What the United States could learn from China’s nuclear power expansion

One of the world’s great powers is making significant progress towards carbon neutrality. It is not the United States.

Like many countries, China is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2060. contrary to many countries, he’s actually doing something to make it happen. This is not a reference to its commitment to stop funding coal-fired power plants abroad, nor to its continued expansion of wind and solar power. China’s progress comes in the form of 150 new nuclear reactors, which it plans to build over the next 15 years.

The mere mention of nuclear power is enough to make some wince. There is a strong perception that these plants are dangerous and devastate the local environment. Yet nuclear power is clean, reliable and safe. The traumatic images of nuclear fusions like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima cloud the statistics: coal kills around 350 times more people per terrawatt produced than nuclear.

China’s nuclear power expansion will be the largest in world history, but its merits are beyond mere scope. The country is also a pioneer in the use of “generation 4” reactors, which promise to be safer and more efficient. One of these designs is known as a “pebble bed reactor,” where atomic fuel is enclosed in graphite beads that can withstand more heat than nuclear fission can generate. These pebble bed reactors would be incapable of merging. China on Tuesday became the first country in the world to connect a Generation 4 PBR to the grid. Another is under construction.

The United States and Europe were once enthusiastic about nuclear power, which promised to produce energy “too cheap to be measured.” New plant development peaked in the 1970s, but the collapse of the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 soured enthusiasm. Seven years later, the Chernobyl incident in the Soviet Union killed him entirely. Two decades later, as governments rethought their aversion to nuclear power, Fukushima in 2011 has acted like a nail in the coffin.

Since Fukushima, however, climate change has altered the equations by which we calculate the merit of nuclear power. The world must significantly increase its electricity production, but it can no longer count on the polluting means to which it has long been accustomed. Solar and wind power are important parts of a carbon neutral future, but there is a fierce debate as to whether they will be enough on their own. As a result, acceptance of nuclear power has increased, with a May study reporting that 76 percent of Americans favor atomic power, the highest percentage since pre-Fukushima.

“If you want to decarbonize the global energy system, you will need a lot of energy, a lot more than we have,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. “We [support] nuclear at the bend of a bend. It’s not as if we are for nuclear, we are for “anything that can solve the climate problem”.

China’s nuclear expansion is a double opportunity. The People’s Republic emits nearly a third of the world’s carbon and burns six times more coal than the United States. If nuclear power can reduce these emissions, the entire 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 big claims about reducing carbon, but few have charted the way to actually get it. Switching to nuclear will help.

China does not come out of 2021 in a positive light. In addition to the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has this year embarked on a Big Tech crackdown and gave a questionable example of dealing with COVID. But on the subject of nuclear power, at least it looks like China has something to learn from the United States.

The United States, for its part, has taken the opposite route. In April, the Indian Point power plant in New York City saw its last reactor shut down. California plans to shut down two reactors in 2025 that generate 15% of its electricity without carbon. Less nuclear does not necessarily mean more solar or wind power, as environmentalists hope, but rather more natural gas. New York’s gas consumption was 30% higher in November compared to the same month last year, according to S&P research, with the closure of the Indian Point plant being a major cause.

PG & E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach, Calif., In 2012.

Bloomberg / CNET

The great costs of nuclear power

The public’s association between nuclear energy and calamity is one of the reasons atomic energy has languished in the West. The other key issue is cost. Nuclear power plants were once relatively affordable to build, but many argue they are prohibitive. The price tag for two overdue reactors under construction in Georgia appears to exceed $ 27 billion.

It doesn’t have to be that way, says Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He points out many reasons why costs have skyrocketed. First, giant infrastructure projects of all kinds have seen more delays and cost increases in the West, not just nuclear power plants. Second, the United States and much of Europe took a 20-year nuclear hiatus after Chernobyl. The know-how and efficiency of nuclear construction was lost during this period.

Then there are simple organizational flaws.

“In Asia, the company that designs the plant is often the same company that builds and then operates the plant,” he said. “In the United States, we’ve seen the tech companies that create the blueprints for the components and modules toss them over the fence to another company who then has to build them. “

“If the two sides haven’t spoken to each other from the very beginning, there is no guarantee that what has been designed will actually be constructible.”

Nuclear power in the United States has a specific challenge that other industries do not face: the complex web of regulations that has been woven in the years since Chernobyl. China’s method of nuclear expansion is similar to the one proven in France in the 1970s: design a few plants, then build a lot. Meanwhile, different states in the United States have different safety requirements, making it difficult for any company to standardize the design.

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

He sees the aviation industry as an example of how to streamline. Companies like Boeing and Airbus only have a handful of aircraft designs. This makes serial production easier, but it also simplifies problem solving. It’s easier to understand why 1,000 planes have the same problem than it is to solve 20 different problems in 20 different designs.

“If China can bring a cheaper unit to the world, just like they brought cheap solar panels, then launch it,” he said.

photo-pebble in hand

The isotropic tristructural fuel, or TRISO, with particles for the design of the nuclear power plant of X Energy.

X Energy

Green future

China’s nuclear ambitions do not stop at its own borders. One of President Xi Jinping’s flagship projects is the Belt and Road Initiative, which sees China building bridges, airports and other infrastructure across the developing world. If China can manufacture efficient reactors at competitive prices, they can be exported across Africa and energy-intensive countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. A senior Chinese Communist Party official said he hoped China would build 30 reactors overseas by the end of the decade.

“China has already announced that it is not going to make any investments in coal overseas, so the next phase of the infrastructure will be nuclear,” said Sha Yu, associate researcher at the Center for Global Sustainability. Yu expects nuclear’s place in China’s energy mix to expand dramatically over the next three decades, from around 4% today to between 15 and 25% by around 2050.

Such advances could prompt the United States to revitalize its interest in atomic energy. Several companies already have new generation nuclear power plants in development. X-Energy has a pebble bed reactor that it hopes will be operational by 2027, and TerraPower, backed by Bill Gates, is progressing towards fusion-proof reactors that operate from of depleted nuclear fuel. NuScale reached an agreement last month to build a small modular reactor in Romania.

The question is to what extent these activities will be supported by the government. There are signs of life. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill will see just under $ 10 billion spent on nuclear projects, of which $ 3.2 billion will go to developing Generation 4 technology. More was to come in. Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, though the future of that bill is now uncertain.

“The Biden administration’s plan is to have a carbon-free grid by 2030. It’s a huge challenge, and the resources that are currently being discussed are not up to its magnitude,” said Buongiorno of the MIT.

“It’s a fantastic start, but we’re going to need a lot more.”


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