China Nuke Dreams: Paper Dragon?

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., January 17, 2011 – With Hu Jintao, China’s president, in Washington this week, it is worth taking a look at that mammoth country’s energy future. More specifically, it is valuable to look at China’s announced ambitious nuclear power agenda and ask whether it can be realized.

China at the end of 2009 had only 11 nuclear units at six stations operating in the country, with an installed capacity of 9 GW, or about 1.3% of the total installed electric generating capacity. This despite a nuclear energy program that began about the same time as that of Britain and before France discovered nukes. While the Chinese nuclear program has centered on weapons, the country since the early 1970s has stated a desire to develop a robust civilian power program, to little avail. Earlier plans to boost civilian nuclear power in China largely failed.

Now China is pushing atomic power in a big way. Remember that, mimicking the days of Stalin and the Soviet Union, China pursues progress through central five-year plans (regardless of whether those plans come to fruition, which they seldom do). The 10th FYP, for 2000-05, called for construction of 14 new reactors. In 2005, the new plan called for 40 GW of nuclear by 2020, with another 18 units under construction. The 2009 plan calls for 65 GW by 2020.

Will this happen? It is easy for Americans to be mesmerized by China. The country’s propaganda pushes that state of policy hypnosis. We largely view the country as a centrally-planned monolith where, when the party says “jump,” the people ask, “how high and when may we come down?”

But China scholars caution that it’s lot messier than that on the ground, where competing forces swirl and swarm around major economic and policy issues. The New York Times recently quoted Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to George H.W. Bush and mentor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “There is a remarkable amount of chaos in the system, more than you ever saw dealing with the Chinese 20 years ago. The military doesn’t participate in the system the way it once did. They are more autonomous — and so are a lot of others.”

In her new book “The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China,” Xu Yi-chong at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, warns readers not to be seduced by the image that China has, and perpetrates, in the world outside. She suggests that while China may be able to pull off a great nuclear leap forward, it’s not a given.

The raw numbers are daunting. Notes Xu, China will have to build two-to-three new units every year over the next decade. “At its peak,” she writes, “the U.S. managed to build 4.63 units a year. France built 13 units in 1976-1980 and another 24 units in 1981-1985, an equivalent of 3-4 units a year. The construction span was 67 months.” If China could equal the French pace, it might hit 40 GW by 2020 with another 20-30 in the pipeline, close enough to the 65 GW target for government work.

A relevant aside here: should China succeed in meeting its nuclear goals, it would still be a pipsqueak in the world of civilian nuclear powers; 40 GW of nukes would amount to only 2.7% of the country’s generating capacity, by Xu’s figures. Nukes produce 75% of French electricity, 29% in Japan, 35% in South Korea, 20% in the U.S., and 20% in Taiwan, the break-away island nation that China still claims as its own.

Getting there won’t be easy, says Xu. There are competing demands for financial resources in China, and for development. China has the money, she says, but faces a bifurcated population with demands for economic equity “between the richer and more developed coastal regions where nuclear power plants probably will be built and poor interior provinces whose demand for financial resources is even greater, equity between the nuclear and other energy sectors, and equity between those whose electricity consumption is reaching the level of middle-income countries” and those millions without any electricity at all.

Philip Short’s extraordinary 1999 biography “Mao: A Life,” (at 782-pages, it is a large red book) makes the fundamental point that China’s revolution, while nominally Communist, was built on the backs of the rural peasantry. Since the 1949 revolution, the party’s largest fear is a counter-revolution by the rural, plow-pushing proletariat if it perceives it is being left out of Chinese economic progress. In China, Xu notes, everything, including the choice of energy technology, “is political.”

While China is a one-party state, not accountable through elections, the internal politics are real and decisive. “Evidence shows that nuclear energy expansion in China is not, as is occasionally implied, devised out of a single plan from a dominant regime, transferred from the top level of government to its scientists and the industry,” Xu argues. “Decision making in this sector has always been based on a fragmented authoritarian structure. It has become more fragmented and competitive as the debate among various interests is brought into the open and has become increasingly lively.”

So, as Mr. Hu comes to Washington, will his country’s nuclear ambitious bloom? According to Professor Xu, it is an open question.

Xu Yi-chong, “The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China,” Palgrave McMillan, 2010.