Published on Tuesday March 20 2012 (AEST)
China's surging economy runs mostly on coal, which slakes four-fifths of the country's thirst for electricity. And all over China, the consequences of that dependence are apparent: Its major cities are swathed in deadly smog, regional blackouts ensue when coal trains bog down on clogged rail networks, and coal mining routinely kills more than 2000 people a year. China desperately needs alternatives to coal-fired power.
So Beijing has launched an aggressive plan to decarbonize China's economy by pushing nuclear and renewable energy to 15 percent of energy consumption by 2020, up from 9.5 percent last year. Nuclear generating capacity would rise to over 80 gigawatts from the 11.3 GW currently in place. As a result, analysts expect China to meet its environmental goal for 2020: to reduce carbon emissions per yuan of economic output by 40 percent compared with 2005 levels.
To meet its nuclear numbers, China has embarked on the world's biggest reactor building program. Beijing has standardized its nuclear juggernaut around two pressurized water reactor designs: the Chinese/French CPR-1000, designed in the 1990s, and Westinghouse Electric's AP1000, designed in the 2000s. The country is turning both types out at high speed. According to the World Nuclear Association, 14 reactors were operating as of September, and 26 more were under construction. China's Ministry of Environmental Protection has said that 100 reactors may be feeding the grid by 2020. "They are not just building nuclear power plants. They are building an entire industry," says Chi-Jen Yang, a technology policy expert at Duke University's Center on Global Change.
Nevertheless, the Fukushima disaster has highlighted the risks of the nation's aggressive nuclear build-out. In Fukushima's wake Chinese leaders put new reactor projects on hold while they reviewed the safety of existing ones. Officials concerned by a potential shortfall of trained reactor operators and inspectors suggested trimming China's 2020 goal for more than 80 GW nuclear capacity by 10 GW or so. Experts also worry that corrupt management of the build-out could affect the safety of China's reactors. As Yang puts it: "If everything is done well, the risks should be low. But we don't know if everything is done correctly."
China may well resume all of its planned projects once the post-Fukushima reviews are complete. But Yang says that safety concerns may cause China to focus its efforts on the Westinghouse AP1000 instead of the CPR-1000. Modest cost made the CPR-1000 attractive, but like Fukushima's second-generation reactors, its emergency cooling systems require electricity. The third-generation AP1000 reactor, in contrast, has a passive cooling system: water stored atop the plant's pressure vessel, ready to be gravity-fed to the reactor core below.
Meanwhile China's state-owned utilities have raced far ahead of Beijing's official goals for renewable energy. More than 40 GW of wind power was installed by the end of 2010, smashing the 5 GW target set by Beijing three years earlier.
China's investments could transform the country by midcentury. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report projects that China could install as much as 550 GW of nuclear capacity and 970 GW of wind, hydro, and solar power by 2050. Combined with energy efficiency upgrades, that surge of low-carbon electricity would slash China's annual CO2 emissions from power generation to nearly one-fifth their current level.
Yang sees a possibility that China's central planners could build enough momentum within a decade to leave the United States behind if Washington doesn't adopt carbon-reduction measures to drive its economy off coal. "If the U.S. policymakers continue to postpone," says Yang, "the U.S. may someday find itself unable to catch up."