What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This well-known Irresistible Force paradox comes to mind when considering the role that China could play in shaping the future of nuclear energy. Over the last quarter century or more, China has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to build infrastructure within budget and on schedule. But can it do the same for nuclear power plants, thereby rescuing that technology from declining gently into oblivion?
Before answering that question, I should first explain why I say nuclear power is declining, and explain why that is happening. The impression the news media offers is one of sunny optimism, with glowing accounts of innovative and sophisticated new nuclear reactor designs, often offered up as our only hope for solving the climate crisis. This is misleading.
Nuclear power is a technology whose golden age is long over. Commissioning of new nuclear power plants peaked in 1984-85, and new nuclear power additions in subsequent years have been a mere fraction of that peak. In the first two decades of this century, 95 reactors were started up around the world while 98 reactors were closed down.
All of these have resulted in a decline in nuclear energy’s role in providing power. Measured in terms of the share of global electricity generation, nuclear power has come down from a maximum of 17.5 percent in 1996 to barely above 10 percent in 2020. In contrast, the fraction of global electricity generated by what are called modern renewables, namely solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass-based energy, has consistently risen, from 1.2 percent in 1997 to 10.7 percent in 2020.
This decline is a result of nuclear power’s inability to compete economically, in turn because of the high and rising cost of building nuclear reactors. Nuclear plants also take a long time to build—at least a decade from the start of planning to actually being connected to the electric grid—and they cost a lot to operate. These factors limit how fast nuclear power can grow even if some reactors were to be built.
China’s experience testifies to the stubborn problems of nuclear energy. The country started relatively late on building nuclear power plants, but as with many other elements of infrastructure, the country has emerged as the leader in building nuclear plants. Despite its breakneck pace of construction, nuclear energy contributed just under 5 percent of electricity generated in 2021. But China is also building just about every other source of power too, including the technologies that will be critical to climate mitigation: wind and solar energy. Together, these two sources contributed roughly 250 percent as much electricity as nuclear plants in 2021.
Of missed targets
Chinese officials have periodically laid out impressive targets for all of these technologies. Targets for wind and solar energy capacity have routinely been met, sometimes more quickly than envisioned. This might well be the case for even the ambitious target of 1,200 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2030, as laid out in the Nationally Determined Contribution report from October 2021.
Nuclear targets, on the other hand, have been declining in ambition, and these are no longer being met. The most recent target is from March 2022, when the National Energy Administration (NEA) set the target of increasing installed nuclear power capacity to 70 gigawatts by 2025. Considering that the current capacity is only around 51 gigawatts, that might seem ambitious. But a target of 70 GW was first suggested for 2020 by the China Nuclear Energy Association in 2010; around the same time period, even targets as large as 114 GW by 2020 were reported.
Since then, and especially after multiple reactors melted down in Fukushima in neighbouring Japan, China’s government has become more cautious about nuclear power, and rightly so. The target in the 13th five year plan was only 58 gigawatts by 2020, and, as of April 2022, China is yet to reach that capacity target. Judging by what is under construction, China will miss the target of 70 gigawatts by 2025 as well.
The systematic missing of targets is not accidental. Nuclear power plants are difficult to build, and China can no more sidestep those hard technical challenges than France or the United States. Many Chinese nuclear plants have been delayed and construction costs have exceeded initial estimates. Take, for example, the twin High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor units (Shidao Bay 1-1 and 1-2). When construction started in December 2012, the promise was that it would “take 50 months” to build them, and the plant would start generating electricity by the end of 2017. The plant was connected to the grid only in December 2021, roughly twice as long as was projected, and at a cost significantly largerthan other sources.
In addition to high costs, there are other barriers to the expansion of nuclear power within China. Thus far, all nuclear power plants in China are located on the coast. But only a limited number of reactors can be built on existing sites and there are few coastal sites available for new nuclear construction. At the same time, there is real and justified resistance to building nuclear power plants in inland sites, next to rivers and large lakes. There are accident risks and concerns about the high requirements for water to cool nuclear plants. Water from these sources is already in great demand for drinking, agriculture, and other higher priority uses. In the long run, then, geography will limit how much China can expand nuclear energy.
What about China’s role in nuclear power elsewhere?
Nuclear power features prominently in China’s plans for exports of energy technologies under the Belt and Road Initiative. In February 2022, China National Nuclear Corporation signed an agreement to build a nuclear plant in Argentina. This marks China’s first export of a nuclear reactor to a country other than Pakistan (with whom China shares a special relationship that also extends to sharing nuclear weapons and related military technology).
But a swallow does not a summer make. Many other nuclear reactor vendors have won one or two contracts but have not managed to translate that into future orders. South Korea, which beat out France in 2009 for the contract to build the UAE’s first nuclear power plant, is perhaps the best example. Since that “victory”, South Korea has not won a single reactor export contract.
A different example is that of Russia, which has dominated the nuclear export market since 2009. Following its attack on Ukraine and resultant sanctions, many of Russia’s contracts, including in Finland and in Hungary, are likely to be cancelled if they have not already been. Russia’s ability to even complete the remaining contracts is also being questioned.
The future of the Argentina project is also uncertain. Historically, Argentina’s commitment to new nuclear construction has an on-off character. In 2007, for example, the country signed an agreement with Canada and China to construct a CANDU reactor—which never happened. In 2015, Argentina signed an agreement with China to build two nuclear plants. That, too, never happened. The current agreement might not come to fruition because the Argentinian government is dealing with high debt levels and is pushing China to fully finance construction of this plant. Notwithstanding China’s deep pockets, there is a limit to how many multi-billion dollar nuclear plants it can finance—on top of all the other Belt and Road construction projects it is involved in.
At a more basic level, all countries have to contend with the uneconomical nature of nuclear power plants, whether it is Argentina or it is any of the countries that had planned to import reactors from Russia (for example, Bangladesh). If countries with decades of experience with nuclear power cannot make that technology competitive, the odds that newcomers will be able to do so are slim at best.
Putting it all together
Nuclear power in China has grown dramatically in the last decade or more, in large part because of high level political decisions to promote the technology even if it was not really technically or economically justified. This rapid expansion and the ambitious targets announced by the Chinese nuclear establishment, both for domestic and foreign construction, have led to the expectation that China might give the nuclear industry a new lease on life.
These expectations are at odds with how the energy sector is changing, especially due to rapid reductions in the costs of renewable energy technologies. Photovoltaic panels, in particular, have become dramatically cheaper, partly because of China’s role in manufacturing these. This is why the International Energy Agency dubbed solar energy the “new king of electricity” in 2020. In contrast, nuclear power costs have been increasing. These trends essentially ensure that nuclear capacity will continue to decline. China’s unstoppable capacity for construction might shake the nuclear world, but it is unlikely to move. However, each new reactor that is built will result in additional risks and burdens, especially that of accidents leading to widespread radioactive contamination, and dealing with radioactive nuclear waste streams that remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.
M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and the author of The Power Of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy In India.