Countries like France, Japan, and others were forced to re-examine their national nuclear policy due to energy security concerns following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In contrast, for over a decade, China has been steadily expanding its nuclear power fleet to provide stable, reliable, clean baseload electricity for its growing economy. China’s latest Five Year Plan sets the 2025 targets of 70GW of nuclear capacity as well as 3,000GW total power generating capacity from all fuels. In addition, Beijing’s nuclear expansion is part of the nation’s official efforts to achieve its energy transition targets, such as emissions peak by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.
Will this be enough to decarbonize the world’s second-largest economy, as China argues? And will the growth of nuclear power eliminate the use of coal in power generation? If so, how quickly can this be done?
Where China Stands
In 2022, China added 2 GW of nuclear capacity and reached 75% of its 2025 target. Since then, 6GW capacity has been added to the operable fleet, totaling 57GW today as the world’s third-largest nuclear energy producer after the U.S. and France, fulfilling 81% of the 2025 target. As reported in the latest Baker Institute China Energy Map, as of Feb 2023, 55 units are operating, with 22 currently under construction (24GW) and 70 plus (88+ GW) planned.
Compared to the rest of the world, China has a young nuclear fleet with an average age of only ten years old, and 80% of the plants are ten or younger. In contrast, the average age of the 92 reactors in the U.S. is 40+ years old, the third oldest in the world. On the global level, two-thirds of the world’s operating plants are over 30 years old.
At the same time, China has been expanding international cooperation with nuclear-heavy nations, including Russia and France. Indeed, Russia has been engaged in at least four reactors under construction by supplying uranium fuel and equipment since 2018. More recently, the two countries signed another agreement in March on long-term cooperation in fast-neutron reactors. In April, China and France signed cooperative agreements on strengthening their 4-decade-long, close relationship in nuclear energy.
Where China Wants to Be
Notably, China has plans to be self-sufficient in the entire nuclear supply chain, from fuel to equipment components to reactor technology, supporting its energy security goals. For instance, Hualong One, or HPR1000, is the first third-generation nuclear reactor developed domestically by China General Nuclear Power Group and China National Nuclear Corporation. The reactor has been deployed domestically since 2020 for three operational plants, and a handful are under construction. At the same time, China has exported Hualong One to Pakistan and other countries.
In addition, China holds several deposits and produces just under 1,900 tonnes of uranium fuel per year, ranking the 8th largest producer globally. Even so, the country is still heavily dependent on imports as it consumes more than 10,000 tonnes of uranium annually to fuel its growing nuclear fleet. While China has secured a stockpile sufficient for over a decade, without sustainable domestic production, Beijing focuses on its strategy of supply chain control through foreign direct investment in uranium mines and long-term bilateral procurement. Last December, a joint venture between China and Kazakhstan to supply China with uranium for two decades completed its first delivery. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest uranium producer and exporter; half of its exports go to China.
But, but, but…
Nonetheless, the contribution from China’s nuclear to the current electricity fuel mix remains minimal. As of November 2022, China held a total of 2,510 GW of installed capacity, 44% of which is coal, 16.3% hydro, 14.7% solar, 13.9% wind, 4.5% natural gas, and 18.4% other fuels. Nuclear only accounted for 2.2% of the total domestic capacity, the least of all sources. Regarding actual power generation, fossil-fuel-fired fleets (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) supplied almost 70% of the country’s electricity in 2022, whereas nuclear delivered only 5%.
Looking within Asia, China is on par with most of its nuclear peers except for Russia and South Korea – Japan currently generates just 7% of its electricity from nuclear, and India 3%. In contrast, Russia and South Korea produce 19% and 26% of their electricity from nuclear, respectively. On the other side of the world, the U.S. represents about half of China’s electricity demand, and 18% is powered by nuclear.
The Nuclear Reality
China’s nuclear capacity build is accelerating; the Chinese Nuclear Society expects China’s nuclear capacity to reach 150 GW and to generate 10% of domestic demand by 2035. Domestic policy is reinforcing an acceleration, as Beijing’s Two Sessions this March also reinforced the importance of nuclear in providing a zero-carbon and reliable energy source, expecting to permit at least ten new reactors annually.
But while China has surpassed France as the second largest nuclear power producer in the world, just after the U.S., , its current nuclear fleet is far from reaching significant decarbonization goals by, i.e., replacing coal. Not only is coal still the dominant fuel (over 50% of electricity generation is coal-based), but more coal-fired power plants are being built (See Baker Institute China Energy Map) to support the country’s economic growth as well as to balance intermittent renewables. As a domestically available fuel, coal is usually preferred over natural gas, the majority of which is imported and more expensive. Thus, it should not be surprising that the same Two Sessions that pointed to the importance of nuclear as a zero-carbon fuel also indicated coal as the mainstay of the energy system, given its significant energy security benefits.
So, how much nuclear would China need, and how long would it take for nuclear to take over coal’s dominance in China’s energy mix?
While China added 6GW of nuclear capacity last year, its coal capacity saw a net increase of 46GW. Indeed, the average age of its coal fleet is just 14 years old. Without considering the new 200GW planned to come online, this means that the majority of China’s coal power plants can run at least another 20 years before retirement. The long construction time for nuclear power plants presents another challenge of replacing coal with nuclear. In China, the average build time is 6 years, with the recent reactors taking as long as 8 years to complete. On the other hand, the world average stands at 9.2 years.
Given that the total nuclear capacity of planned (88GW) and under-construction (24GW) reactors combined is only 10% of the coal capacity today (1,093GW), the role switch is unlikely to happen in the next 20 years. Until it does, coal is here to stay to fuel China’s energy transition.
See the Baker Institute China Energy Map for more detail. We released the 2023 version, tracking over 5,600 infrastructure facilities, including oil and gas pipelines, refineries and storage, LNG terminals, coal, nuclear, and gas power plants, EV battery manufacturers, and hydrogen facilities.
This post originally appeared in the Forbes blog on May ``17, 2023.