jan 2019, 'World Nuclear Industry Status as of 1 January 2019',

3. Steve Kidd, 1 Aug 2018, 'Nuclear in China – where is it heading now?',

4. Peter Fairley, 12 Dec 2018, 'China's losing its taste for nuclear power. That's bad news.',