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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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China Races Ahead In Global Nuclear Power Development

  • China currently has 55 operational nuclear reactors and 21 more under construction, with aims to diversify and lead in clean energy sources.
  • The U.S. remains the highest generator of nuclear power with 93 operational reactors but has seen a decline in new projects since the mid-1980s.
  • China's success in the nuclear sector stems from government support, state financing, and a commitment to expanding nuclear capacity to 150 GW in the next 15 years
Nuclear Power

China is by far the world leader in nuclear reactor development at present. The country has been rapidly expanding its nuclear energy industry in line with its renewable energy development, to diversity and become a leader in several clean energy sources. In contrast, the development of new plants in the U.S. has gradually dwindled in recent decades, following public and government scepticism around nuclear safety and the high costs involved with new projects. So, will China achieve its aim of becoming the world leader in nuclear power in the long term? 

China currently has 55 nuclear reactors in operation, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2021, nuclear power contributed 5.02 percent of the country’s energy mix, a figure that is expected to increase significantly with the opening of new facilities. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, China rolled out several renewable energy projects, increasing the figure for non-fossil energy consumption to 15.9 percent. The 14th Five-Year Plan period is aimed at achieving peak carbon emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2060, meaning that China needs to rapidly develop a wide range of clean energy sources. 

In 2007, the Chinese government released the Medium and Long-Term Development Plan for Nuclear Power (2005-2020). Between 2017 and 2021, 16 nuclear units were put into commercial operation, with construction commencing on 13 new units. And by the end of 2021, the total installed capacity of nuclear power in China stood at 53.2 GW. In recent years, the Chinese government has focused on improving nuclear safety, through stronger regulations and safety standards. In addition, it has carried out a public attention and awareness campaign on nuclear power safety to ensure that its society is aware of its nuclear power programme and understands the emergency responses in place, to improve understanding and preparedness. 

China now has 21 new nuclear reactors under construction, which will have a capacity for generating more than 21 GW of electricity. This is two and a half times more than any other country’s nuclear construction pipeline. This is followed by India, which has 8 reactors currently under construction, expected to produce 6 GW of electricity, and Turkey with 4 reactors in development, aiming for 4.5 GW. 

In contrast, the U.S. currently has just one nuclear reactor under construction, the fourth reactor at the Vogtle power plant in Georgia. It is expected to generate 1 GW of electricity. However, there is evidence of the United States’ prior dominance in nuclear power, in its 93 existing operational nuclear reactors. The U.S. currently generates over 95 GW of electricity from nuclear sources, making it the highest generator of nuclear power worldwide. It is followed by France, with 56 operating nuclear reactors, capable of generating 61 GW of electricity. China comes in third worldwide when it comes to existing, operational nuclear reactors. 

Despite the high number of nuclear reactors currently in operation in the U.S., the lack of new projects in recent decades suggests its fall from dominance. Kenneth Luongo, president and founder of the Partnership for Global Security, believes this trend started in the mid-1980s, which has since made way for China as the “determined and pacing leader in global nuclear ambition at the moment.” China began developing its nuclear power as U.S. interest in the energy source was waning. Luongo explains, “China began building its first reactor in 1985, just as the U.S. nuclear build-out began a steep decline.” 

This represents a broader global trend. Approximately 70 percent of existing nuclear capacity is located in member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). However, almost 75 percent of the nuclear reactors that are currently under construction are in non-OECD countries, with half of those in China. The Asian giant is developing its nuclear energy capacity for several reasons, including the rapid growth of its population; to become competitive with other global leaders, and the aim of diversifying its energy mix to include more clean energy sources. Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to rely heavily on its existing nuclear reactors as well as oil and gas, while developing renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. 

China has succeeded in overtaking other countries in nuclear power mainly thanks to the government’s dedication to rapidly expanding the sector. The country has long been pro-nuclear, but decades of planning have led to a projected scaling up of China’s nuclear capacity to 150 GW in the next 15 years. The government began by buying reactors from France the U.S. and Russia, with funds coming from its booming economy. But China has since begun to build its own reactors, with expertise coming from France. It is now able to develop multiple nuclear units at a lower cost thanks to state financing, a state-supported supply chain, and the government’s commitment to the development of nuclear power. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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