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29th November, 2017

How China came to lead the global nuclear power industry

Presenter: Dr Simon Taylor, Research Associate, Cambridge Energy Policy Research Group and Director, Master of Finance, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

In his lecture on China's evolution into a global leader in nuclear power, Dr Simon Taylor began by looking back more than half a century to China's first atomic bomb detonation at Lop Nur, explaining development of the bomb in the larger context of China's relations with the USSR and the United States. While China has long been using nuclear technology for weaponry, how was it that she also came to use it for energy?

According to Dr Taylor, China's need to develop its nuclear power industry on such a large scale can be traced to one important factor - coal. Despite the fact that the country has an abundance of the resource, power shortages were nevertheless endemic throughout the 1970s. As most of China's coal reserves are concentrated in the country's far north, transporting sufficient amounts of coal throughout the country required railway capacity that China simply did not have. Adding to this were concerns that coal reserves would eventually run out. In response, nuclear technology was included in the list of projects for the Four Modernizations in 1977, and technology exchanges began with both France and the United States the following year.

Today, China is experiencing a massive increase in nuclear power generation, with 22GW under construction, 47GW planned, and 114GW proposed. As Dr Taylor explained, China has become adept at localizing foreign technology, and has also been able to "learn by doing" - the sheer number of nuclear power plants constructed in China over recent years means that the Chinese are simply more experienced at building the plants than their foreign counterparts. This, in combination with an economy-wide cost advantage, lower cost of capital, and an overall need to develop clean energy to combat a serious pollution problem means that China has both a powerful motivation to develop nuclear energy, as well as an extremely strong competitive advantage in the area.

Questions for Dr Taylor included those related to the overall landscape of clean energy in China - with hydropower and wind power facilities already running below capacity, why is there a need for so many nuclear power plants? Other audience members expressed concern about how nuclear waste from the plants is disposed of and stored, and whether or not average Chinese citizens had any outlet for expressing similar concerns. Yet another question concerned whether or not development of nuclear fusion as a means of energy production is currently a priority for the Chinese. As Dr Taylor explained, nuclear fusion is less a priority than more efficient fission.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman