The Nuclear Option: China’s Expanding Energy Portfolio

This article was originally published in US-China Today; Glimpse from the Globe does not claim unique ownership of this article and its content. 

“100% sustainable.” 

Not the words one would typically associate with the Olympics, of all things, but it was one of the big stories of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. 

All venues were powered using green energy, carbon offsetting was used to make up for any carbon emissions produced during the games and more sustainable construction practices were used to build the facilities. 

Despite all of this, one could not help but notice the giant cooling towers that loomed in the background of the big air venue as snowboarders and skiers twirled in the air. While these towers are no longer in operation, they do represent an interesting contrast — not only at the Olympics, but for China as a whole. 

There is no denying China’s growing role in the sustainability movement. Beijing is both the world’s largest producer of solar and wind energy and the largest investor, domestically and abroad, in green energy. In addition, China supplies the vast majority of solar panel materials to the United States and other countries. 

However, one sustainable energy source which has declined in the United States and other countries is surging forward in China, on the trajectory to becoming one of its largest sources of energy. 

That energy? Nuclear. 

Despite this interest in expanding nuclear energy, however, China’s use of fossil fuels — coal in particular — has also risen in recent years. Just last month, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the coal supply will increase in the country, in addition to power plants running at maximum capacity to help meet electricity demand. 

On the one hand, China remains a superpower in renewable energy. On the other, they continue to rely on coal for basic energy needs. 

So, what exactly are China’s sustainable energy goals? And how does nuclear energy fit into the overall picture?

China and Nuclear Energy 

In terms of overall nuclear energy output, the United States remains the highest, holding 30.8% of the global nuclear energy consumption to China’s 13.6%. However, China leads the world in nuclear plant construction and plans to build 150 new nuclear reactors in the next 15 years in contrast to the United States, which has shut down 39 facilities as of April 2021. 

Given China’s massive population, it makes sense that the government will pursue the investment in nuclear energy to complement its green transition. 

This is because nuclear energy is extremely reliable and can produce more energy than sustainable competitors. It has the highest capacity factor out of any energy source at almost 93%, which essentially means it is running at 100% power for almost the entire year. Due to minimal maintenance requirements and longevity, nuclear power plants can run longer and more reliably than other forms of energy, (sustainable and fossil fuels alike). 

“Domestically, nuclear power also makes sense for China from the standpoint of energy security,” said Kelly Sanders, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California in an interview with US-China Today. As the recent conflict in Ukraine has revealed, the fossil fuel market is extremely volatile. Switching to nuclear helps shore up these shortages. 

Sanders also noted how “nuclear is a direct substitute for coal.” Both deliver electricity; thus, one can shut down a coal plant and replace it with a nuclear one, with the added benefits of less air pollution and a more reliable, consistent energy supply. 

It is for these reasons that China and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been adamant about expanding nuclear energy in the country, advertising a plan to spend over $440 billion in the next 15 years to create new nuclear energy reactors. 

This is the type of money countries like the United States aspire to spend on their sustainable energy sector. U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure bill, which was passed after months of concessions and push-backs, for instance, dedicates only $10 billion to nuclear projects. This reveals some of the challenges Western democracies face when trying to address the climate crisis — politics, public opinion and budgetary regulations, among other things. China does not face such setbacks. 

China’s Geopolitical Strategy

But China’s desire to expand its nuclear capacities lies beyond its own domestic agenda. China continues to invest heavily in nuclear technology, becoming one of the primary developers of “Generation 4” reactors. It recently placed into operation one such reactor known as the “Pebble Bed”, which is reportedly “incapable of meltdowns.” 

Not only does this showcase China’s technological growth, but it also reveals their desire to export these reactors to other countries, similar to China’s dominance in the solar panel industry. 

For example, Pakistan has long been a valued customer for Chinese nuclear reactors, with five having been built in the country since 1993. China also recently established an $8 billion deal with Argentina. Moreover, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is projected to build 30 reactors by 2030 in a number of participating countries.

As China continues to innovate and produce more efficient reactors, this only further incentivizes other countries, especially in the developing world, to invest in this technology. This, in turn, increases China’s export abilities. 

But it is not all smooth sailing. Many countries remain skeptical about China and its business practices. For one, the United States is an unlikely destination for this technology. As of Aug. 2019, the United States added one of China’s state-owned nuclear companies to a blacklist for allegedly stealing military technology. Romania also canceled its nuclear deal with China and instead signed a partnership with the United States. Other deals with countries such as Kenya and Egypt have also stalled. 

In a larger sense, this skepticism of China’s nuclear program stems from a larger fear of nuclear energy, its potential for disaster, its huge price tag and the toxic waste. “A lot of the world is scared of building more nuclear power plants”, said Sanders. “The world opinion on nuclear energy took a big hit after Fukushima.”

In addition, China has not yet signed various international treaties that set standards for liability in the case of an accident, making other countries more cautious when it comes to importing Chinese reactors and technology, let alone investing in nuclear energy in general.

There is also the problem of uranium. 

China hopes to gain independence from competitors in the energy market through nuclear expansion, and yet, over two-thirds of the total mined Uranium supply in the world lies in Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan. China, meanwhile, only has access to around 4% of the world’s Uranium supply. Thus, until nuclear energy begins to transition away from Uranium as a chief source of fuel, China and its partners will continue to rely on other countries for its supply. 

However, Sanders also noted that uranium “is pretty easy to mine, and pretty easy to move, unlike natural gas.” Because of this, “it is a pretty uncontentious fuel to import,” hinting that China should have no issue finding its share of Uranium.

The Broader Context

China’s investment in nuclear energy and its larger push towards renewables comes against the backdrop of declining U.S. leadership in this field. To this point, former U.S. President Donald Trump oversaw a reversal in policies aimed at combating climate change. In response, China criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and reaffirmed its own commitment to meeting future climate goals. 

Although Biden rejoined the Paris accord and has since tried to reestablish the United States as a champion of environmental sustainability, other countries are increasingly turning to China for leadership in tackling the climate crisis. The EU and China have sought cooperation with each other and recently staked out new goals to combat climate change. China no doubt sees this U.S. drop-off as an opportunity to take initiative and establish itself as a global leader in environmental policy. 

It should be noted that through China’s BRI, the production and implementation of high-carbon facilities, mostly coal-fired power plants, are being introduced to host countries. However, many of the projects funded by BRI threaten biodiversity, as well as important ecosystems and water resources. 

Thus, in the coming years, it appears that China will continue to be a leader in sustainable energy practices at home. However, whether this extends to their development partners is yet to be determined. 

This dichotomy calls into question if China’s green transition is for the purpose of sustainability, or merely a political strategy to gain leverage on the global stage. 


Jacob Rose

Jacob is currently a sophomore at USC and is from Walla Walla, Washington. He is majoring in International Relations and the Global Economy, and plans to minor in Spanish. Jacob’s interest in IR and global affairs stems from his parents’ backgrounds in Chinese and Jewish cultures and traveling as a child. Some particular areas of interest for him are the Pacific Rim and the Middle East. In his spare time, he enjoys discussing all things sports, playing video games with friends, and long walks in the countryside with Coco, his basset hound.