Market Study: China set to become a leader in nuclear energy research

Unlike many western countries that are shying away from nuclear energy after the devastating meltdown in Fukushima Dai-Ichi, China is diving head-first to develop nuclear energy to replace conventional energy sources. China’s energy consumption is ever increasing as the country consumed 4.9 trillion kWh in 2012, but the country is struggling to deal with its energy shortage. Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, states that the energy shortage is so bad that it may become a threat to national security. Due to the growing need for energy sources, China is exploring nuclear energy as a possible solution to the scarcity of energy in the Chinese market.

China’s current nuclear energy infrastructure

Nuclear power currently contributes a mere 1.97% of total energy production in China, but this number is soon to rise. Following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany announced it plans to decommission all its nuclear plants, Italy and Switzerland halted any plans to build additional plants, and Japan shut down all its reactors. Unlike these countries, China is choosing to ignore the possible dangers with the belief that nuclear energy will provide more good than bad. Mainland China currently employs 17 nuclear power reactors, but there are 28 reactors in production and even more to come. The country has become largely self-sufficient in the construction and design of nuclear reactors and plans to improve on current western technology.

Development of more advanced designs

In addition to increasing the quantity of nuclear plants in the country, China plans to develop new and improved models that would reduce toxic waste and improve safety. Westinghouse Electric recently developed a safer reactor design with a cooling system capable of averting a meltdown for up to three days after generation failure. China has already developed a larger version of this model and expects to begin construction this year. The country also is developing a pebble-bed model that has yet to be perfected, but would be more efficient than the currently used pressurized-water reactors.  Pebble-bed models use helium as a coolant and graphite as a moderator in place of water. Although the pebble-bed model would be superior to existing models in theory, scientists and engineers have run into problems when trying to produce one in the past. At high temperatures, the graphite pebbles in the model tends to stick causing them to overheat and disintegrate. The result is radioactive graphite and a dust of fuel products. Beijing’s Tsinghua University is currently designing the Chinese pebble-bed model, but could lose billions of dollars if the model is unsuccessful. Germany’s pebble-bed prototype ended in failure and cost about $7.3 billion to clean up.

In a project led by Jiang Mianheng, China is also exploring the idea of thorium reactors. These reactors would reduce the reactors toxic waste and be safer to operate. Jiang recruited 140 PhD scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics and plans to have 750 by 2015.  China is estimated to have enough thorium to meet its electricity demands for an estimated 20,000 years. Thorium is also plentiful in the US, the UK, and many other countries.  In addition, these thorium reactors would be able to incinerate existing residue from old reactors and nuclear weapons, cleaning up the already existing nuclear waste. The project is so promising that Xu Hongjie, director of the Shanghai project, says the US Department of Energy is seeking collaboration the project. If China succeeds in developing these advanced models, the country will soon become the leader in nuclear power.