China is caught in the ultimate quandary: It wants to industrialize its country and give its people the type of prosperity that the western civilizations enjoy. But it literally can’t afford to keep using coal (about 75 percent of its electricity portfolio) to make that happen. That’s why it is turning to nuclear energy. But do its people like this idea?
As this writer has heard many times, the Chinese government has the authority to just enact rules without the messiness that a democracy will have. If it wants nuclear — or whatever it aspires to do — it can just do it. At least in theory. Of course, it still has the world community’s views to ponder as well as those of its own people. In the case of putting up more nuclear plants, much of the global community — and the western world — are happy to let China be a proving ground. But its latest efforts to expand the carbon-free source has some local naysayers and the government there wants their input.
“Their message is not really that you can’t build these things no matter what, but that we are concerned about safety, especially after Fukushima, and we demand that you take safety seriously,” says He Guizhen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a story for the Economist.
That said, the story reports that the Chinese government sees some potential shortcomings in its nuclear program and is working to patch those up. After all, China has planned the most aggressive nuclear buildout on earth.
At the same time, the Economist says that China’s return on investment for nuclear plants is 7 percent. That’s compared to 3 percent for coal and natural gas-fired plants. So no matter how expensive they are to build, they will ultimately pay off.
That may be way the country’s nuclear fleet has grown from one plant in 1994 to 36 today, says the Economist. Another 20 are under construction. That stands in contrast to what is happening elsewhere in the world, especially after the Japan’s Fukushima accident: Germany is gutting its nuclear program while the United States is paddling along, with four reactors about to sprout up. And Great Britain just went through a brouhaha over its Hinkley Point C in which the Chinese own a third of it.
“I think the Chinese will have to earn their stripes,” says Tom Drolet, a nuclear energy expert based in Florida, in an interview.
China and India, for example, are part of the Energy Transitions Commission that aims to get all countries to reduce their carbon emissions. Both countries will be using coal fired power. But they will using it to a much lesser extent than they have been. And what few people realize, says Jeremy Oppenheim, program director for the New Climate Economy project, is that they will be retiring their older and less efficient coal plants and they will be using more efficient coal-fired plants.
Major energy transitions are lengthy, adds Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, in an interview. Moving from wood to coal took more than a century while shifting from coal to natural gas is taking just as long. Renewables are getting there, he adds, although it will require activist governments. But nuclear generation is here and now, he emphasizes.
“Nuclear power is already providing 20 percent of our power in the United States and 80 percent of the electricity in France,” says Shellenberger. “The right questions are how do we encourage a transition to it and how do we make it cheaper,” and not to dismiss it because of a stale mindset.