China’s efforts to curtail coal consumption and bring spiralling greenhouse gas emissions under control by 2030 could be stymied by the slow pace of its nuclear reactor programme, with safety concerns still holding back new approvals.
The new target could require 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of new clean generating capacity, but with renewables like wind subject to technical constraints and hydropower also nearing its peak, nuclear stands to play a decisive role, government officials and policy researchers say.
“Nuclear power is China’s only scalable replacement energy and is a vital choice in China’s energy strategy,” said Guo Chengzhan, vice-head of China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, at a briefing in early November.
Teng Fei, a Tsinghua University researcher who studies China’s emissions targets, told Reuters that without nuclear, “peak carbon” could be delayed by as long as a decade.
Government-backed think tanks have said China should aim for at least 200 GW of nuclear capacity by 2030, up from 18 GW now, but while state nuclear firms are capable of building more than 10 GW a year, they have been held back by regulators – especially after the 2011 Fukushima crisis in Japan.
Before Fukushima, Chinese nuclear executives said they could raise capacity to more than 100 GW by the end of 2020 and to 200 GW over the following decade, but the disaster forced a year-long halt to all construction, pending nationwide safety checks.
The official 2020 target now stands at 58 GW, which would still require around 40 reactors to go into operation in the next six years – a task already thought to be beyond China.
Assuming the 28 GW now under construction is completed in time, China would need to approve and build another 12 reactors quickly if it is to have any hope of hitting 58 GW by 2020, said Li Ning, nuclear expert and dean of the School of Energy Research at China’s Xiamen University.
“Meeting that target is unlikely because they still haven’t approved any new projects, and they won’t approve too many at the same time because it will create bottlenecks,” he said.