China Has Big Plans for Its Nuclear Energy Industry. But Will They Pan Out?
China’s voracious appetite for new nuclear power plants has helped to slow the decline in recent years of an ailing nuclear energy industry long dominated by the United States and Europe. From a late and inauspicious start in the 1990s, China’s nuclear fleet has risen to become the world’s third largest. According to Chinese government projections, within the next decade China may surpass the United States as the world’s leading nuclear energy producer.
Despite that growth, though, China is increasingly viewed less as the salvation of the Western nuclear power industry, and more as a competitive threat. Chinese companies have been eyeing export opportunities from Argentina to Saudi Arabia and from the United Kingdom to Romania. Nuclear energy officials in Japan, South Korea, France and the United States fear that China’s state-owned nuclear companies are taking advantage of the same kind of government policies and commercial practices—from protectionism and subsidies to espionage and intellectual property theft—that they believe have helped China to dominate other industrial sectors.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]
Moreover, the risks extend beyond losing market share. The United States recently imposed new restrictions on commercial trade with China for fear that ostensibly commercial exports to China were being redirected for military ends. Should China emerge as a major nuclear energy exporter, it might threaten U.S. attempts to uphold strong nuclear nonproliferation and safety standards, as well as U.S. strategic ties with some key countries.
Western companies are raising alarm bells, and Western governments are gearing up for a head-to-head contest with China over emerging nuclear markets. These fears, however, may be overblown. Despite the hopes of nuclear energy promoters, most realistic projections show that nuclear energy’s share of electricity generation is likely to hold steady or even fall. Nor is it likely that China’s nuclear growth will continue at past rates. While China will no doubt be a top-tier nuclear power producer, a number of broader decisions and factors, including China’s own economy and its energy choices along with broader global strategic forces and trade policies, are likely to determine its precise role in the future of nuclear power.
Although it began several decades after other major producers with the construction of two reactors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, China’s civil nuclear energy program soon took off. Since then, China has amassed a larger nuclear fleet than more established nuclear energy producers in Russia, Japan and South Korea. From 2009 to 2018, China accounted for nearly two-thirds of worldwide reactor startups—35 out of 59.
China currently has 45 reactors in operation, with another 15 under construction. By comparison, the United States currently operates an aging fleet of 98 reactors, while France operates 58 reactors, with the number of reactors operating in both countries expected to fall as current plants reach the end of their operating life.
Meanwhile, Beijing has sought to bring its nuclear plants up to current global safety and operating standards—so-called “Generation III” technology—with an eye to future exports. Generally, this has involved incentivizing foreign vendors to share technology by offering them a share of the lucrative Chinese market. One path began with upgrading and domesticating older, primarily French technology—known as “Generation II”—that was used in some of the earliest Chinese plants and evolved into the indigenous Hualong One reactor, in which China has invested big export plans. Another has involved a partnership with Westinghouse to build Chinese versions of the U.S. firm’s AP-1000 and AP-1400 Models—called CAP-1000 and CAP-1400, specifically—and with French state-owned companies to build a version of Orano’s EPR-1400 design.
The sizeable Chinese nuclear energy industry faces unprecedented challenges at home even as it seeks to venture into politically tricky overseas sales.
Looking to the future, China has also been engaging in research and development, including the deployment of more advanced pilot reactors, billed as “Generation IV,” that use exotic fuel—such as graphite-encased “pebbles” rather than traditional fuel rods—can float on water, or can be manufactured in a modular fashion.
China has secured sales to some smaller markets, such as Argentina and Romania, and aims to win more as part of its ambitious overseas investment push, the Belt and Road Initiative. China is also in the running for the current heated battle to sell large traditional nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, where it faces stiff competition from South Korea as well as Russia, the United States and Japan. Already, however, its state-owned nuclear giant, the China Nuclear Engineering Corporation, has inked deals with Riyadh aimed at building smaller, advanced high-temperature “pebble bed” reactors that could be used for desalination.
Even with these advancements, Chinese companies have not really broken into global markets for nuclear energy. Most of China’s nuclear sales to date have been heavily subsidized exports to Pakistan, aimed more at furthering geostrategic goals than economic benefits—and facing little or no competition. Beijing’s most ambitious overseas foray has been in the United Kingdom, which has been seeking to replace its decades-old nuclear fleet with new plants as part of its efforts to control carbon emissions. Chinese companies are subcontractors to France’s EDF in the construction of the Hinckley Point C reactor and have been reeling from the main contractor’s massive cost overruns. The project has also proven politically divisive. Bowing to security concerns, the British government in 2016 retreated from previous promises that would have allowed Chinese companies to serve as the primary operators of other plants, thwarting Beijing’s plans to use the U.K. as a foothold into leading global nuclear markets.
The British government’s decision is part of a broader Western backlash against China’s nuclear energy push. In October, the Trump administration placed restrictions on U.S technology exports to China, accusing Beijing of commercial espionage and of diverting U.S. nuclear technology toward military uses such as propulsion systems for submarines and aircraft carriers. More Western governments are also claiming that Beijing wants to lure naive developing countries to buy nuclear technology with loans they cannot afford to repay, forcing them into a debt trap. They point to the fact that China does not place the strict nonproliferation requirements on its nuclear exports that countries like the United States and Japan have.
The Chinese nuclear industry is also encountering domestic headwinds. Market-based economic reforms, a reconfigured electrical grid providing more room for alternative energy, a slowing economy, and growing public concerns about nuclear safety since the 2011 Fukushima accident in nearby Japan threaten to slow China’s nuclear power expansion. While construction of more than a dozen reactors continues, ground has not been broken for a new nuclear site since 2016, and new construction remains limited to China’s coastal areas.
It’s hard and hazardous to predict what’s in store for China and its nuclear ambitions. As in other industrial areas, the Chinese nuclear sector can count on strong government support and vast economic and human resources. Yet the sizeable Chinese nuclear industry faces unprecedented challenges at home even as it seeks to venture into politically tricky overseas sales. China’s efforts to produce higher quality and more advanced reactors with fewer subsidies will test the ability of its nuclear enterprises domestically and abroad at a time when the entire future of nuclear power, and of Beijing’s relations with leading energy consumers, are more and more uncertain.
Miles Pomper is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]
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