Post-Fukushima Nuclear Power Development in China

China regards nuclear energy as a critical part of its strategic goal of achieving sustainable economic development while reducing environmental pollution. An analysis by North China Electric Power University predicts that the pace of nuclear power development may slow for a short time as a result of the Fukushima accident, but nuclear power is still a top development priority.

Promoting the development of cleaner energy has become one of the most efficient ways of enabling energy-sustainable development and mitigating environmental pollution problems. Because nuclear energy is clean and reliable, it has attracted worldwide attention, and many countries have made it a significant strategy in their efficient energy production and pollution reduction plans. However, the nuclear incident at Japan’s Fukushima plant caused by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 significantly slowed development of the nuclear power industry in some countries, and others are on course to soon eliminate nuclear power. We have investigated the short- and long-term effects the Japanese accident has had on development of China’s nuclear industry and its energy strategy, particularly with respect to China’s future plans for nuclear power and the immediate measures the government and energy enterprises put into practice shortly after the earthquake.

The result of our analysis of China’s commitment to nuclear power is summarized in this article. In sum, the pace of nuclear power development will be slowed in the short run, but nuclear power will remain a key technology in China’s long-term development priorities.

Historical Perspective

In March 2011, the Daiichi plant at Japan’s Fukushima complex was hit by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, causing a leakage of radioactivity. The accident, thought to be the most serious recorded since the Chernobyl disaster, has reverberated through the global nuclear power industry and has forever changed the nuclear power development strategy of many countries.

After Fukushima, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made it clear that France would neither give up the exploitation and utilization of nuclear energy nor evade any nuclear security issue. The United States announced that it would continue with its “nuclear renaissance” strategy and invest more financial resources in nuclear energy research as well. Conversely, Germany announced it would temporarily shut down seven nuclear power plants and permanently close all its nuclear plants by 2022.

The Chinese government and its nuclear energy experts also reexamined the future development of nuclear power and the important role it plays in China’s energy strategy. With rapid economic development, many countries, including China, are facing severe energy and environmental stresses. In recent years, environmental pollution and ecological imbalance problems caused by coal, oil, and other forms of fossil energy utilization have become important factors restricting China’s economic development. As a country with high energy consumption and equally high air emissions, China’s electricity suppliers are facing mounting pressure to support economic growth while also reducing emissions. (See “China’s 12th Five-Year Plan Pushes Power Industry in New Directions” in the January 2012 issue of POWER, available in the archives at https://www.powermag.com.)

Compared with traditional fossil energy, nuclear power is more efficient and less polluting. It is considered the most promising form of energy to help alleviate the energy crisis and improve the energy infrastructure, thus controlling environmental pollution and climate change threats. In 2007, China’s State Council approved the National Development and Reform Commission’s “Medium- and Long-Term Nuclear Power Development Plan (2005–2020).” It outlines China’s plans to increase the nation’s nuclear capacity to about 40 GWe by 2020 and increase nuclear’s share of total capacity to 4%. A 2007 State Council Information Office white paper, “China’s Energy Conditions and Policies,” further enshrined nuclear energy as an indispensable energy option.

Nuclear Power in China

As energy supply is becoming a bottleneck restricting China’s economic and social development, nuclear energy has become China’s consensus choice for alleviating energy shortages. As early as the 1970s, the State Council made the decision to develop the nuclear industry. In 2004, China changed its nuclear power development strategy from “moderate development” to “positive development.” By introducing technology and independent innovation, the production capacity of China’s nuclear fuel cycle system continued to expand. Today, China has become one of the few countries possessing a relatively complete nuclear industry system and already has the technical conditions to speed up development of nuclear power. The following sections examine key characteristics of China’s nuclear power development program.

Installed Capacity. The first nuclear reactor put into commercial operation was Unit 1 of Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant, built in 1991, with a net installed capacity of 279 MWe (Figure 1). Since 2000, China’s nuclear development plan has been to develop “installed capacity 40 GW, and under construction 18 GW by 2020,” directed by the policy of “promoting the development of nuclear power actively.” With financial and political support, the bulk of new nuclear power stations have been recently built in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Fujian, and Shandong coastal areas. Driven by massive electric demand, nuclear power stations also have been constructed in Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Sichuan, Chongqing, and other inland provinces, breaking the pattern of building nuclear power stations only in coastal areas.

1. China’s first reactor. Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1 was the first nuclear plant designed, constructed, operated, and managed by China. The 310-MW Unit 1 entered service in 1991. Four additional units have since entered service on adjoining sites, with the sixth unit expected to complete construction the end of this year. Three additional units are under construction. Courtesy: China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co., Ltd.

By the end of 2010, the total capacity of the 13 generation units in operation was more than 10 GW, and the capacity of the 32 generation units under construction was more than 30 GW. Still, there are more than 30 stations with almost 100 generating units pre-planned or waiting for approval. The nuclear reactors built or under construction in China are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Nuclear plants in service or under construction in China. Source: China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co., Ltd.

According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), by the end of January 2011 there were 442 nuclear power units in operation around the world, mainly distributed in North America, Asia, and Europe, accounting for 16% of the world’s total power production (see “What Worldwide Nuclear Growth Slowdown?” p. 42). There also were 65 units under construction, including China’s 30 units. At present, there are 14 nuclear reactors in operation in China, with a total net installed capacity of 11.169 GW, accounting for 1.16% of China’s total installed capacity, with its power production equivalent to 31.72 million tons of coal.

According to data from the China Electricity Council and the “Medium- and Long-Term Nuclear Power Development Plan,” China’s nuclear power installed capacity currently ranks 11th in the world. China will maintain a steady growth rate in the next decades, reaching an estimated 86 GW by 2020, an average annual growth rate of 6.5 GW, 2.5 times the total of 2.6 GW placed in operation from 2002 to 2007, ranking the first in the world. China’s new added nuclear capacity in operation and the installed capacity forecasts are shown in Figures 2 and 3.

2. New nuclear capacity addition amounts and growth rate of new nuclear construction. Source: China Electricity Council

3. Total installed nuclear capacity by year and total nuclear capacity growth rate. Source: China Electricity Council

Power Production. Nuclear electricity production accounted for 15.5% of the world’s total electricity production in 2010. For individual countries, France produces 75.9% of its electricity using nuclear energy, followed by the Ukraine (47.3%), South Korea (29.9%), and Japan (26.0%), according to the IEA’s Key World Energy Statistics 2012.

In China, the power system remains highly dependent on thermal power plants. Though the total production of hydropower, nuclear power, and wind power has increased more than sevenfold from 1985 to 2009, thermal power still accounts for 78% of the total electricity produced in China (see “China’s Power Generators Face Many Business Barriers,” in the September 2012 issue).

With its shortage of coal resources, developing clean energy like nuclear power has become one of the key measures to realizing China’s sustainable development goals. As shown in Figure 4, in the past nine years nuclear power production in China shows a growing trend and reached 87,400 GWh in 2011. However, this accounts for just 1.85% of total power production at present—a level that still lags behind the level of developed countries. Even so, the combined capacity of reactors under construction, planned, and proposed in China amounts to 184,540 MWe, accounting for 32% of the world total and ranking first in capacity, offering China the most potential to develop nuclear power in the future.

4. Nuclear power production in China during the period 2003–2011. The absolute amount of nuclear-generated China Electricity Council

Development Plans. In general, future nuclear projects approved are mainly coastal and expansion projects. In 2020, the construction of AP1000 units is expected to account for about 30%, and the capacity of “second generation” units will still account for more than 50%. Based on the “Medium- and Long-Term Nuclear Power Development Plan,” China’s nuclear power development will maintain a rapid growth rate into the future.

Since 2005, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Fujian, Shandong, and other coastal provinces in China have accelerated the pace of nuclear power development. Moreover, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Jilin, Chongqing, Henan, and other central provinces are also actively implementing nuclear power projects driven by surging power demand in each region. In China, nuclear power development in inland and coastal cities will occur simultaneously, forming an “east-central nuclear belt” (Figure 5).

5. Nuclear power in China. Illustrated are the locations of plants pre-planned, approved, under construction, or in operation. Source: Department of Environmental Protection of Nuclear and Radiation Safety Center

In recent decades, China has accumulated a wealth of experience in nuclear power development in engineering design, equipment manufacturing, construction, operation, and management, cultivating a great number of technology and management personnel with high professional standards and practical experience. This is especially important for the introduction of third-generation Chinese nuclear power technology and increasing the proportion of local nuclear power equipment.

Nuclear fuel procurement is also an important part of China’s accelerating nuclear program. More than 200 uranium mines have been identified in Jiangnan, Qinling, Tianshan Mountain, Qilian, Yanliao, western Yunnan, and other regions in China, with total proved reserves of 44,000 metric tons (t), accounting for about 2% of the world’s total reserves, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, China’s uranium output has always been at low levels, even declining at times compared with several years ago. In 2008, China’s uranium output was merely 769 t, and the shortage was met largely through imports from Kazakhstan, Russia, Namibia, and Australia.

China’s Post-Fukushima Response

The March 2011 Fukushima accident brought the issue of nuclear power security and sustainability to worldwide attention. With nearly 40% of the world’s nuclear reactors under construction in China, the focus of China’s nuclear development strategy is to learn lessons from this event and ensure the same mistakes aren’t repeated in China. Some of the measures taken in China are described below.

Make Policy Shifts. On March 16, 2011, Premier Wen Jia-bao presided over a State Council executive meeting that decided to organize immediately a comprehensive safety inspection of all nuclear facilities. Specifically, it was decided that safety management of the nuclear facilities in operation should be strengthened, new nuclear power projects should undergo a more strict approval process, and nuclear safety plans and a medium- and long-term nuclear development plan should be drawn up and improved as quickly as possible. The meeting also determined that approval of all the new nuclear power projects, including those with preparatory work already carried out, should be suspended until the nuclear safety plan is established. In short, measures should be taken to ensure the absolute safety of nuclear power development.

On the same day, China’s Environmental Protection Department issued new regulations for environmental radiation protection of nuclear power plants, which defined the necessary site conditions for new nuclear power plants. According to the new regulations, environmental characteristics such as geology, earthquakes, and other potential hazards caused by nature or by humans should be considered when evaluating a site’s suitability for a nuclear plant.

Develop New Regulations. To perfect nuclear safety laws and regulations, China is speeding up legislative work on the Atomic Energy Act and its supporting regulations, formulating and perfecting management methods related to scientific research, exploitation, and construction, as well as the safety of nuclear power and nuclear fuel industries. Meanwhile, the market access system of uranium exploration and mining will continue to be perfected. Also, the qualification system for production and services—such as for nuclear fuel purification, conversion, concentration, elements processing, reprocessing, waste treatment, and decommissioning—will be enhanced.

In the future, China will consider nuclear safety and reliability as top issues in the nuclear power development process. To ensure the quality and safety of nuclear power construction, China is devoted to establishing complete regulations and rules for nuclear power safety, thus forming a complete set of nuclear power safety supervision systems, environmental protection supervision systems, and nuclear power emergency response systems. With these regulations and the organization systems, China will be able to take a comprehensive approach to site selection, design, and construction of nuclear power plants.

Implement Technical Innovation. In the final analysis, Japan’s nuclear accident was a technology and design problem. After the shock, the first response of the Fukushima safety systems was normal: first, the safety shutdown system was triggered even as the self-contained emergency generator started to help discharge the core’s residual heat. But in less than an hour, a tsunami caused by the earthquake destroyed the emergency response power generation system, resulting in a reactor explosion. However, a second-generation nuclear power plant whose active safety systems are supported by external power are not comparable to China’s third-generation AP1000 plants under construction that have passive safety systems. This plant design would not have experienced the nuclear leakage events like those at Fukushima, even faced with the additional effects of earthquake and tsunami.

To ensure nuclear safety, several countries’ well-developed nuclear power programs have already started fourth-generation nuclear power reactors with even higher safety performance levels, and so has China. Furthermore, China will accelerate construction of large-scale advanced pressurized water reactors and promote pressurized water reactor and fast reactor technologies, as well as research and development on advanced nuclear fuel cycle core technologies. The largest energy project in China’s 863 projects—the “China experimental fast reactor”—reached critical conditions for the first time, indicating that China has basically mastered the key technologies of fourth-generation nuclear power systems, the world’s eighth country that has mastered fast reactor technology.

Cultivate New Nuclear Talent. The scale of China’s nuclear construction ranks it as first in the world, which requires a very well-trained workforce. National Defense Technology Industry Ministry statistics show that if a million-kilowatt-class (1 GW) nuclear power plant needs 400 workers, then more than 12,000 workers will be needed for 30 GW of new nuclear power plants by 2020. Because the personnel training cycle is long and the modes of training and practical application don’t match well, students cannot adapt to the fast development of nuclear power.

In order to speed up the cultivation of nuclear talent, China has established nuclear energy training programs in many colleges and will provide financial support for universities that have nuclear power programs.

Implement Daily Supervision Management Measures. The earthquake was not the only factor that raised concern following the Fukushima nuclear accident; problems such as aging facilities should also be considered. In China, there are 13 nuclear power plants in operation. Although strict monitoring and maintenance mechanisms were established, cautious attitudes should be kept to ensure that problems are solved as they are found. At the same time, the government should strengthen the popularization of nuclear safety knowledge and perform training exercises regularly.

All the measures and policies discussed above are aimed at avoiding an accident similar to what happened in Japan, or to at least minimize losses if an accident does occur. China has learned lessons from the Fukushima accident.

What Will Be Fukushima’s Impact on China’s Nuclear Industry?

Some of the effects of Fukushima on China’s nuclear program were felt immediately, but the long-term goals of the program remain unchanged.

Some Short-Term Impact. China has temporarily slowed the speed of construction of nuclear power stations and has reexamined its safety programs. In addition, it has changed the development strategy of nuclear power from “positive development” to “safe development.” Specifically, on March 16, 2011, the executive meeting of the State Council noted that all project approvals should be suspended until a nuclear safety plan could be put in place. As a result, new nuclear power projects cannot be carried out and the timing of nuclear power development goals will be delayed, which will also influence the realization of the nuclear power planning goal in China’s 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans. Simultaneously, the nuclear power plants approved as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan will be revised to consider more safety factors. In addition, China will reconsider locating nuclear power plants in central China, and the nuclear power plant sites in Hunan, Chongqing, Shanxi, and Gansu Provinces will be reevaluated to determine if these regions have ever experienced earthquakes or are prone to earthquakes.

On the other hand, nuclear power won’t replace traditional energy in the short term. China’s economy is in an industrializing stage and requires large energy supplies, causing high energy demand growth. Traditional fossil energy, especially coal and oil, will still be the main energy sources. Meanwhile, the development of the natural gas and renewable energy industries will also enjoy high growth. However, it is hard to change the basic pattern of any country’s energy use overnight. So, in the short term, nuclear power will remain a small part of China’s overall energy supply.

Though Japan’s nuclear accident further strengthened the concept of “safety first,” it doesn’t change the medium long-term strategy of China’s nuclear industry. China’s goal to reduce the use of fossil fuels, meet energy conservation goals, and reduce air emissions requires long-term development of nuclear power.

Continue to “Actively Promote” Nuclear Industry. Shortly after the Fukushima nuclear crisis happened, the State Council required a comprehensive safety inspection of all nuclear facilities and limited the project approval to strengthen safety management; thereafter, all nuclear power construction will return to normal.

The long-term goal of China’s nuclear industry is to actively promote nuclear power construction based on safety, a unified development route, economic efficiency, an insistence on a strategy of “self-independence and Sino-foreign cooperation,” the import of advanced technology from abroad, and realizing innovation and automation of key nuclear power technologies.

Slowed Pace of Investment. In the past few years, nuclear power development in China has seen rapid growth. Since 2005, 13 nuclear power projects and 34 nuclear power units were approved for construction, totaling 37.02 GW. So far, 30 units have been constructed, and the capacity under construction is over 30 GW, which accounts for about 40% of the world’s total. However, the nuclear accident in Fukushima led to the suspension of nuclear power projects and thus affected the confidence of investors, causing an investment slowdown. In the long term, China will still adopt a positive attitude towards nuclear power development, but restoring investors’ confidence will take some time.

No Impact on Energy Strategy. In terms of energy policy and strategy, nuclear power still plays an important role. According to the 12th Five-Year Plan, 40 units will be constructed by 2015. Though the Fukushima accident affected China’s nuclear industry to a certain extent and prompted additional improvements in the management of nuclear power projects, fundamentally, the general direction of China’s energy policy will not change. China will still give a high priority to the development of the nuclear industry in the long run.

With technology improvement, nuclear power is competitive with traditional energy resources. Also, the security and reliability of nuclear power are under the double protection of technology and policy, and uranium resources can meet the basic needs of nuclear power. So in China, it’s a wise choice to develop nuclear power and let it replace coal power gradually. The economic efficiency of nuclear power plants and coal-fired power plants in different countries is shown in Figure 6.

6.  Nuclear vs coal plants. The horizontal axis represents the ratio of plant investment, fuel costs, and production costs of nuclear versus coal-fired power plants. Source: Liang X., Qiu A., Sun C., 2009. “China Electrical Engineering Canon,” China Electric Power Press, pp. 115–118.

Final Thoughts

Japan’s nuclear disaster has influenced recent changes in the global nuclear power industry. For China, the change has been from “moderate development” to “positive development,” and now from “positive development” to “safe development.” All of China’s nuclear power plants are designed to ensure the safe, clean, and efficient use of nuclear energy.

Zeng Ming, Chen Li-min, Xue Song (xuesongbjhd@163.com), Wei Yang, and Wang Lei, North China Electric Power University, Beijing, China. The work described in this paper was supported by The Energy Foundation (G-1006-12630).