China’s Nuclear Belt & Road

Socio-technical perspectives on China’s export nuclear infrastructures

April 22-23, 2022, Boulder, CO

This will be the second of three workshops organized for the project A Tale of Two Asias: Living In and Beyond the Nuclear Age, hosted by the Center for Asian Studies. Funding for the project is being provided by the Albert Smith Nuclear Age Fund at the University of Colorado Boulder.

About the project

The Center for Asian Studies is hosting three focused workshops exploring the similarities and differences in Japanese and Chinese experiences of nuclear energy development. Already engaged in a broader examination of Asian infrastructure development through the China Made project, we explore Japanese and Chinese modes of living in the nuclear age through a socio-technical lens, including considerations of the impacts of energy infrastructures on everyday life, social movements and cultural engagements with nuclear energy development, and the political implications of infrastructural risk and vulnerability. Collectively, these workshops ask: What are the socio-technical dimensions of efforts to both survive in and move beyond the nuclear age in Asia? What do we learn from paying particular attention to the Japanese and Chinese contexts of these efforts?

In March 2021, we hosted “A Decade of Fukushima: socio-technical perspectives on surviving the nuclear age in Japan.” This first workshop in the project featured an international gathering of 10 scholars, with 5 papers presented. Workshop papers and discussion comments can be found on the project website. With this workshop, attention focused on the case of Japan which experienced a decade ago the triple disaster earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown in the northern Tohoku region. Presentations explored socio-technical perspectives on how people in Japan have lived with the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 events. Our approach for the workshop was meant to recognize that nuclear power enrolls people, as individuals and as social collectivities, into a particular and peculiar set of relationships with technology. Those relationships blur the boundaries between science and society, and between technology and culture, in unique and compelling ways. The workshop focused on questions such as: How do people – in their everyday lives – understand and practice their relationship to radiation? How do they calculate different kinds of risk? How do they come to be involved in the measurement of radiation and the science of predicting health-related effects of radiation?

About the second workshop: China’s Nuclear Belt & Road

Three years after the Fukushima disaster, China’s President Xi Jinping announced his signature foreign policy initiative: the ‘Belt & Road’ (一带一路). Designed in large part to address China’s chronic oversupply of domestic infrastructural construction capacity, much of the BRI focuses on developing energy infrastructure connectivities across Asia and beyond, with nuclear power being a significant part of this infrastructure development. With 47 existing reactors which already account for 1/5 of global nuclear power generating capacity, China proposes to build at least 30 new reactors across Asia, as part of the BRI, by 2030. This in addition to the 43 new reactors already planned for construction within China. In contrast to Japan, then, China’s future reliance on nuclear power is guaranteed. Indeed, China increasingly presents itself as a model of how to live in the nuclear age, while in Japan there has been much greater emphasis on living beyond the nuclear age.

This second workshop will explore the prospects for, and possible consequences of, China’s efforts to position itself, and Asia more broadly, as the global leader in nuclear power production. What have been the social, economic, cultural, and/or political effects and implications of China’s nuclear energy infrastructure development both within China and in other Asian countries where China is currently investing in nuclear energy development projects? In keeping with the broader project’s socio-technical lens, we hope to emphasize in our discussions the relationships between local communities and nuclear technology within the broader context of China’s growing influence throughout the Asian continent and beyond.

Workshop Program

Friday April 22nd

Venue: Center for British & Irish Studies, Norlin Library, CU Boulder Campus

9:30 – 9:45       Welcome and Introductory session (Tim Oakes, University of Colorado Boulder)

9:45 – 10:30     China’s Nuclear Cooperation and Global Security (Lynn Lee, Princeton University)

10:30 – 11:00    Break

11:00 – 11:45    China’s Pledge on Overseas Coal and the Nuclear Belt and Road (Lami Kim, US Army War College)

11:45 – 1:00     Break

1:00 – 2:30       Keynote Address China’s Nuclear Export Ambitions in Context (Jessica Lovering, Good Energy Collective)

2:30 – 3:15       Remote presentation: Exporting Reactors? Nuclear Energy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (MV Ramana, University of British Columbia)

3:15 – 3:45       Break

3:45 – 4:15       Remote presentation: The Weight of China’s Nuclear Projects May Lead to Global Spondylosis (Ipshita Bhattacharya (Jagran LakeCity University)

4:15 – 4:45       Remote presentation: Nuclear Innovation: China’s Strategy (Yi-chong Xu, Griffith University)

Saturday April 23rd

Venue: Flatirons Room, Center for Community, CU Boulder Campus

10:00-11:30      Roundtable Discussion: What’s next for China’s Nuclear Belt & Road and for nuclear power globally?


“The Weight of China’s Nuclear Projects May Lead to Global Spondylosis”

Ipshita Bhattacharya, Jagran LakeCity University, Bhopal

China launched its most ambitious plan in 2013 in form of Belt and Road Initiative. In another decade China is planning to establish and finance thirty nuclear reactor projects in BRI countries, which will have regional as well as global political implications. Since China is investing in nuclear projects it will have more dominance and interference in the global nuclear market, and in international nuclear governance. Eventually this will lead to the dependence of the BRI host countries of nuclear projects on China. Since these host countries often don’t have rigorous regulations and necessary institutions to follow the rule of law, the limitation to adhere to the application of international standards, the technological advancements, infrastructure and the knowledge to deal with the radioactive material, they will have to depend largely on China that might lead to compromised negotiations on the part of local stakeholder’s interests. In this situation the application of laissez-faire method by Beijing for the infrastructural developmental support will exempt Chinese actors from the environmental, social and legal consequences, allowing them to make profits by cutting corners. This study will explain the socio-political impact, along with technological and legal bottlenecks for BRI host countries, of these nuclear projects and critically weigh the prospective benefits of China in comparison to BRI countries hosting the nuclear projects. The second part will deal with the potential global threat posed by the Chinese strategy of bringing down gravity of nuclear trade to a level of easy open retail commerce. The dichotomy of nuclear power lies in the fact that whereas the knowhow and the technology enable and ensure national development: the grave ramifications loom large globally on its misuse or abuse.

Ipshita Bhattacharya is currently affiliated to Jagran Lakecity University, India, as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Co-Convener of the Centre for Human Rights, Gender and Social Inclusion. Ipshita’s area of academic research lies in Hybrid Warfare, South Asian and European Security issues.

“China’s Pledge on Overseas Coal and the Nuclear Belt and Road”

Lami Kim, US Army War College, Carlisle, PA

In September 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China will not build new coal power plants abroad.  How will this decision affect the Nuclear Belt and Road, China’s ambition to export nuclear power plants to the Belt and Road countries?  The Nuclear Belt and Road could be a boon from the environmental perspective.  Powering China’s massive development and infrastructure building projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with coal would be a disaster for the environment.  While renewables are not yet reliable and affordable, nuclear energy is a clean alternative to fossil fuels.  However, China’s problematic industrial safety track record, in addition to its rampant corruption problem, generate concerns about nuclear accidents.  In addition, many BRI countries mostly lack rigorous regulations and the necessary technology, know-how and personnel to handle the atoms safely.  This paper will examine the impact of China’s pledge to stop building coal power plants abroad on its ambitions for the Nuclear Belt and Road, as well as implications from the environmental/nuclear safety perspective.

Lami Kim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, a US-Korea NextGen Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Her research interests are all things nuclear, emerging technologies and international security, and security issues in East Asia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Quarterly, Global Governance, War on the Rocks, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Bureau of Asian Research, Routledge, and The Diplomat, among others. She has been interviewed by Time magazine, Al-Jazeera and the LA Times, among others. She has served as a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Wilson Center, Pacific Forum, and the Stimson Center; as a Nuclear Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; as a Visiting Fellow at Seoul National University; and also as a South Korean diplomat.  She has taught at Harvard University, Boston College, and the University of Hong Kong.  She holds a PhD degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Master’s degree from Harvard University.

“China’s Nuclear Cooperation and Global Security”

Lynn Lee, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

How would the expansion of China’s civil nuclear cooperation through the BRI affect the global nuclear security and safety culture? On the one hand, the impact may be marginal because China has been abiding by the rules and norms of the global nuclear regime. Not only has China safely operated its nuclear power reactors for decades, it has adapted to this regime through extensive bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Institutionally, the structure of this regime and China’s position in it may constrain the degree of China’s influence on the culture. On the other hand, the impact may be significant because China is exporting nuclear energy to new comer states, which renews concerns in nuclear proliferation, accident and terrorism. Also, the addition of these states that are not signatories of the 123 Agreement may weaken the U.S. control of the security and safety culture. In this paper, I first conceptualize the global nuclear regime, the current nuclear security and safety culture, and the extent of China’s civil nuclear cooperation. Then, I analyze China’s potential impact on the culture from the above mentioned angles. In terms of the methodology, I examine China’s intention and policy through analyzing Chinese official documents, academic publications and other open source material. Second, I intend to conduct semi-structured interviews with nuclear energy experts from China and its partner states including the U.S., South Korea and the UK to examine China’s actual practices in nuclear security and safety.

Lynn Lee is a PhD candidate in Security Studies in the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Her academic interests lies in nuclear issues in Northeast Asia, such as China’s nuclear strategy and military modernization, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. In her dissertation, she examines China’s influence strategy through critical infrastructure construction projects (ex. nuclear energy exports) and dual use technology transfer, and intends to contribute to the development of a counter-hegemonic theory. At Princeton, she is student director of the Center for International Security Studies. She holds a MA in China Studies from the Yenching Academy at Peking University and a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She is fluent in Korean and Mandarin, and proficient in French.

“China’s Nuclear Export Ambitions in Context”

Jessica Lovering, Good Energy Collective

China’s domestic nuclear industry has rapidly become one of the largest in the world, but their export ambitions are still in their infancy. In this keynote, I will provide context for how China’s export roadmap compares historically to other major nuclear vendor countries such as France, Canada, and the US, and how they compare with more recent players like Japan and South Korea. China is pursuing a broad strategy of influence through nuclear consisting of three components: 1) marketing its domestic Hualong reactor for export, 2) investing in existing nuclear projects abroad, such as Hinkley C in the UK, and 3) partnering with Canada and the U.S. to develop advanced reactor concepts. Using data on R&D investment and bilateral trade agreements, I will couch China’s position in the global market within a broader history of nuclear exports as a tool of leverage and diplomacy.

Jessica Lovering is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Good Energy Collective, a new organization working on progressive nuclear policy. She completed her PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her dissertation focused on how commercial nuclear trade affects international security standards and how very small nuclear reactors could be deployed at the community level. She is a Fellow with the Energy for Growth Hub, looking at how advanced nuclear can be deployed in sub-Saharan Africa. She was formerly the Director of the Energy Program at the Breakthrough Institute, a pioneering research institute changing how people think about energy and the environment. Her work at Breakthrough sought policies to spur innovation in nuclear power technologies to drive down costs and accelerate deployment as part of a solution to climate change and economic development. She has a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics from University of California Berkeley and a Master’s degree in Energy Policy from the University of Colorado.

“Exporting Reactors? Nuclear Energy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative”

M.V. Ramana, University of British Columbia

Nuclear power features prominently in China’s plans for exports of energy technologies under the Belt and Road Initiative. One Chinese official has even suggested that China build “an energy community with a shared future for mankind with nuclear power as a bond”. 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. At the same time, prospects for nuclear energy around the world have been quite dismal, with the technology’s market share in continuous decline since the mid 1990s. This talk will examine the trends in nuclear power around the world and the causes for these trends. It will then go on to examining the recent history of nuclear power export targets set by Chinese officials and agreements with various countries, as well as the specific case of the high temperature gas cooled reactor, before offering a brief prognosis of future reactor exports from China.

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 in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012) and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003). Ramana is a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the Canadian Pugwash Group, the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group, and the team that produces the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Leo Szilard Award from the American Physical Society.

“Nuclear Innovation: China’s Strategy”

Yi-chong Xu, Griffith University

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle – Sun Tzu. 

The United States and France have the world’s largest nuclear power fleets and Russia sells more power stations globally. China is catching up quickly, having the most nuclear power plants (NPP) built in the past three decades and the most NPPs under construction in the world. Most significantly it is developing advanced nuclear technologies, specifically closed fuel cycle nuclear reactors and small modular reactors, to compete in the global transition to low-carbon energy. This takes place in a near absence of global competition in these areas. Its impact will be strategic and broad, affecting not only the nuclear industry, but also industrial capacity, energy transition, international trade, and, most importantly, standard setting through international institutions such as the IAEA. In a globalised economy, who controls the standards, controls the market. With economic power and influence flowing away from fossil fuels, new sources of influence are emerging that will be anchored in a raft of technologies, among which is advanced nuclear technology. This paper examines the development of these two technologies – closed fuel cycle nuclear reactors and small modular reactors – to explain how China is engaging in global competition and to identify its potential impact. It concludes that China is not seeking to compete for global market shares with the known technologies developed more than half century ago. Rather, it is aiming for new technologies, new standards, and new markets, as it has been doing in many other sectors. This analysis provides just one example of the way in which China is reshaping the geostrategic landscape through technological innovation. 

Xu Yi-chong is professor at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, and a fellow of the Academy of Social sciences of Australia. Her research covers primarily two fields: energy and international organizations. Her energy-related work includes The Sinews of Power (2017), The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China (2010); Electricity Reform in China, India and Russia (2004); and Powering China (2002). She has also published International Organisations and Small States (2021, with Patrick Weller); The Working World of International Organisations (2018); Inside The World Bank (2009); The Governance of World Trade; and The Politics of International Organisations (2015). All of this work, and a few more, has been supported by the Australian Research Council.