China and Advanced Nuclear Energy

by Michael Shellenberger, President, Environmental Progress

May, 15, 2016

Air pollution expert Junji "Jeff" CAO is Professor at the Institute of Earth Environment, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and EP Science Advisor. Chinese Satellite Data Center, Wanning. December 2015

Air pollution expert Junji "Jeff" CAO is Professor at the Institute of Earth Environment, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and EP Science Advisor. Chinese Satellite Data Center, Wanning. December 2015

China has the most ambitious nuclear energy programs in the world but low demand for nuclear globally and the slow pace of innovation make the diffusion of advanced nuclear reactors unlikely before 2040. 

And against the picture of China as a country that can rapidly bulldoze any obstacle, there are numerous technical, financial, bureaucratic, policy, and societal obstacles slowing the pace of advanced nuclear innovation and diffusion.

While nuclear will expand significantly in China, it is unlikely to become more than 30 percent of China's electricity by 2050. Nuclear is today three percent of Chinese electricity, senior Chinese officials estimate, and will be seven percent of Chinese electricity by 2020 and roughly 12 percent by 2030.

By 2050, EP estimates, nuclear will likely be about 20 to 30 percent of China's electricity electricity. This estimate depends on assumptions about future electricity consumption as well as total size of nuclear’s deployment. 

On the societal side, the Chinese society and government are motivated to address air pollution, which is a strong public concern. Small improvements have been measured in some cities by scientists over the last three years, but most Chinese seem to view the problem is as bad or worse than ever.

Research suggests vehicle exhaust, suburban and rural coal use more are as larger or larger greater drivers of air pollution than coal for electricity. Even so, the Chinese government is justifying new nuclear plants on air pollution and climate grounds.

Smokey haze Junji Cao said most likely is result from burning of coal for heat in poorer homes on the outskirts of the city and in rural areas.

Smokey haze Junji Cao said most likely is result from burning of coal for heat in poorer homes on the outskirts of the city and in rural areas.

In terms of economics, China is building light water nuclear plants in five years at $2,000/KW. OECD says China’s new nuclear is cheaper than new coal. What limits China going faster is the training and capacity of NPP construction workforce and personnel, as well as competent safety regulators.

China has significant capacity to produce more AP1000s and other Chinese designs for sale around the world, but demand globally for nuclear is low.

There are young and intelligent Chinese scientists and administrators who are seeking to demonstrate multiple reactor types, and want to do more, and go faster. On both the US and Chinese side, scientific and technical leaders share idealistic environmental, economic development and global cooperation goals motivating advanced nuclear innovation.

Chinese scientists and engineers report positive working and learning relationship with NRC and DOE on safety and waste issues. US and Chinese sides report win-win on exchanges of safety and fast reactor data in exchange for hands-on experience in China.

On the more negative side, demand for the AP1000 is lower than was hoped, and the EPR’s high cost is widely viewed as a consequence of its poor design, and thus unlikely to decline significantly in the future.

Climate Scientist James hansen had the idea for the US-China conference after suffering an asthma attack in Beijing.  Wanning, China, December, 2015

Climate Scientist James hansen had the idea for the US-China conference after suffering an asthma attack in Beijing.  Wanning, China, December, 2015

US and Chinese experts view fast reactors or reprocessing as inherently cost-additive, and yet the next two of China’s advanced design priorities (now that high temperature gas reactor is demonstrated) are fast reactors designs: sodium-cooled and Terrapower’s travelling wave reactor, with the thermal TMSR coming in third and without financial backing.

Experts say plentiful uranium and cheaper waste disposal options make fast reactors less necessary and potentially more expensive that current light water designs.

The high temperature gas reactor is near-ready for commercialization but there’s no clear market and good reasons to think it will stay expensive. It’s no clear that its meltdown status will inspire a higher price premium in the market, even as Fukushima slowed deployment of Gen III reactors within China and orders for them from without.

The Chinese say advanced nuclear innovation has being harmed and slowed by US export controls. Currently, five government agencies must all sign off on exports slowing process without clear national security reasons.

The first export control issue was a delay for a new and improved pump for AP1000, which China never got and caused extra Chinese work, three year delay, higher costs, discouragement about Westinghouse, US government, and other US firms, including NuScale.

Chinese felt they paid full for half-designed AP1000, and the experience has created more calls internally for China to go it alone in the future, even when they like a US technology, a situation that could result in duplicative effort and wasted time.

A second export control problem was that China allowed US to observe construction of AP1000 in China but US hasn’t allowed Chinese observation of Vogtle.

Kun Chen, senior engineer on china's thorium molten salt reactor, and EP Science advisor

Kun Chen, senior engineer on china's thorium molten salt reactor, and EP Science advisor

The third export control problem was for technologies relating to China’s thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) program. The Chinese side says that TMSR could go faster but agreement with Oak Ridge had to be limited to things that would avoid export controls. These export control problems along with US government not contributing money and longer time horizon until commercialization — 2040 at the earliest at the current schedule. Fast reactors are scheduled to be commercially available sooner but it’s not clear that these can be cheaper or delver on pyro-processing promise.

Finally, both the US and Chinese regulators are only beginning to think about how to license non-light water designs, which could prove to be difficult, time-consuming, and costly .

In sum, advanced nuclear in China is proving to be complex, expensive, slow-going, frustrating, and offering of no certainty of success — a similar story to the last 40 years of advanced nuclear in the US, South Africa, Germany, Russia, and France. While Gen IV reactors hold great promise, the difficulty of creating and diffusing them suggests they are unlikely to contribute significantly to decarbonization of electricity and energy in China or anywhere else until after 2050.

The situation suggests increasing nuclear as a percentage of energy will require doing two things at once: accelerating deployment of Gen III+ reactors, which are coming in at a low price and depend principally on scaling up workforce for new plant constructions, and accelerating the development of Gen IV reactors.

Implications and Recommendations

A new US-Chinese policymaking consensus could help remove many of the barriers to more rapid innovation and diffusion of advanced nuclear. A deeper analysis is required of the obstacles named above for whether or how amendable they are to policy reform.

Policy action could build on the many positives already in place: governmental and academic collaborations; shared values and goals; synergies between experience on the US side and ability to demonstrate on the Chinese side; and broad agreement of the state of the technology, fuels, and waste challenges.

These positives might be leveraged to overcome the technical, institutional, economic, and societal obstacles through demonstration efforts, licensing reforms, cost-sharing, co-investment by governments and private firms and coordinating to handle societal concern about safety, waste and cost.

EP President Michael Shellenberger at Xiamen University's School of Energy Research with School director and EP Science Advisor, Ning Li, and his students. Ning Li worked at the US Department of Energy for many years and helped bring bill gates to china, which led to a collaboration between Gates' Terrapower and the Chinese government. 

EP President Michael Shellenberger at Xiamen University's School of Energy Research with School director and EP Science Advisor, Ning Li, and his students. Ning Li worked at the US Department of Energy for many years and helped bring bill gates to china, which led to a collaboration between Gates' Terrapower and the Chinese government. 

One next step might be to see if alignment around policy goals and strategies can be achieved within and across Chinese and US nuclear innovation communities resulting in some sort of a shared statement or document, followed by annual meetings. Several questions likely need further investigation and scoping including the questions around export control and US funding for advanced nuclear.

I. Air pollution and climate

Air pollution and climate are both publicly stated concerns for Chinese expansion of nuclear, though in conversations air pollution not climate is what students and experts alike express concern over.

Air pollution is viewed as both a threat to public health, with government warnings to people to stay indoors 2 – 3 days a month during the winter, which is impossible for most people, and is also viewed as a source of embarrassment, taking away from China’s rise.

Majority of air pollution appears to be coming from sources outside of electricity production including transportation, coal-burning in poorer and rural suburbs, industrial production, and dust, but it’s not clear to what extent government knows this and is gearing policy in that direction.

Government officials claim data show policy efforts including smokestack scrubbers, catalytic converters and other technologies are working but perception from experts and public is problem is as bad as ever if not worsening.

Nuclear given special priority in coastal vacation areas where air is clean.

Climate policy discourse heavily influenced by Western NGOs including stated commitment by government for cap and trade among industrial sectors, naïve view of efficiency as simple demand-reduction tool, but even those parroting Western climate discourse continually affirm nuclear with none suggesting anything approaching 100% renewables.

II. Energy and Nuclear Overview

Nuclear is just 3% of China’s energy mix with 23 nuclear power plants (NPPs) in operation with 21GW capacity, 27 reactors under construction with 29 GW capacity. By 2020 capacity of NPPs will be at 58 GW, with 30GW under construction. China added 37GW of new coal capacity in 2014, down from prior years.

All NPPs are along the southeastern coast which is where 70 percent of the Chinese population.

There is significant uncertainty by how much due to feasibility and opposition within interior of country and pace of Gen IV innovation. Estimates are: for 2030: 100-150GW. By 2050: 250 – 500 GW.

Nuclear plants in China are built in five years, and coming in cheap at $2,000/KW, though it’s not clear if that’s overnight cost or includes financing costs. Government seeking to have plants with 4 – 8 reactors

While we were there, government announced four new reactors to be added to two existing sites, citing air pollution and Paris climate agreement.

Concern and disappointment expressed about low demand for nuclear, gen III and IV, both within China and globally, and slow pace of innovation

Everyone recognizes need for mass manufacturing of components to bring down costs with jetliner manufacturing specifically cited as an example. However, low demand is viewed as major impediment.

Nuclear waste repository planned for Ganzu province in interior, with Chinese government working with DOE on tests at 4 - 6 potential sites.

Nuclear innovation and regulation agencies are staffed by strikingly young professional staffs, with senior project managers often under 40 years old, and large gaps between them and older officials, due in part to Cultural Revolution’s denial of education to Baby Boom generation.

Nuclear Safety

Opposition to nuclear energy is emerging as a cultural force among communities outside the immediate 50 km containment zone, government officials, university faculty and staff, and NGOs, which are now allowed in the country.

EP President Michael Shellenberger with US-Chinese advanced nuclear delegations

EP President Michael Shellenberger with US-Chinese advanced nuclear delegations

Nuclear expansion slowed in China after Fukushima due especially to backlash from local governments in interior of country where NPPs were planned.

Stepped-up government support for GEN IV reactors driven in part by public concerns over safety as well as desire for water scarcity in in-land regions.

Strong and positive collaboration between US NRC and Chinese regulator, NNSA, but: NNSA staffed up quickly, from 400 – 2,000 staff in ~5 years; NNSA staff remains young and experienced; NNSA depends heavily on outside regulators for guidance; and NNSA doesn’t know how to license new reactors.

There are concerns about whistle-blower protection for nuclear workers. There is anonymous reporting for anti-corruption activities in China, but there are also precedents of retaliation for whistle-blowing.

AP1000 delays and US Relations

Chinese felt badly burned by Westinghouse and US government over AP1000, which delayed AP1000 three years (from 2013 to 2016) and set back US-Chinese advanced nuclear collaboration generally.

Multiple drivers of poor relations around AP1000:

·      Chinese felt Westinghouse paid full-price for half-designed reactor, and thus got less than it paid for it.

·      USG prevented key new pump from being exported, saying it was military submarine pump, requiring significant delays and higher costs.

·      Chinese government let Southern observe and learn from building of AP1000 in China, but US government hasn’t let China observe and learn from building of AP1000 in Vogtle

·      Everyone is disappointed by how little global demand there has been for AP1000s

USG export control restrictions has hampered and slowed collaboration and innovation on MSR and likely will hamper and slow collaboration and innovation on other US technologies that China likes including NuScale and Terrapower travelling wave reactor (TWR) and other GEN IV reactors.

AP1000 experience has made Chinese government more reluctant and skeptical about other US nuclear innovation collaborations.

One major reason for export control problem is five separate USG agencies required to sign on off all nuclear collaboration.

Trouble with UK Hinkley deal contributing to pessimism and concern over propsects of demand for Chinese nuclear exports.

State-owned company SNPTC, which shares AP1000 export ownership with Westinghouse, is already training South African staff in expectation of a contract.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance has a pro-nuclear team that held a meeting in Beijing and wants to do more.


Chinese government priorities (and timeline for developing) advanced reactors are, in order: high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR), sodium fast reactor (SFR), molten salt reactor (MSR), and travelling wave reactor (TWR). Terrapower is seeking to push TWR before MSR and may succeed given Gates’ involvement and money.

All the GEN IV technologies face significant technical challenges that are acknowledged by their developers in private meetings. While MSR is widely viewed as promising in US expert circles, HTGR, SFR, and TWR representatives all have more funding than the MSR people and were more optimistic and up-beat about their propsects.

Even so, HTGR is viewed as niche tech for markets that want safe reactors soon, including small 10 MW reactor planned for Indonesia, but widespread pessimism that high cost due to low power density will soon or ever decline significantly unless there is strong demand for process heat such as for steel market of hydrogen.

Chinese plan for 100M hydrogen fuel cell cars by 2030 and intend to begin infrastructure building and deployment in interior within next decade. China’s hydrogen program is headed by influential scientist but also shrowded in mystery, technical complexity, high infrastructure costs, uncertainty. Hydrogen production will at first be made from coal.

Was near-universal agreement among US and Chinese experts that there is no shortage of uranium and yet there is a continuing strong push on fast reactors, including TWR and the Chinese sodium fast reactor, for unclear mix of reasons.

SFR has funding through 2023 and does not have to fundraise like MSR staff and will be commercialized after 2035.

Pyroprocessing is said to face significant technical obstacles and it is not even clear that it will reduce waste and given the difficulty of separating longer and shorted-lived waste may increase it.

The earliest date the molten salt test reactor (10MW) will come on-line is 2020, and earliest commercialization will be 2040.

While MSR program is third priority its funding is low (US$50 million) uncertain for mix of stated reasons including government bureaucracy, challenging relationship with US, slower economic growth, and lack of a deep-pocketed funder like Bill Gates.

Chinese officials wish to see US government funding and asked several times how to get more of it for MSR. Chinese giving US DOE $3M and MIT $2M over next two years for their work on MSR

Uncertain whether commercial MSR will be solid (triso pebbles) or liquid fuel but will be determined by test reactor.

MSR was attempted for 10 years by South Africans who eventually abandoned the project out of frustration.

Terrapower’s TWR could be constructed by 2023 if construction begins in 2016, suggesting the earliest commercialization would be 2033.

Westinghouse in 2015 picked the lead fast reactor as its GEN IV design.

EPR widely viewed by both sides as a poor design.

Growing talk of floating, modified AP1000 reactor that could be built cheaply at a port, float out to sea, survive a tsunami, and gain safety and cost advantages from being surrounded infinite heat sink (the ocean), but there is no design or money to pursue a tthis point.

Shanghai and Beijing have been traditional places of nuclear innovation but Xiamen University emerging as competitor due to arrival of energetic Ning Li, who helped Bill Gates’s Terrapower win access to China, who worked at Los Alamos for 17 years, creating a competition that appears to be mostly healthy.

However, GEN IV researchers on both sides expressed frustration by what they view as Terrapower’s especially secretive and restrictive with its IP. Terrapower viewed as receiving special treatment due to Bill Gates’ strong relationship with top Chinese officials, who often stop in Seattle for friendly treatment before flying to more hostile audiences in Washington, D.C.


State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) remain very powerful and are vertically integrating supply-chain companies to achieve efficiencies in supply-chains, sparking concerns expressed that such integration may also reduce competition between technologies and introduce complacency in technology development.

“The benefit of the integrated model is a full supply chain, with less internal transations, and the downside is closed-mindedness and can’t be critical.”

Companies in consortium to build reactors are of increased sophistication and experience.

There are three SOEs that do nuclear. Nuclear is the only zero-carbon of CNCC, which used to be the nuclear ministry, but SPIC does renewables too, and is pursuing other advanced designs