China Embarks on Nuclear Power Construction

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, November 2004 | Go to article overview

China Embarks on Nuclear Power Construction

Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review

THE dynamic new rulers of China have embarked on an environment-oriented industrial modernization programme that may well affect the energy economy of the world. The centrepiece of the plan is the construction of more than 30 large reactors over the next sixteen years. Many fear that the programme could weaken further the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. China suffers from enormous energy-related environmental problems. The master-plan is intended to answer the dual challenge of growing electricity shortages resulting from the increasing energy demands of the accelerating national economy while reducing environmental pollution generated by coal-burning power plants. Bids are to be invited shortly. The export opportunities perceived by the world nuclear power industry are enormous. The industry has suffered a relentless construction slump in the West since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Nuclear power now generates about a sixth of the world's electricity consumption. But the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency believes that its proportion may well rise to a quarter by 2020, with substantial further expansion forecast for the following decades. The agency projects a nuclear construction boom focused initially on Asia. Already, 22 of the last 31 reactors to come online worldwide are in Asia. The region is also building 18 of the 27 reactors under construction around the world.

In the long term, China aims to become self-sufficient in reactor design and construction as well as uranium supply and fuel production. Its energy planners want to increase nuclear power generation from 6,200 MW now to 32,000 MW by the year 2020. They have set out to revise the entire national energy economy in order to exploit to maximum effect their relatively modest available natural resources. Their development master-plan bears the signature of China's relatively young leadership that rose to power in March 2003 when Wen Jinbao became premier and Hu Jintao assumed the country's presidency as well as the chairmanship of the ruling Communist Party, and he has just assumed command of the Army. The plan calls for more than doubling electricity output by 2020. It also envisages measures affecting all the energy industries, intended to moderate reliance on many polluting, obsolete, coal-burning power plants which are blamed for some of the worst environmental conditions endured by major cities anywhere.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization, seven of the world's ten most polluted cities are in China. The country's heavy use of unwashed coal results in large emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. It is also expected to produce the world's largest absolute growth in emissions of carbon dioxide (a significant Greenhouse gas) between now and the year 2020. Acid rain produced by the use of high-sulphur coal as a fuel has contributed to widespread deforestation and desertification, with an estimated one-fifth of China's scarce agricultural land lost to soil erosion since 1945. Water shortages often related to unwise hydropower development as well as industrial pollution are now being experienced throughout the country, especially in urban areas and in the north. Much of the population still lacks access to potable water.

China is the most populous country on earth. It is the second largest energy consumer after the United States. Its production and consumption of coal is the highest in the world. The reforms projected by the master-plan may therefore make a substantial impact on the global energy balance. Electricity generated by nuclear power accounted for only 1.4 per cent of China's total electricity supply by May 2003, compared to 16 per cent in developed countries, according to figures released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Most electricity produced in mainland China is supplied by fossil fuels (about 80 per cent, mainly coal) and hydropower. About 340 GW is installed. …

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