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Dark Horse Contender for Decarbonization: Nuclear Power in China

Date & Time

Apr. 13, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am ET


In 2021, President Xi Jinping pledged to end Beijing’s investments into dirty fossil fuels abroad, hinting that lower carbon Belt and Road investments will be on the rise. China is a leader in nuclear power and has pledged over the next 15 years to build more than 150 nuclear power stations as part of a Green BRI, creating a unique opportunity for a new wave of clean and competitive nuclear power plants. China’s, and maybe the world’s, climate goals could hinge on this $440 billion nuclear buildout, which is more than the rest of the world has built over the past 4 decades. 

Speakers at this China Environment Forum event will explore how China has been expanding nuclear power both at home and abroad. While supply chain problems and slower global growth from the pandemic could lead Chinese policymakers to scale back their nuclear power plant targets, they still view this form of low carbon power as vital to help China to meet its 2060 net zero goals.

Cory Combs (Trivium China) will review how nuclear can help China prevent future energy crises and how, despite ongoing pricing obstacles, the nuclear industry could expand to support the country’s net zero carbon policies.. Drawing from his extensive research into Chinese state-owned nuclear power enterprises, Ravi Madhavan (University of Pittsburgh) will speak about the technical and organizational capabilities that could help China ramp up its domestic nuclear power and achieve leadership overseas, although not as fast as many have projected. Lami Kim (Army War College) will examine China’s efforts to export its nuclear reactors around the world, and discuss recent changes in environmental policy and geopolitics that improve the prospects for its success.

Selected Quotes

Cory Combs:

  • China faces market structure barriers as it transitions to net zero. The market was developed in post-Mao era, which is not designed for a unified national system. It’s designed to be provincial specific and based on coal. And its legacy has been carried to today.
  • Coal is the basis of energy security. Given the pandemic and Ukraine, China has doubled down on coal. Now, China’s policy goal is to have a clean energy transition with zero risk, which is not possible. It’s a question of how to manage the risks and variables of global energy.
  • China’s climate target and broad decarbonization effort is here to stay but there is a short-term push and pull with coal. The key is how fast China will move away from coal and towards other sectors. And nuclear will be part of long-term energy strategy.
  • China needs markets for its nuclear power. It’s not just about China being able to build nuclear technology, but whether others, including domestic provincial markets, would buy Chinese nuclear technology.

Ravi Madhavan:

  • Nuclear power is a very complex capability. China’s manufacturing capability has mostly been in low end areas, but China has the ambition to master complex capability like nuclear power.
  • China has accomplished a great deal on nuclear hardware but it has been the easy part. The soft part is the difficult part: the safety culture, the innovation culture, and the management of supply chains on the global scale.
  • As of today, China has 53 operating nuclear reactors, and 19 reactions are under construction. In comparison, the US has 94 reactors. In China, 5 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power compared to 19 percent in the US.
  • Re-innovation has led to domestic designs of Hualong One and Guohe One. Both of which trace their origins back to foreign technology, but there is significant domestic input.

Lami Kim

  • China has become the third largest nuclear energy generator and is expected to become the largest before 2030. The large domestic market allows China to reach economies of scale and reduce the costs of building nuclear reactors, which enables China to provided attractive prices when exporting nuclear.
  • China has the potential to lead global nuclear power and providing financing for nuclear power plants abroad.
  • Russian’s invasion of Ukraine has two major implications for nuclear energy. First, it is driving up the demand for nuclear energy as European countries try to reduce reliance on Russian oil. At the same time, Russia being the leader in the nuclear market, making up 60 percent of global reactor, is being pushed out of the nuclear market. With Russian’s damaged reputation and economic turmoil, China has the strong potential to fill this gap.

Hosted By

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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