China’s push in nuclear power reached a new milestone in March when Pakistan was the first foreign country to connect a China-developed nuclear reactor to its electricity grid. The first nuclear plant in China to deploy the same technology went live in Fujian province late last year.
The feat was achieved almost 40 years after China began construction of its first nuclear power plant in Qinshan in Zhejiang province. Progress has followed a familiar pattern. Initial reliance on foreign technology transfer has given way to local expertise: in this case Hualong One was jointly developed by two state-owned giants China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power (CGN).
What’s notable is how China is commercialising third-generation nuclear power ahead of the rest of the world. Western companies have fallen behind after their own governments mothballed nuclear plans following the Fukushima disaster in Japan 10 years ago. But reaction to China’s achievement in developing its own reactor technology differs markedly around the world. Domestically Hualong One has been held up as further evidence of the nation’s progress. Elsewhere mentions of the three words – China, Pakistan and nuclear – are less celebrated, conjuring up fears of inadequate safety controls and the state-sanctioned secrecy that led to disaster in Chernobyl, 34 years ago this month.
The response in the Chinese press has been upbeat “Independent innovation was the driving force behind Hualong One,” explained Xing Ji, a leading figure in CNNC’s R&D team, adding that China needed to develop its own nuclear technology so that it “can’t be controlled by others”.
Hualong One was a “glittering achievement for a magnificent country,” agreed energy news outlet BJX.com, celebrating a success that “embodies the advantages of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics”. The news site praised the collective endeavours of 17 domestic universities and scientific institutes in launching the reactor technology, alongside the efforts of not only the two nuclear giants CNNC and CGN, but also 56 other state enterprises and 140 privately-owned firms.
The take from nearby South Korea was a little different, however. An editorial in Hankyoreh highlighted how nuclear power hasn’t always been popular in China, with protests against construction of new projects in Guangdong’s Jiangmen in 2013 and in Jiangsu in 2016 over a nuclear waste facility. Since then “the criticism has vanished amid intensifying efforts by the Chinese authorities to suppress civil movements,” the newspaper reckoned. “The only voices which ring out now are boasts about China’s autonomous development,” it pointed out.
Companies from South Korea and France are the biggest international competitors for the Chinese nuclear firms. Korea Electric Power (Kepco) has delivered another third-generation reactor that should shortly be connected to the grid in the UAE, for instance.
News of the Chinese nuclear plant in Pakistan hasn’t delighted the Indians either. An academic from New Delhi’s Centre of Airpower Studies was soon warning that Pakistan’s reactors are in violation of Chinese commitments to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (a group of countries that works to prevent nuclear proliferation).
Installations of nuclear power plants in China are set to increase. The latest Five-Year Plan sets a 70GW target for 2025, up from a 58GW in 2020, and China’s Nuclear Association forecasts that installed capacity could reach 200GW by 2035 as the country reduces its reliance on coal.
CICC, a Chinese brokerage, is even more bullish, predicting “three times the growth potential’ for nuclear capacity, hitting 200GW in coastal provinces, with a further 100GW inland. Other analysts aren’t so sure. China missed its 2020 installation target by 8GW after new approvals were halted in 2016 because of safety concerns in the wak of the Fukushima accident. The programme was restarted in the second half of 2019 but the latest Five-Year Plan suggests the government is still weighing up the merits of nuclear versus wind and solar as non-carbon energy sources. There’s certainly room for growth. In 2019, nuclear power accounted for 4.8% of China’s energy mix, compared to a 10% global average.
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