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China poised to overtake US in nuclear power by 2030

Beijing and Moscow seize initiative in global reactor construction as G-7 steps back

The Unit 4 reactor of Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant in China's Jiangsu Province.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world's top producer of nuclear energy as early as 2030, reflecting hesitance to build new capacity in Japan and Western nations even as emerging economies move ahead.

China's total nuclear power generation capacity, including reactors under construction and in planning, came to 108,700 megawatts as of April, more than America's 105,120 MW, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group.

The trend reflects diverging approaches to nuclear power after the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns in Japan. While the U.S., Europe and Japan grew risk averse in response to public fears, emerging nations have been keener. Indonesia and Philippines are among the countries dusting off old plans for reactors. And China and Russia have emerged as the main suppliers.

China brought its first nuclear power station online only about three decades ago, yet "in terms of its technology level, it's caught up with the most advanced in the world," said Hideo Nakasugi, senior specialist at the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum.

The U.S. still leads in terms of capacity in operation, with about 98,000 MW. France follows at 62,000 MW, with China placing third at 45,000 MW. But while the U.S. is decommissioning reactors with few new ones in the pipeline to replace them, China has 11 new reactors under construction and more than 40 in the planning stages.

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corp. in early August began transmitting power from the No. 5 reactor at the Tianwan plant in Jiangsu Province, the country's 48th reactor to enter operation. China brought three new reactors online in 2019 while the U.S. permanently shut a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania last September.

Reactors generally take about five years from groundbreaking to completion, meaning that China could take the lead in active capacity in about a decade.

Japan imposed tough regulations on nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster and moved to scrap aging facilities. Of the more than 50 reactors that were operable before the 2011 accident, 24 have been slated for decommissioning. Some plans for new capacity remain, but have not moved forward.

China, by contrast, has started about 30 new reactors since the disaster. Russia and India have nuclear plants in the planning stages or under construction that would double their capacity. These three countries are developing next-generation nuclear technology and have a plethora of research reactors and prototype units in the works.

Beijing, in parallel with its rapid domestic build-up, is marketing nuclear power equipment to developing countries that face electricity shortages. Four Chinese-built reactors operate in Pakistan, and around 10 others are planned in Turkey and elsewhere.

Japan has tried exporting nuclear power equipment to the U.K. and Turkey, but factors such as mounting construction costs brought those projects to a halt. European and American players have fared little better. More than 70% of all new reactors that have come online worldwide since 2010 were built by China or Russia.

"If China and Russia build up their technology while new construction by Japan, the U.S. and Europe lags, there's a higher risk internationally of becoming dependent on those two countries," said Shinichiro Takiguchi, senior specialist at the Japan Research Institute and an expert on energy policy. "It will give them more sway over developing countries in particular."

The rise of Beijing and Moscow as reactor suppliers also has raised concerns about proliferation.

"China and Russia have looser conditions than countries like Japan and the U.S. when it comes to requiring buyers to have safeguards to prevent nuclear power exports from being diverted to use in weapons," said Hirofumi Tosaki, senior research fellow at the Center for Disarmament, Science and Technology within the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute, said last year that Chinese and Russian "efforts to promote nuclear power internationally are core parts of their foreign policy." The trade group chief also said that  "America is falling behind."

In a bid to help American players catch up, the U.S. Senate in July passed the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act to promote innovation in the field, and the government-run International Development Finance Corp. lifted a ban on funding nuclear projects.

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