China, US diverge on approaches to nuclear energy

Updated: 2014-11-28 13:20

By Paul Welitzkin in New York(China Daily USA)

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China and the US are taking different approaches to nuclear energy, as both nations map out a strategy for their recent agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

The US is still basically keeping nuclear power at arm's length, while China is embracing the technology. On Monday, China's largest nuclear power producer, CGN Power Co Ltd, said it would have an initial public offering in Hong Kong in December valued at up to HK$24.52 billion (US$3.16 billion) to raise funds to expand generating capacity.

China is putting up a number of new projects that will sharply increase the country's nuclear generation, according to a Moody's report this week in the International Business Times (IBT).

"Despite government support for nuclear generation in most major economies, low prices for natural gas have put nuclear power in a less competitive position," Patrick Mispagel, a Moody's associate managing director, was quoted in the IBT. "As a result, nuclear generation is growing only in a few major markets, most notably China and South Korea."

"China is in fact planning to build more nuclear power plants," James Hansen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York told China Daily. "The crucial requirement is to decarbonize electricity generation, and that cannot be done soon without major help from modern, safe nuclear power. There should be cooperation in a massive program to move rapidly in that direction."

"China announced its intention to get 20 percent of its primary energy consumption from non-fossil sources, and nuclear is going to play a significant part in achieving China's goals," Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said in an email. "China currently gets less than 2 percent of its electric power from nuclear. This is expected to rise to around 10 percent by 2030. That's more impressive than it might seem because China's electricity system will be considerably larger by then."

With all the talk about reducing carbon dioxide emissions and damage from climate change, why isn't the US pursuing more nuclear power plants?

"The biggest problem in the US is an excessive, irrational fear of even low-level radiation," Hansen said. "The resulting anti-nuclear quasi-religion has intentionally worked to make nuclear power as expensive as possible and to leave the nuclear waste problem unsolved."

Hansen's testimony before congressional committees in the late 1980s helped to raise awareness of climate issues and global warming.

"Nuclear waste could be handled via advanced nuclear technology that 'burns' nuclear wastes while generating electricity, but anti-nuclear people have done their best to stymie development and deployment of the technology," Hansen said. "This is one of the areas in which serious cooperation between China and other nations, especially the United States, could work for the benefit of all."

Vine noted that there is some movement in the US to nuclear power with five reactors under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. "There is interest from other US utilities, and many say they like the diversity nuclear provides to their energy mix. But for now, they are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how these projects develop.

"The proposed Clean Power Plan from the EPA may provide additional incentives for utilities to develop new nuclear, but we'll have to see how the final rule looks," Vine continued. "Right now, natural gas is the cheapest option. A natural gas power plant can get permits and be built relatively quickly. And if natural gas is replacing coal-fired generation, it reduces US emissions, since natural gas emits around half the CO2 per unit of energy as coal."

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping released targets for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions on Nov 12 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing. Under the proposals, Chinese emissions of carbon dioxide would peak by around 2030, while the US would cut emissions by more than a quarter from 2005 level by 2025.