It should be noted that nuclear energy is one of China’s primary ambitions. The pace with which Beijing develops its nuclear capacities is truly captivating. The first Chinese nuclear power plant started operating back in 1991, and now China has a total of 35 operating nuclear reactors, while another 20 are being constructed now. As it has been stated by representatives of the Chinese government this year, there must be a total of 110 operational nuclear reactors in China by 2030. If Beijing fulfills its plans, it would become the leading state in terms of nuclear energy production.
So far, China has been moving toward its goal without a moment’s delay: construction works are in full swing and the government spends a small fortune to keep them going. It’s enough to just mention the fact that Beijing is planning to allocate a total of 80 billion dollars in the next four years on nuclear energy.
However, China is not simply aiming to acquire the largest number of operating plants, it has also been aiming at reaching unprecedented levels in nuclear technology. Chinese nuclear physicists are actively developing their own models of reactors that can present a serious competition to foreign models. For example, China has developed a third-generation reactor codenamed Hualong-1. After being tested back in 2015, Beijing launched the construction of commercial reactors of this type both in China and abroad.
However, third-generation reactors are but a next step for Chinese engineers. In November 2017 CNECC plans to launch fourth-generation reactors at the new NPP in East China’s Shandong Province. Those high-temperature gas-cooled reactors have no analogues in the world. It’s been reported that the advantage of this next generation of reactors is high electricity yield and higher security. And security is by far the most important matter in the nuclear industry. This fact was once again recognized by the international community after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster back in 2011. Therefore, any potential client asks about security first before even considering other advantages of any particular model of nuclear reactors. Therefore, it won’t be an exaggeration to state that safest reactors are the most competitive ones. Helium cooling and the protective core that is capable of withstanding more than 1000 degrees of heat for hundreds of hours, those are most important competitive advantages of the new Chinese reactors. Beijing set the goal of developing the next generation of reactors immediately after the nuclear disaster in Japan, and now it’s only a step away from making such reactors fully operational. However, before they are being brought to commercial use the existing models are to be tuned, fueled and properly tested.
Should the initial tests be a success, China would be able to export this invention to other countries. In particular, the arrangements have been made to start selling the next generation of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. The agreement on the construction of nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia has already been approved by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. According to Chinese experts, their invention will conquer the world market in the next 5 years. Its only drawback – are high costs of both the reactor itself and the fuel that is being used in it, but those aspects are to be improved.
These advancements are making the states that have traditionally been considered world leaders in nuclear energy particularly worrisome. Both the US and Japan have been troubled with those advancements since they consider themselves China’s main economic and political competitors. India, which is also one of China’s major competitors and that is developing its nuclear energy capabilities rapidly too is fairly concerned as well, but it China had already left New Delhi far behind in technical terms, but it still has a long way to go to overtake Washington. It’s been reported that there’s over 100 operational nuclear reactors in the United States. At its current rate, China’ can overtake the US in the next 10 years. France was next on the list with 58 reactors operational reactors, and China will be able to overtake it by 2020. As for Japan, it ranked third after the US and France before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. But the disaster resulted in reactors being stopped all across Japan and it’s now hard to say can Japan still be considered a leader in peaceful nuclear energy. Nevertheless, Japan remains one of the leaders in terms of technology, but to keep its positions, it will have to withstand China’s tough competition.
One of the main areas of competition between Japanese and Chinese nuclear scientists have been the so-called Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR). The main advantage of such reactors is that they can re-use the depleted nuclear fuel. This is not only increases return on investments but also facilitates the problem of disposal of radioactive waste. The FNR technology is being known since 1950s and scientists from the US and Europe have been particularly energetic in developing such reactors, but the greatest success so far has been achieved by Soviet scientists. These days FNR are successfully operating in Russia, which is the undisputed leader in this area. Japan also has two FNR, but none of them have ever been in commercial use. One of those was closed after an accident back in 2007, and the second is still operational but was about to closed this year.
But China has been reluctant to lag behind, since first Chinese FNR has been operational since 2010. The reactor was built with the help of specialists from Russia. China is planning to build its own FNR in 2025, and in 2030 it plans to bring them to commercial use. This competition from China forced the Japanese to urgently restart the closed FNR plant. Early launch of FNR, and especially the beginning of its industrial use in Japan is not just a matter of energy, but it’s a question of international prestige. French specialists are assisting Japan in developing its FNR capabilities, since France had its own FNR up until 2009. With all the experience of the Japanese and the French nuclear industry, they face an extremely tough race if they want to launch a commercial FNR first. And when you consider the fact that Chinese nuclear scientists are being assisted by their Russian colleagues, we can see that Japan doesn’t stand a chance. Russian nuclear technologies are traditionally among the most advanced in the world and has been cooperating in this area wit h Russia for a long time, which is one of the reasons of the success it has been enjoying in this area.
Nuclear energy is rapidly changing the face of the world. Despite concerns about potential threats of nuclear reactors, technologies are developing rapidly, while stimulating the economy, science and education. Given the current trends, Russia and China will be the two leading players on this market, and the scientific and technical cooperation between the two players in this area promises enormous benefits.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”