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article imageChina's nuclear power plants — Thinking on a grand scale

By Karen Graham     Nov 23, 2014 in Environment
China President Xi Jinping's agreement with U.S. President Obama last week to bring greenhouse gas emissions to a peak by 2030 is a daunting task. It will require a major economic and environmental program aimed at reducing China's dependence on coal.
Xi's pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to increase the amount of renewable energy sources by 20 percent could be held up by the slow pace of the country's nuclear power plant program. The funds needed to fulfill the commitment come to a staggering $2.0 trillion.
China's effort to reach a target of 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of clean generating capacity by 2020 is fraught with complications. If they can do it, this would increase the electricity produced by nuclear power from a mere 2.0 percent to 6.0 percent. This is in comparison to the U.S. at 20 percent, and France at 74 percent.
Emissions in the United States and China
Emissions in the United States and China
World Resources Institute
But rapid expansion could lead to shortfalls in fuel and equipment, plus not having enough qualified plant workers or safety technicians. Added to these problems, wind-power projects are having some technical problems, and hydro-power is reaching it peak in production goals. So it is all the more reason for nuclear power to play a decisive role in energy production.
China is the world's largest producer of wind energy and solar power. But China is already experiencing difficulty managing these renewables. Last year, 11 percent of wind power capacity sat unused because of grid constraints, with the problem rising to 20 percent in the northern provinces of Jilin and Gansu, according to Bloomberg.
At a briefing earlier this month, Guo Chengzhan, vice-head of China's National Nuclear Safety Administration said, "Nuclear power is China's only scalable replacement energy and is a vital choice in China's energy strategy."
Teng Fei, a Tsinghua, a University researcher studying China's carbon emissions told Reuters that without nuclear power, putting a cap on "peak carbon" emissions could be delayed as long as another 10 years.
Thinking big when it comes to nuclear power plants
In order for China to stand up to the climate change challenge, it will need 1,000 nuclear reactors, 500,000 wind turbines, or 50,000 solar farms. With China's newly emerging middle class being very vocal in not wanting to breathe polluted air anymore, radical changes are needed.
Paul Joffe, ia a senior foreign policy counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. In discussing China's projected cap on emissions, he said, “China knows that their model, which has done very well up until recent times, has run its course and needs to shift, and they have been talking about this at the highest levels."
Thinking on a grand scale as far as the building of a vast number of power plants has run up against the disaster at Fukushima in 2011. Before the disaster, Chinese officials said they could increase capacity to 100 GW by the end of 2020, and add another 100 GW over the following decade. But the disaster forced a halt to all construction of nuclear power plants and resulted in extensive safety checks.
A more sensible course of action
The official 2020 target today is now set at 58 GW. This requires at least 40 nuclear reactors to go into operation by 2020, and few people believe China can do this. As of September, China has 21 nuclear power reactors operating on 8 separate sites. Another 28 are under construction.
Li Ning, a nuclear expert and dean of the School of Energy Research at China's Xiamen University doubts the government will meet its target of producing 58 GW by 2020. He points out that with the 28 reactors under construction, an additional 12 will be needed to meet the goal. "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.
In the grand scheme of things, China's goals are ambitious and will require much planning and forethought. Much of the country's nuclear power plants are on the coast. Construction has now started on an inland nuclear power plant after the ban on building them in the interior of the country was lifted.
More about China, energy revolution, Nuclear power plants, coal consumption, Greenhouse gas emissions
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