China sparks a post-Fukushima Nuclear Energy Tsunami
While Japan has slowly started to get past the Fukushima meltdown as the new government announced plans to gradually start relying more on nuclear power, China has decided to move a step ahead, launching its plan to shift toward more nuclear power generation by 2020. Accordingly, work has resumed on a new nuclear plant in Rongcheng, Shandong Province, which is expected to be the largest in China, having a 6,600 megawatt capacity. Construction at the facility was shut down in March 2011 in the wake of the post-tsunami Fukushima meltdown. The Chinese people were deeply affected by the episode such that the government took the rare decision to address a large share of public opinion, halting construction at more than ten new reactors that were already in progress. The government also froze 25 reactors that were still at the planning stage. The government issued an official statement to explain the work stoppage, claiming that this was due to ensure that the new reactors would be able to withstand the kind of stress that was caused by the tsunami at Fukushima.
Chinese authorities inspected the 16 existing reactors- all located in southern China- concluding that these met or exceeded existing safety standards. China, of course, with its 1.3 billion population and economic world power ambitions has the world’s largest demand for energy, a demand that is only destined to increase if the new government’s plans to increase the level of urbanization and living standards in the country areas comes to fruition. The nuclear program envisages the completion of 100 new reactors by 2020. The reactor at Rongcheng will feature fourth generation technology and be the first of its kind in the world when it will start operating in 2017. Fourth generation (4-Gen) reactors feature high-temperatures (750 degrees Celsius – though $Gen reactors are targeting temperatures of 1000 degrees) and are cooled by gas. 4-Gen reactors are also designed with more sophisticated safety control features; reactors can be shut-down, even in an emergency, without risk of a core meltdown or of a dangerous quantity of leaking radioactive material.
The amount of GigaWatts (GW) of energy produced by nuclear power in China is still small compared to the world total and, certainly, compared to Chinese energy consumption needs. Current reactors produce about 11 GW; the global total is about 375 GW; indeed, by percentage, nuclear power accounts for only 1.8% of Chinese power needs. The world average is 14%. Even Brazil and the Netherlands produce more nuclear energy than does China. By contrast nuclear power in the United States accounts for just under 20% of the total, while in France it is over 75%.
China’s plan is to add at least 70 GW to its current capacity, which at current levels would make it the largest nuclear energy producer by output (if not percentage of total energy). This will require at least 30 new reactors to be built by 2020. Even then, nuclear power will account for only 5% of the total, leaving considerable margin for even more growth. The Chinese government expects the cost of the nuclear upgrade in time for the 2020 goals will be USD$ 120 billion. Those who thought (or hoped…?) that Fukushima signaled ‘game over’ for reactors and uranium are going to be very disappointed by the fact that the Chinese ramp-up to 2020 is merely the first step of a longer term plan that could reach 400-500 GW of nuclear power being generated by 2050 (requiring some 300 new reactors). Even then, that amount in percentage terms would account for 20-25%b of total power needs, still far below countries like France or even Slovakia.
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