By Michael Lelyveld
As China reviews its nuclear power plans, it faces conflicts with energy costs, environmental consequences and economic growth.
Analysts say China would have to burn more high-polluting coal and other fuels to make up for a power shortfall, if it decides to slow down nuclear development.
So far, the prospect of a nuclear freeze is only a possibility.
On March 16, the State Council suspended approvals for new nuclear projects, four days after Japan’s earthquake sparked explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and stirred worldwide concerns.
Few experts believe China will halt its nuclear program, which is the world’s most ambitious. The country has 13 reactors in operation with 25 in construction and at least 57 more projects planned, according to World Nuclear News.
But the crisis in Japan has raised questions about whether China could live without nuclear development if it decides the risks are too high.
Mikkal Herberg, research director for energy security at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, said that unless China somehow reduces its electricity demand, “probably three-quarters of the gap that’s non-nuclear will end up being met by coal.”
“I think it would have fairly ominous environmental consequences,” Herberg said. “As it is, it’s going to be very difficult for China to manage its increasing coal use with the carbon dioxide and air pollution effects of probably doubling coal consumption over the next 10 to 15 years.”
So far, nuclear power accounts for 10 gigawatts (gW), or about 1 percent, of China’s 950 gW in generating capacity, according to the country’s National Energy Administration (NEA).
The small share gives China’s nuclear sector ample room to grow. By contrast, 27 percent of Japan’s power generation has come from nuclear sources, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates.
Raising nuclear share
China’s plans call for doubling its overall generating capacity by 2020 and raising the nuclear share to 4-5 percent.
While that is still relatively small, environmental groups see nuclear power as making a key contribution to China’s goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in the country’s energy mix to 11.4 percent by 2015 from 8.3 percent last year.
But the small share also means that China could manage without rapid growth in nuclear power, at least in the near term, said Trevor Houser, partner at the Rhodium Group in New York and a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Between now and 2020, it wouldn’t have a significant impact. It would mean slightly higher Chinese coal demand, which would increase coal prices in Asia,” said Houser. “But it wouldn’t significantly change China’s economic growth prospects.”
Houser estimates that China would have to burn 2 to 3 percent more coal in 2020 without nuclear power growth. Coal now fuels about 80 percent of power output.
The problems for energy supplies and the economy would be longer term, Houser said.
“Coal supplies are actually more limited in China than most folks think, and that’s in part what has driven the government’s focus on nuclear power over the past decade,” said Houser.
“So the impact of a moratorium on nuclear power, which I don’t think is likely for very long, would be a much more strained energy system after 2020,” he said.
Hard to live without
Mikkal Herberg said the push is on for nuclear power because China’s pressure on other energy sources is equally ambitious, making the nuclear program hard to live without.
“I think, at the margin, it would be difficult because if you look at where they’re planning to get their electricity supplies in the future, virtually every other source is being expanded at the fastest pace that one can imagine,” he said.
Consumption of natural gas, hydropower and renewables are all projected to rise at rapid rates over the next decade, leaving little in reserve if China has to forgo nuclear development.
But Herberg said it is also possible that a decision to stop the nuclear program would drive up prices for coal and other fuels, forcing reductions in power consumption.
In that case, energy savings and the loss of nuclear power growth could cancel each other out.
“To the extent that this would cause marginally higher power prices in China over the next decade, a 4-percent reduction in electricity consumption growth is not hard to imagine,” Herberg said.
Nuclear advocates in China have argued that the country’s planned projects include more modern and safer designs than those used at the Fukushima plant.
On March 22, an official of Huaneng Power Development Co. said the company plans to start building a new fourth- generation, gas-cooled reactor next month in coastal Shandong province, the official English-language China Daily reported.