Across the East China Sea, west of Japan and its ongoing crisis, sits the growing Qinshan nuclear power plant, where four new pressurized-water reactors are under construction in addition to the five already operating on-site. The Qinshan addition is one of 20 new nuclear power plants undergoing construction or approved for construction in China today, part of a bid to increase the nuclear share of China's electricity-generating capacity from less than 2 percent to 5 percent. That means China is building nearly half of all the nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Association.
"Now in China we have 13 nuclear power reactors in operation," said Zhang Guobao, former vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission—the government agency charged with setting energy and industrial policy—via a translator during a visit to NDRC headquarters in Beijing this past November. "In comparison with countries like the U.S.A. and France, this number is very small, [but] we are first in the world in the construction of new nuclear reactors."
China's newly released five-year plan requires that China source 11.4 percent of its energy needs from other than fossil-fuel—at least 43 gigawatts of that to come from nuclear alone—up from slightly more than 8 percent now. Further, Chinese officials have announced plans to explicitly cap China's total energy use at four billion metric tons of coal-equivalent by 2015; they also have drafted a "New Energy Industry Development Plan" that would invest amore than $750 billion in "new energy," which includes nuclear, in the next decade.
But the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 14-meter-high tsunami on March 11 has given cause for concern. A State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao has put a halt to new nuclear construction and approval. "We will temporarily suspend approval for nuclear power projects," the State Council said in a statement following a meeting on March 16. "Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants."
That will be temporary. "China's energy mix is dominated by coal," explained Guobao, who retired this year. "In the near future it is our priority to increase the proportion of nuclear and renewable energy in our energy mix."
China's currently operating reactors deliver nearly 11 gigawatts of electricity—or more than half the amount delivered by the nation's notorious Three Gorges Dam alone. And China is building 25 more reactors. "By 2020, installed [nuclear] capacity could reach over 70 gigawatts," Guobao said, although the current five-year plan for nuclear is to boost it from 10 to 50 gigawatts by 2015.
But that would still be only a fraction of the electricity produced by burning coal. "For the foreseeable future, coal will continue to take up a big part of our energy mix," Guobao said.
Nuclear with Chinese characteristics
China's new nuclear future is a mix of its own and foreign reactor designs. China has or is building heavy-water reactors from Canada, "evolutionary" pressurized-water reactors from France, pebble-bed reactors tested in South Africa, and even is working on reactors that would use molten salt for cooling and thorium for fuel. China has become the nuclear industry's living laboratory for new reactor designs and the learning that comes from actual construction.