China now leads the world in total energy production and also produces almost twice the amount of electricity that the United States does, 4.4 trillion kWh versus 7.5 trillion kWh per year, respectively.
With over a third of China’s population still being energy poor or in abject poverty, this will grow even more.
And a lot of it will come from nuclear.
As of this month, China has 49 nuclear reactors in operation with a capacity of 47.5 GW, third only to the United States and France. And 17 under construction with a capacity of 18.5 GW. None have been shut down. Nuclear provides only 2% of China’s electrical power now, but the country intends nuclear to eventually surpass all other sources.
This is just about half of the nuclear capacity of the United States which has 94 nuclear reactors in operation with a capacity of 96.5 GW and 2 under construction with a capacity of 2.2 GW. But 39 reactors have been shutdown, many for no particularly good reason. Even so, nuclear provides 20% of America’s electrical power, and most of its non-fossil sources.
China has previously drawn nuclear technology from France, Canada and Russia, but the latest technology acquisition has been from America via Westinghouse (now owned by Japan’s Toshiba) and France. The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is now the main basis of nuclear technology development in China’s immediate future, and is the basis for China’s recent CAP1400 and CAP1000 domestic reactors.
But the future will belong to China’s Hualong One and Two technologies, a domestically-developed third-generation reactor design. The first Hualong One unit started commercial operation on January 30th of this year.
The Hualong technology was jointly developed by the China National Nuclear Corporation and the China General Nuclear Power Corporation. Eighty-eight percent of its components are made domestically, including all core equipment, suggesting mass production capability.
During their 13th Five-Year Plan period from 2016 to 2020, China built 20 new nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 23.4 GW, doubling their total capacity to 47 GW. And that is expected to happen again during their next 5-year plan, which has a new target of 70GW of nuclear generation before 2025. And it keeps going.
According to Luo Qi of China’s Atomic Energy Research Initiative, “By 2035, nuclear plants in operation should reach around 180 GW” which will be more nuclear than the United States and France combined. China is even setting up a nuclear university in Tianjin to train nuclear workers for this expansion.
But it won’t stop there. President Xi Jinping told a United Nations summit that China would aim to reduce its carbon emissions to net-zero by 2060. And at somewhere north of 10 trillion kWh/year by that time, that’s going to take a lot of nuclear, hydro, wind and renewables.
But nuclear will its core.
Not that coal will disappear anytime soon from the country. In 2020, China built 38.4 GW of new coal-fired generation, albeit cleaner than prior plants. Since the country’s power demand has increased over the last year by 3%, despite the coronavirus pandemic, China still sees coal as a necessity.
That’s because China’s energy policies have little to do with climate change, they don’t particularly care. They care about their country’s rising middle class, its position as the global leader in manufacturing, their growing military strength and the energy security of a diverse mix.
Coal was simply the easiest and quickest way to get enough energy to enter the world’s exclusive top economic club. But the health issues that go along with massive coal use has China trying to bring up alternatives even faster than it did with coal.
Which is pretty fast. China built almost 600 coal-fired power plants in under 18 years beginning in 1992. This was the largest energy expansion in history, the direct consequence being the appearance of 500 million middle-class Chinese by 2010. Since any country’s economic and military strength derives directly from the absolute number of middle class citizens in its population, this began the new world economic order in which the visit of an American President to Beijing became no big deal.
China’s new energy expansion is meant to bring its other 600 million people into the middle class from their present place in poverty. Barring some bizarre event, which is possible in any authoritarian government, this will happen before mid-century. At that point, China’s GDP will pass ours, their conventional military will be enormous, their dominance of Asia and the Pacific will be uncontested and they will be our biggest worry.
Which they really are now. We just haven’t woken up from our 20th century supreme dream.