What the US could learn from China’s nuclear expansion

One of the world’s great powers is making significant strides towards becoming carbon neutral. It’s not the US.

Like many countries, China is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2060. Unlike many other countries, it actually does something to get there. This is neither an indication of his obligation to stop financing coal-fired power plants abroad, nor of the constant expansion of wind and solar energy. China’s progress comes in the form of 150 new nuclear reactors it plans to build over the next 15 years.

Just mentioning nuclear power is enough to make you wince. There is a strong perception that these plants are unsafe and are destroying the local environment. Nuclear power is clean, reliable and safe. Traumatic images of core meltdowns like those of Chernobyl and Fukushima hide the statistics: Coal kills around 350 times as many people per terawatt produced as nuclear power.

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China’s nuclear expansion will be the largest in the history of the world, but its merits are beyond simple scope. The country is also a pioneer in the use of “Generation 4” reactors, which promise more safety and efficiency. One such design is known as a “pebble bed reactor” in which atomic fuel is encased in graphite spheres that can withstand more heat than fission can produce. These pebble bed reactors should not be capable of being melted. On Tuesday, China became the first country in the world to connect a Generation 4 PBR to the grid. Another is under construction.

The US and Europe were once enthusiastic about nuclear power, which promised to produce energy “too cheap to measure”. New plant development peaked in the 1970s, but a breakdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 sparked enthusiasm. Seven years later she was completely killed in the Chernobyl incident in the Soviet Union. Two decades later, when governments reconsidered their aversion to nuclear energy, Fukushima was nailed to the coffin in 2011.

However, since Fukushima, climate change has changed the equations we use to calculate the value of nuclear energy. The world needs to drastically increase electricity production, but it can no longer rely on the polluting agents to which it has long been used. Solar and wind power are important elements of a climate-neutral future, but whether they are enough on their own is hotly debated. The acceptance of nuclear power has therefore increased. A May study reports that 76% of Americans are in favor of nuclear energy, the highest percentage since before Fukushima.

“If you want to decarbonize the global energy system, you need a lot of energy, a lot more than we do,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. “We [support] nuclear around the corner. We are not for nuclear power, we are for ‘anything that can solve the climate problem’. ”

China’s nuclear expansion is a double opportunity. The People’s Republic emits almost a third of the world’s carbon and burns six times as much coal as the United States. If nuclear energy can reduce these emissions, the whole planet will benefit. An even better scenario would be for China to develop cheap and safe reactors that can be built around the world. Many governments make great claims about reducing carbon emissions, but few have taken any path to actually achieve it. The introduction of nuclear weapons will help.

China did not come out positively in 2021. In addition to the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has a clumsy year this year Big tech penetrations and has given a questionable example of COVID management. But at least on the subject of nuclear power, China seems to be teaching the US something.

For its part, the US took the opposite path. In April, the last reactor at the Indian Point power plant in New York was shut down. California plans to shut down two reactors that will generate 15% of its carbon-free electricity in 2025. Less nuclear power does not necessarily mean more sun or wind, as environmentalists hope, but rather more natural gas. According to S&P research, New York gas usage was 30% higher in November than the same month last year, with the shutdown of the Indian Point facility being a major contributor.

PG & E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach, California in 2012.

Bloomberg / CNET

The high cost of nuclear power

The public association of nuclear power with disaster is one of the reasons nuclear power has withered in the west. The other important issue is cost. Nuclear power plants used to be relatively cheap to build, but many argue that they are prohibitively expensive. Two overdue reactors being built in Georgia are said to cost more than $ 27 billion.

It doesn’t have to be, says Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He points to numerous reasons for the skyrocketing costs. First, huge infrastructure projects of all kinds in the west have seen more delays and cost increases, not just nuclear power plants. Second, the US and much of Europe took a 20-year nuclear break after Chernobyl. Know-how and efficiency in nuclear construction were lost during this time.

Then there are simple organizational shortcomings.

“In Asia, the company that develops the facility is often the same company that builds and then operates the facility,” he said. “In the US, we’ve seen the tech companies that create the blueprints for components and modules throw them over the fence to another company that has to build them.”

“If the two sides have not talked to each other from the start, there is no guarantee that what has been designed can actually be built.”

Nuclear power in the US has a particular challenge that other industries do not face: the complex web of regulations that has been spun in the years since Chernobyl. China’s method of nuclear expansion is similar to what France demonstrated in the 1970s: design a few plants, then build many of them. Now, different states in the United States have different security requirements, making it difficult for any company to standardize design.

“Atomic energy needs to be heavily regulated, but it is regulated inefficiently,” Cohen said. “Is it really plausible that we will have 27 designs in the world?”

He sees the aircraft industry as an example of optimization. Companies like Boeing and Airbus only have a handful of aircraft designs. This makes mass production easier, but also simplifies problem solving. It is easier to figure out why 1,000 aircraft have the same problem than to solve 20 different problems in 20 different designs.

“If China can bring a cheaper device into the world like it did cheap solar panels, bring it on,” he said.


The tri-structural isotropic or TRISO particle fuel for X Energy’s nuclear power plant design.

X energy

Green future

China’s nuclear ambitions do not stop at its own borders. One of President Xi Jinping’s most important projects is the Belt and Road Initiative, in which China builds bridges, airports and other infrastructures in developing countries. If China can manufacture high-performance reactors at competitive prices, they can be exported to Africa and energy-hungry countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. A senior Chinese Communist Party member said he hoped China would build 30 reactors overseas by the end of the decade.

“China has already announced that it will not invest in coal overseas, so the next phase of infrastructure will be nuclear,” said Sha Yu, associate research scholar at the Center for Global Sustainability. Yu assumes that the place of nuclear energy in the Chinese energy mix will expand significantly over the next three decades, from around 4% currently to 15 to 25% by around 2050.

Such advances could lead the US to revive its interest in nuclear energy. Several companies already have next generation nuclear power plants under development. X-Energy has a pebble bed reactor that he hopes will be operational by 2027, and TerraPower, backed by Bill Gates, is making strides towards melt-proof reactors that run on spent nuclear fuel. NuScale signed a contract last month to build a small modular reactor in Romania.

The question is to what extent these activities are supported by the government. There are some signs of life. President Joe Biden’s pioneering infrastructure bill provides nearly $ 10 billion for nuclear projects, including $ 3.2 billion for the development of 4th generation technology. More should be added to Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, although the future of this bill is now in doubt.

“The Biden administration’s plan is to have a carbon-free network by 2030. It is an enormous challenge and the resources now being discussed are not adequate for its size, ”said Buongiorno of MIT.

“It’s a fantastic start, but we will need a lot more.”

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