China and Nuclear Power

China street scene; pencil and marker drawing by the author. 

The People's Republic of China currently has twenty power reactors in operation at a total of six nuclear power plant locations, which only contributes to the national power grids around a meager 2% of all normal power output. That is a small amount in contrast to leading nuclear nations, but one that is only going to grow—and at that, grow greatly. Twenty-eight power reactors are currently under development and more being planned, though—as with most any nation—those in the early stages of planning may or may not wind up ever seeing actual construction, so place your bets with care. That all said, it's not likely to see—even with those reactor projects under construction—China obtain greater than 10% if even that by or shortly after 2020 or 2025. A key question looms in the air: Why not? We've all heard how bad the air quality is in China's major cities, so we know—as certainly do the Chinese themselves—that China would do well to court energy sources besides coal. Nuclear is of course the most logical option for China and unlike some nations, even after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, China seems still eager to pursue nuclear for its power needs. If we turn the equation around and ask "how much of China's electrical power could nuclear provide?" we can estimate at least 40% would be viable—that's a very rough ballpark, I admit, but just what I'm rolling around in my head looking at the distribution of coal-fired plants, their ages, locations for nuclear and the current construction projects and what could happen if every opportunity to move towards nuclear was taken and China became a real go-getter for nuclear right now. 

To get a more-accurate gauge of China's nuclear possibilities, I would start with the following document and work backwards—of course, you'll need to dig pretty deep to get nuanced estimates, but this is where I started and then branched out into the associated literature: 

and see also:

The key issues at hand for China are:

1. How many reactors can it build?

2. How much fuel can it supply for these reactors?

3. Can it source the required technologies and in large enough supply to equip its plants, if it aims for double or triple what it has currently undertaken?

4. Can China ensure that enough capable professionals are available to operate these plants?

5. Will the Chinese support nuclear power on a much larger scale?

On question #1, China has a robust and diverse industrial economy and the ability in construction and heavy industry to undertake massive and far-flung state-supported projects. Rosatom, Russia's state-owned atomic energy juggernaut which controls nearly anything and everything nuclear in Russia, could provide technical know-how and services if needed beyond what China can manage alone, if such is even an issue. As could European and American companies. There should be little trouble in actually selecting sites and building new plants/new reactors. 

Question #2, can China obtain the fuel? Probably. Of course, that gets into all sorts of complicated issues once we're speaking of a massive number of new reactors and not knowing exactly the types of reactors involved or their fuel needs, but suffice it to say they should be efficient reactors and China can certainly devote the appropriate resources to extraction and supply for fuel as needed. In essence, the question is this: Do you want to further into the next fifty years or so the massive industrial infrastructure required for coal extraction? Or would you rather invest in nuclear? I will admit I'm still learning a lot about emerging coal technologies both on the plant side and on the extraction side, but I've yet to see enough to convince me that even the most-promising coal technologies of the next twenty-odd years will make up for the environmental problems of coal or that China especially can replace extant coal plants with better, cleaner, technology in time to make up for the negatives of these plants. The lure of coal for China is two-fold, I'll admit: they have ample supplies of it and they know nuclear, at the onset, is more expensive to invest in, yet in the long run nuclear is more economical, which of course the Chinese also know.

Question #3, can China source the technologies it requires for a massive jump into nuclear? Sure. Rosatom is already selling expertise and equipment to Vietnam, Finland, and probably will be to the UK and Belarus possibly. Let's start there: whatever tech China may lack, Russia can help with if politics can be set aside. And China is not lacking in home-grown expertise, especially in things beyond core nuclear technologies such as new safety and control system approaches. 

Question #4, does China have the ability to produce—over the next twenty years or so, say—enough nuclear industry professionals to provide the staffing required if we have a real surge in plant construction? I see no real issue here: China is known for its leadership in science, math, and engineering fields and the eagerness of students to enter such fields when they are assured there will be high-paying, secure, jobs in these fields. China also has a central government that can enable strong pushes towards certain careers throughout the scope of education—from the earliest grade-school classes up through post-graduate—with little trouble. I'm a pretty patriotic American, so I really hate to admit this, but China can do something I just don't see America currently able to do: China can mandate that schools stress fields of science/technology that will channel students into the engineering and associated fields required for a growing nuclear industry. In America, any push towards STEM fields often breeds great concern over what such a thrust will "take away" from the liberal arts and other areas. This is mistaken and misguided: to increase emphasis on a given area, one does not have to remove emphasis from another. However, it's only wise to look at what academic fields will translate into career fields that have real growth. We had that type of logic in the 1950s and 1960s as I understand it and that's when many of the USA's nuclear engineering programs at state-run universities came about, but how many of those programs are still in operation? How many are independent departments of nuclear engineering? How many still have strong power engineering tracks? How many still have operational research and training reactors? 

There is a book I have called On the Edge: Ten Architects from China (Ian Luna, Thomas Tsang, et al): Pick up this book and start flipping through the pages, looking at the photos of grand, sweeping, building projects and innovative, diverse, post-modern architecture and you see a literal picture of the type of roaring progress in the most-tangible of manifestations the Chinese can foster when they desire such. Nuclear could be the same thing; the technological expertise and staffing should be an issue the Chinese could get a handle on in twenty years or so if they start now in earnest—if they start pushing nuclear as a worthwhile career field to kids in grade-school today. Look at Fort Belvoir's SM-1 reactor and the Army's training program there which trained over 800 reactors operators and associated technical staff in its sixteen years of operation. The Army sent a combination of people—ranging from new enlisted troops to some who were officers with post-doctoral educations from MIT and other top-flight universities—to learn about military applications of nuclear power at this training reactor and with the enlisted men, they were able to conduct most of the hands-on training there then send these guys to duty stations. China could do something like this: it could bring out of its best universities the engineers it needs, find via technical school programs the support staff, and have central training facilities with the best hands-on simulation technologies for their final system-specific training. The education/training issue seems like one that can be met.

And question #5: Will the Chinese, as a people, support nuclear? Probably, but two things have to happen first. One, the Chinese government needs to see the elephant in the parlor today and admit it has an air pollution problem that outclasses that of any other place on earth aside from perhaps Russia's worst industrial centers like Nikel in the Pechengsky District. (Here's how bad Nikel is: you'll see little vegetation for miles around the city and worse, you'll notice when there is fresh snow—which is often given the northern climate—sparkly little specks of glitter in that snow. Cover your mouth and get inside, because that's cobalt and other nasty stuff that is coming right out of the smelters in particles large enough to see with the naked eye.) China has a serious health and environmental problem in its air quality and one it has ignored for far too long, mainly because it sees growth as necessary and unstoppable and it sees no means of curtailing the pollution associated with coal as long as growth requires only more and more energy. Once nuclear is seen not as a possible worry for health and environment but a solution to the real concern at hand, nuclear should be something most Chinese will favor. The second thing that must happen is, China has to step to the forefront of the international nuclear community, as France and the USA have in the past, and showcase safe, cutting-edge, technologies while being open to outside industrial and supply partnerships. It cannot take the approach to growth that the USSR took where everything was home-grown, cloistered, secretive, and thus not part of an open, transparent, international discourse. 

China's need for electrical power is truly staggering. The population growth factor is not the only reason, either, but moreover, the change in lifestyles and the growing urban and suburban middle-class that is replacing a traditional, rural, farming heritage and setting new demands for domestic and industrial power supply. That is why many Chinese have turned a blind eye (and perhaps burning eyes and burning noses) to the awful air pollution leading Chinese cities endure: they see it as the price of growth, the price of more people enjoying a better quality of life. Yet, how good can life be when you do not even want your kids to walk to school due to the horrible air? Nuclear could solve that, and it could happen in twenty to thirty years in a big way in China. As to the safety questions anti-nuke folks will ask, I will ask them the following in return: When has a nuclear plant that was new, well-designed, and properly maintained and operated ever caused a serious accident or even notable incident in the past thirty years? Note those criteria: Chernobyl suffered some serious design flaws, despite being new and the pride of the Soviet system at the time. The RBMK reactors had some great advances but also some issues—not the least being the graphite-tipped control rods that were the culprit at Chernobyl. In addition, the cooling system/generators test run that fateful night at Chernobyl was planned to be handled by a more-experienced control room staff than the young night shift staff on duty that night. Inexperience and hasty judgement were grave human-factor errors at hand. In regard to Fukushima Daiichi, TEPCO did not make provisions for the integrity of the power station in the event of serious natural events as they ought to have, and were not apparently clear, forthright, or even honest on their records and reports regarding the overall surety of the station. These are serious, concern-worthy, issues, but also ones that are fully avoidable if those designing and building plants are driven and committed to providing the best safety possible. Again, of the horrible accidents in nuclear power's history ALL—as in each and every one—have happened due to problems that could have been prevented. I know some may wish to argue that, but I stand by it: problems that could have been prevented and problems that due to better technologies, better simulations, better training and better international transparency are even more preventable now. 

So yes, China has some work cut out for it, but it seems it can not only meet its current goals for nuclear but expand them two-fold or three-fold if it wishes. 

  • Anonymous

    Missing in the article here is China's aggressive stance to develop Thorium molten salt reactors by 2025, thank to the US partnering with them. Developed at Oak Ridge National Labs and proven better, safer and clean, I don't understand why the Executive branch would partner with China (June 2012) while ignore partnering with one of the states as in the United States.

  • In response to Anonymous, this is a serious concern and one I hope to address in a future blog entry. To me, the core focus on this issue though isn't so much China, but indeed why DOE let the genie not only out of the bottle, but out of the country.