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Chinese Nuclear Energy and the Future of Innovation

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Breakthrough Institute's mission is to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an...

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  • Mar 15, 2013

Over the past few years I’ve given the New York Times’ Justin Gillis a (deserved) hard time for some of his reporting. I’m now happy to given him some well-earned praise on the occasion of his first monthly column at the Times on climate change. Gillis wisely chose to write his first column on energy innovation, with a focus on nuclear power and China:

We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future. 

Yet we have already poured so much carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere that huge, threatening changes to the world’s climate appear to be inevitable. And instead of slowing down, emissions are speeding up as billions of once-destitute people claw their way out of poverty, powered by fossil fuels. 

Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today’s renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there. 

“We need energy miracles,” Mr. Gates said in a speech three years ago introducing his approach, embodied in a company called TerraPower

A variety of new technologies might help. Bright young folks in American universities are working on better ways to store electricity, which could solve many of the problems associated with renewable power. Work has even begun on futuristic technologies that might cheaply pull carbon dioxide out of the air. 

But because of the pressing need for thousands of large generating stations that emit no carbon dioxide while providing electricity day and night, many technologists keep returning to potential improvements in nuclear power.

The conclusion reached by Gillis is a logical consequence of doing the math on energy and carbon dioxide.  Gillis concludes, quite rightly:

In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth. 

While we dawdle, maybe the Chinese will develop a nice business selling us thorium reactors based on our old designs.

Of course, “we” are doing a lot more than just siting on our hands — we are fighting over a largely symbolic piece of pipe going across the Canadian border, we are waging battles over arcana of climate science, we are blaming every disaster on carbon dioxide and we use the climate issue to demonize our opponents (whatever their views). So Gillis is right that we could be spending our efforts much more productively. 

The Chinese are certainly not sitting on their hands. At the Washington Post, Brad Plumer has an excellent post on a new Deutsche Bank report (here in PDF) on China’s growing pollution problem. Plumer writes:

Earlier this year, when Beijing was choking on record levels of smog, observers wondered whether China would ever get its pollution problem under control. It’s an insanely difficult question, with huge implications for everything from climate change to the global economy. 

So here’s one stab at an answer, in the form of a big recent analysis (pdf) from three Deutsche Bank economists. The bad news: Most of China’s current attempts to curb pollution are failing badly — the country is on pace for ever-higher levels of smog that could throttle the nation’s economy and trigger out-of-control protests. 

But there are reasons for optimism here, too: It’s still technically possible for China to get a handle on its smog problem without abandoning economic growth. The country will just have to revamp its energy and transportation policies entirely. Starting… now.

Plumer’s analysis is worth reading in full, as is that of Kate Mackenzie at the Financial Times’ Alphaville. I agree with Mackenzie’s skepticism about the pace at which China’s energy intensity of GDP can be reduced. Nonetheless, the comparison by Deutsche Bank with the experience of the UK over the past 60 years is illustrative. The figure above, from the report, shows the evolution of the UK energy mix from 1948 to 2008, moving from almost total dependence on coal to an energy mix with gas as the leading source of energy.

There are reasons why China is not a good analogue to the UK. For instance, Deutsche Bank projects that China will increase its installed nuclear capacity by 10 times by 2030. That would mean something like 170 new nuclear power plants (China currently has 17). For its part, the Chinese government projects 255 new plants. Either way (I’ll take the over, thank you), the rate of build works out to about 1 new plant per month from now until 2030. Sounds fantastic? I thought so too until I learned that China built 11 new nuclear plants in 2011. Apparently not content with its domestic build-out, China is planning to export its nuclear technologies in the near-term. (Perhaps the US Congress will take note as related to US competitiveness, but I digress.)

China can be thought of as a microcosm of the global economy. As China becomes richer and further sees its energy intensive activities shift offshore, its pollution problems will migrate to the next generation of developing economies, perhaps elsewhere in Asia and eventually in Africa. As I have argued, the energy demands of the future are likely to be massive, and to meet this demand coal (and other dirty energy technologies) are just not going to work — as the image at the top of this post shows — despite its dominance in the energy mixes of China and India today.

The bottom line from these excellent reports and analyses should be abundantly clear: Looking to the energy future, one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you?

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B W's picture
B W on Mar 21, 2013

Great article.

I think that this topic about the practicality of renewables to provide electricity for the demand of the entire future world needs to be discussed further and the unbiased facts need to be effectively disseminated to a clueless population that continually supports short-sited policy. This issue is maddeningly misunderstood in the main-stream media.

It is questionable whether or not renewables could effectively power the world with unlimited funding and research at their disposal. When you account for the fact that we live in a capitalist driven world then there is simply no chance that intermittent renewables will be collectively embraced because this would require that:

a) the entire world and competing economies would agree on a price for carbon emissions


b) the entire world would collectively take on a sharp reduction in standard of living for the sake of the environment.

As an environmentalist I would be on board for the two requirements above, but the world economy simply will not unless global warming is somehow proven to be an imminent life-threatening danger rather than its more likely implications as a gradual and irreversible change with both negative and beneficial effects on human life and the world economy.

Any new enregy source MUST be both CHEAP and CLEAN to be adopted. Solar and wind will be cheap in the future to provide a fraction of our energy with the primary purpose of saving fuel expenditures, but a scenario where they provide baseload generation by virtue of energy storage or a smart grid seems very unlikely at this point because of the cost, raw material, and technological requirements. Next Generation Nuclear technologies are much more promising solution for providing baseload energy that is competetive in cost with coal and natural gas. More people need to realize this, please keep getting articles out there.

Source: Solar Engineer, Environmentalist, Realist

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Mar 22, 2013

It is called a Thorium Liquid Reactor-LFTR:

  • Can't Melt Down, Fuel can't burn
  • Can't be diverted for Bombs
  • Extremely simple, no heavy redundancy, 
  • Small size
  • Very cheap to produce
  • Virtually all the fuel is burned instead of 1% in current reactors
  • Can be used to eliminate existing radioactive material Called WAMSR
  • Thorium very cheap and very abundant
  • byproducts produced needed for medical and NASA explorers produced etc
  • No additional mining needed
  • Thorium co-located with rare earths currently preventing mining those elements
  • Solves green house gas issues
  • $30K Thorium = 1/2 billion in electricity = less than 3 cents KWH
  • Thorium enrichment not needed
  • Thorium reactors work at ambient pressure i.e, no explosions
  • Technology proven with working reactor in 1960s
  • Thorium reactors waste has a 1/2 life of 300 years not 10,000
We have the solution but the coal and oil and existing reactor industries will fight it. We are falling behind cause China and India are going full blast on this technology. The US could build these in less than 10 years for the cost of one aircraft carrier
I K's picture
I K on Mar 24, 2013

If you assume a world population of 9 billion each using an average 5 MWh of electricity (UK consumes 5MWh electricity per capita) you would need 45,000 TWh of electricity.

That is ~20,000 TWh more than we produce today.
How many nuclear power stations would you need to produce that much electricity?

Well a quad reactor power station with EPRs running at 95% capacity factor would produce 55TWh so you would need 365 nuclear power stations with quad EPR

Alternative is to build 2,500GW of coal or gas CCGTs or any mix of the above

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