To any casual observer of the nuclear industry today, it is abundantly clear that China holds a central role in the expansion of nuclear energy. Indeed, over the past decade, as a country China alone has been responsible for the majority of growth as far as new nuclear reactors are concerned. And this is a trend that continues, with 19 of the 56 reactors currently under construction worldwide being found in China. It doesn’t stop here, however.

China is also building up its domestic capabilities, pushing the boundaries when it comes to various advanced reactor designs and SMRs, with 2021 seeing the high-temperature gas-cooled Shidao Bay-1 reactor coming online and a light-water SMR starting construction at Changjiang-1.

However, this picture is a relatively new one, which becomes clear when revisiting the Nuclear Engineering International archives. In June 1992, the ambitious plans held by the People’s Republic were reported upon, following the successful commissioning of the country’s first nuclear power plant, Qinshan-1. In 30 years, China has become a key player in the international nuclear family, with much thanks to successive government plans lending significant support to it.

Some of the plans did come to fruition, including building up a broad range of expertise across the many parts of the fuel cycle. Nevertheless, China is yet to become entirely independent as far as the front end is concerned. The 1992 article also makes significant references to the question of reprocessing and the use of fast reactors, which is an area where plans (including industrial reprocessing by 2015) have not progressed as far. Whilst a commitment to a closed fuel cycle remains, reprocessing facilities at a large scale are not yet available in-country. Equally, plans for fast reactors have not progressed as fast as the article anticipated, but construction of the Xiapu fast reactor pilot project did commence in 2017, with a second unit beginning construction in 2020.

The Linglong one SMR under construction
The Linglong one SMR under construction

China’s (and Russia’s) increasingly dominant role in the future of nuclear energy didn’t garner much attention from the West initially, where nuclear languished in a state of limbo. However, the Trump administration identified the geopolitical implications that will follow from a Russian and Chinese-led expansion of nuclear in middle- and low-income countries and put nuclear R&D especially back on the political agenda. Nevertheless, these two countries have a significant head start in areas such as supply chain and development, and before the outbreak of the Ukraine War a Russo-Chinese hegemony seemed all but certain. That’s clearly up in the air now, and we will have to see what the world will look like when the smoke clears.

Irrespective, China continues to expand their nuclear fleet like clockwork, but despite this, nuclear power is only producing some 5% of China’s electricity, and only 2.25% of their total energy demands. With the potential to retrofit coal-fired power plants with reactors, there is a clear path for nuclear as far as challenging coal’s seemingly unassailable position in sating China’s ever growing energy demands, whilst addressing the scourge of air pollution. However, this would require further ratcheting up of their nuclear ambitions. The question is, where to next for the ‘Nuclear Dragon’?

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine.