China's Nuclear Energy and Strategic Priorities

China's Nuclear Energy and Strategic Priorities

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Shruthi Kalyani

Energy expert Daniel Yergin, in his recent book The New Map, observes that the current geopolitical rivalries and the changing energy trajectories of nations are majorly being determined by the systemic challenges of climate change and the subsequent national responsibilities to cut down carbon emissions. China’s rise and its assertive territorial claims based on the maps drawn of its own (the South China Sea, for instance), he notes, have underlying ambitions of protecting its energy security. On the strategic front, given the interlinked relationship between great power rivalry and energy transition of nations, China’s position on the global clean energy agenda is significant, especially during the coming years of Joe Biden’s expected climate proactiveness. Xi Jinping’s promises of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, in a speech notably commenced during the times of the US elections, show the impending politics of the leadership race in the climate arena. In the light of such a geopolitical landscape where climate and energy play a decisive role in power politics, this article attempts to understand China’s nuclear energy developments that are embedded in the nation’s climate pledges and political agenda. On the economic front, a transition towards clean energy systems will not only help meet China's rising energy demands but also will alleviate the gruesome realities of air pollution caused by its dominant coal-based economy. Hence, shifting to low carbon energy sources, particularly towards nuclear energy for the sake of this article, is an urgent need of the times. For achieving a 1.5°C climate compatible scenario by 2100, the IPCC model pathways suggest a six-fold increase in global nuclear capabilities. However, societal skepticism, as the IPCC report cautions, acts as a major barrier for governments to invest in nuclear energy. Public apprehensions towards nuclear power have played a major role in the decline of nuclear power projects in advanced economies. After the Fukushima accident in 2011, when nations of the West were rapidly shutting down their nuclear power reactors, China remarkably added 34 new nuclear reactors between 2011 to 2019, raising back from a temporary shutdown that was imposed immediately after the meltdown. China’s nuclear resurgence at a time when advanced economies were falling into the no-investment ‘nuclear fade case’ is interesting to study. Unlike the nuclear priorities of the advanced economies that are predominantly led by open market forces, the Chinese path towards a new ‘nuclear renaissance’ is directed by state-led nuclear enterprises that allow little voices of participation from the civil society. China’s post-Fukushima nuclear plan, thus, entailed not only in establishing nuclear safety laws, but also in state-led authoritarian devices of consensus-building and public acceptance. Hence, the state’s control over societal views has in a way facilitated faster progressions in China’s nuclear roadmap. Another important aspect of China’s nuclear plan is its advancement in technological innovation. China aspires to achieve ‘socialist modernisation’ by 2035 through major breakthroughs in technologies. Nuclear aspirations for the same year of 2035 lie in a target of achieving 200GWe nuclear capacity out of the total generating capacity of 2600 GWe electricity. Furthermore, the state-supported nuclear industry, abiding by Xi Jinping’s economic strategy of 'dual circulation', has responded to the goal of self-reliance by developing an indigenous alternative of American technologies, namely the Hualong One third-generation nuclear power technology. This has already been opened up to the international market, exporting the reactor model to countries that are specifically close to China’s belt and road ambitions. Through policies envisioned under the 13th Five Year Plan, the Chinese energy sector is witnessing various structural reforms, R&D in innovation, and investment frameworks that are enabling the nuclear industry to effectively contribute to the net-zero agenda. With the goals of nuclear-powered electricity to be increased ninefold by the year 2040, nuclear energy is expected to play a greater role during the 14th Plan period (2021 - 2025). As an IEA report on clean energy systems perceives, nuclear power generation when backed by stringent safety measures, risk communication strategies, and conducive space for innovation can effectively aid nations in achieving energy security and sustainable development goals faster than the current scenario. Learning from China’s priorities towards nuclear energy, developing economies should recognize that clean energy transition will be costlier if investments are focused merely on mainstream renewables. The peculiarity of being a hybrid superpower – a country with advanced technological sophistication and resources, and yet dire developmental challenges – has placed China at the center stage of the world energy landscape. Given the ability to influence the parties subject to its overseas investments, China’s priorities to nuclear energy may significantly impact the clean energy agendas of developing economies. Thus, the probable shifts in national nuclear stances are the future developments to look out for in the field of energy and world politics.

(Sruthi Kalyani is a Researcher at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)