- China is expected to surpass the United States in nuclear power within 10 years, having already surpassed the United States in coal generation as well as being the world’s number one hydropower nation.
- In the United States, nuclear construction has literally stalled, with more retirements than recent additions to the nuclear fleet.
- China has increased its electricity generation 500 percent since 2000 and is continuing its growth to power the factories that produce much of the world’s goods.
- China is working with Russia on a fast breeder reactor which will produce more plutonium than it consumes, and may provide a source of fissionable material for China’s rapidly growing nuclear weapon stockpile.
China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, is projected to surpass the United States as the largest producer of nuclear power within a decade. The United States produces 30.3 percent of the world’s nuclear generation, but its progress has essentially stalled, while China has tripled its nuclear generating supply in 10 years. India, which is the world’s second-largest coal consumer after China, is also increasing its nuclear production. While the United States did add Vogtle 3 to the grid in April 2023 and Vogtle 4 is expected to commence operation early in 2024, these nuclear units were decades in the planning and construction with no other nuclear units in the queue or even in the planning stage. Before 1986, the world was adding 500 terawatts of nuclear power per decade, but growth slumped after the Chernobyl accident. Then, Fukushima 25 years later caused global nuclear power generation to contract. Nuclear power emits close to zero carbon emissions and because it can generate power 24/7, it is a better buy than offshore wind, whose costs are over 40 percent higher without adding in cost of back-up power to cover its inherent intermittency. Back-up power in the form of batteries is very expensive.
Global Nuclear Power Growth
China has 21 nuclear reactors under construction with a capacity of 21.61 gigawatts, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That amount is more than two and a half times more nuclear reactors under construction than any other country. India has the second largest nuclear buildout, with eight reactors under construction with more than six gigawatts of capacity. In third place is Turkey with four nuclear reactors under construction with a capacity of 4.5 gigawatts.
As mentioned above, the United States has one nuclear reactor under construction, which is the fourth reactor at the Vogtle power plant in Georgia, with a capacity of just over 1 gigawatt. The United States has 93 nuclear reactors operating with a capacity of over 95 gigawatts, according to the IAEA, which is more than any other country. Nuclear reactors can be licensed to operate for 60 years and in some cases for as long as 80 years, according to the World Nuclear Association in a recent report on the nuclear supply chain. Despite that, nuclear power is having trouble in the United States as the financing of capital-intensive power projects is difficult, and lower natural gas prices since 2009 have put the economic viability of some existing reactors and future proposed projects in doubt.
The country with the next most operating nuclear reactors is France with 56 reactors and a capacity of more than 61 gigawatts, according to the IAEA. China is third with 55 operating reactors and capacity of over 53 gigawatts. China produces 15.6 percent of the world’s total nuclear production and France produces 11 Percent.
China’s Electricity Demand and Nuclear Plans
As China’s economy has grown, so too has its energy requirements. China’s total energy output reached 7,600 terawatt hours in 2020, a 500 percent increase from 1,280 terawatt hours in 2000, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Currently, nuclear energy accounts for only 5 percent of the total amount of electricity produced in China, while coal accounts for about two-thirds, according to the International Energy Agency. However, since nuclear energy generation does not release greenhouse gasses, China has turned to it as a way to produce large quantities of “clean” energy fast.
China started its nuclear program by buying reactors from France, the United States and Russia, and built a primary homegrown reactor, the Hualong, with cooperation from France. It now seems to be on track for a massive scale up of 150 gigawatts of nuclear power in 15 years. China can dominate nuclear power growth because the government has strong control over the energy sector, and most of the economy. China built a state-supported, finance industry that allows it to build multiple nuclear units at lower cost. Its state financing, state supported supply chain, and a state commitment to build the technology allows for the massive build up in nuclear units.
Geopolitical Issues with China’s Nuclear Program
A new reactor being built along the Chinese coast, 135 miles from Taiwan, reportedly contains Russian-supplied nuclear material. The reactor is a fast breeder makes plutonium, a top fuel of atom bombs. A fast breeder reactor produces more fuel than it consumes, reducing the demand for nuclear fuel. Earlier this year, Russia completed the delivery of 25 tons of highly enriched uranium to get production started. The estimated size of Russia and China’s combined nuclear weapon arsenals could “dwarf that of the United States,” according to the New York Times. China has asserted that the reactor is only for civilian purposes and while there is no evidence that Russia and China are collaborating to produce nuclear weapons, the United States is now facing the challenge of managing a “three-way nuclear rivalry,” according to the New York Times. When President Xi Jinping met President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow this year, Russia’s nuclear agency and the China Atomic Energy Authority signed an agreement to extend their cooperation for years, if not decades.
China’s electric building program includes nuclear reactors as well as coal-fired plants, along with the world’s largest hydropower fleet, by far. In fact, China now ranks third in the number of operating nuclear power reactors in the world and first in terms of building additional nuclear reactors, and stands to strip the United States of its number one nuclear position within 10 years. China has 21 reactors under active construction and is planning 150 gigawatts of nuclear power additions in 15 years. The U.S. nuclear program, in contrast, is essentially non-existent despite nuclear power generating no greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear is not a politically correct technology in the eyes of the White House nor the Democrats in Congress as environmentalists do not favor it.