Nuclear Energy: The New Generation in China

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This summer, the first of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors – the Ohi nuclear plant –  reopened 14 months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Since the tsunami in March last year, Japan’s domestic anti-nuclear protests have increased significantly. Tens of thousands of people protested against nuclear power outside Japan’s parliament. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear groups have been growing louder on the use of renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy etc. It’s no surprise then that the Japanese government struggled over its decision of resuming the nuclear projects. Nor has this struggle been restricted just to Japan. Regarded the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, Fukushima effectively put a stopper in nuclear ambitions and power plant building across the world.

In China, since the accident occurred, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission had not approved any new nuclear power projects. This was a quick turnaround from their earlier policy, when reactors were being signed into existence almost daily. In fact, construction on 27 approved nuclear reactions were suspended after the crisis. But the Chinese appetite for power has continued unchecked and now, China is ready to resume construction of four of these pre-Fukushima approved nuclear power projects. They included the construction of a total of seven nuclear reactors, located in four provinces – Fujian, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Shandong.

China has long depended on coal as its primary energy source. Although China’s proven coal reserves are extensive – in 2011, it was estimated at 57.5 billion Mt (million tonnes), the country consumes so much coal that it became a net importer in 2007. For natural gas and oil, the proven reserves of natural gas in China are just 0.43 percent of the world’s total while the proven reserves of oil are 1.0 percent. Consequently, China imported more than half of the oil it consumed in 2010. Such a high dependency on external supply has inevitably exposed the country to serious energy security problems. Moreover, the use of fossil resources takes a heavy toll on the environment. Thus, it has become imperative for China to search for new energy sources, such as nuclear energy, solar energy, wind energy and so on.

In some aspects, nuclear energy is better than wind energy and other renewable energy sources because of its high efficiency and stability. In 2002, nuclear power supplied 20% of United States and 17% of world electricity consumption. Furthermore, a nuclear plant that is placed in a safe geological position, where it decays over a period of time. It does not produce carbon dioxide or other waste gas, so it does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. And as technology improves, the plants are not only getting safer, but more efficient as using new fuel as well as recycled fuel. For long-term considerations, it may very well be that nuclear energy is the easiest and most effective resource.

Fig. 1. Energy accident property damage by source. (Data from Benjamin K. Sovacool, Energy Policy, 2008, 36(5), 1802-1820.)

It is reported that nuclear power plant accidents rank first in terms of their economic cost, accounting for 41 percent of all property damage attributed to energy accidents (See Fig. 1). On the other hand, energy production from coal, natural gas, and hydropower has caused far more deaths due to accidents. As shown in Fig. 2, the total results on fatalities are highly dominated by one accident; when the China Shimantan Dam failed in 1975 and more than 171,000 people perished. However, nuclear power has caused fewer accidental deaths per unit of energy generated than others (See Fig. 2). In one sentence, nuclear plants provide steady base power and are close to “zero carbon“. So, as a longer interim solution, it could be logical.

Fig. 2. Energy accident fatalities by source. (Data from Benjamin K. Sovacool, Energy Policy, 2008, 36(5), 1802-1820.)

The most compelling argument against nuclear, however, is not about safety; it’s about cost. Today, nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice in China. When focusing on energy efficiency solely, nuclear is really expensive compared to the other options. Unlike other energy technologies, nuclear power requires significant government involvement because the staggering capital costs required for building, meeting numerous safety standards, and proliferation and waste concerns.

If in the future carbon dioxide emissions carry a significant “price”, however, nuclear energy could be an important option for generating electricity. We do not know whether this will occur but the nuclear option should be retained. Not just because it is an important carbon-free source of power that can potentially make a significant contribution to future electricity supply, but because it may be the only way of meeting the whole of China’s energy demands.

**The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position, opinions or policy of Student Reporter, oikos International or Stiftung Mercator Schweiz**

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