Looking Toward Nuclear Expansion, China Works with U.S. on Safety*

For many years, Chinese regulators have learned about nuclear safety from working with the United States, but nuclear safety cooperation is becoming increasingly a two-way street. Nuclear energy could play a significant role in meeting China’s new climate goals stated in its November 11th, 2014 joint announcement with the U.S.1 This includes targets to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030—with the intention to do so sooner—and to raise the non-fossil fuel share of energy use to around 20 percent by that date.2 The U.S. and China are working together to ensure attention to safety considerations in China’s projected expansion of nuclear power.

China’s Nuclear Power Industry: Prospects and Challenges

As of early 2013, nuclear energy accounted for only 2% of the country’s electricity generation capacity. Yet along with its recent pledges on CO2 and non-fossil energy, China’s concerns about air pollution, energy security, and climate change, as well as its commercial interests, indicate that this number could soon increase.

Over the past few years, these drivers have spurred ambitious projections for the expansion of nuclear power in China. Today, roughly 40 percent of the nuclear reactors under construction in the world are in China.3 While the 2011 nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan tempered expectations, prompted safety inspections and led to a moratorium on approving new builds until October of the following year, the government is now targeting an increase from its current nuclear generating capacity of about 20 gigawatts (GW)4 to 58 GW by 2020. The Chinese government has recently issued construction approval for two reactors in northeast China—among the first since the moratorium was lifted over two years ago.5

Since Fukushima, nuclear safety has received elevated attention, with concerns especially raised with respect to potential inland plants.6 China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) called for an investment of almost RMB 80 billion ($13 billion) on safety at new and existing plants. In 2012, China’s cabinet, the State Council, issued a nuclear safety plan targeting the inclusion of internationally recognized safety standards in domestic regulations by 2020. Further, China is seeking to shift toward newer reactors designed to be safer than its current fleet.

U.S.-China Cooperation

The U.S. and China have a long history of cooperation on nuclear safety, beginning with the protocol on Cooperation in Nuclear Safety Matters in 1981. Under this agreement, the two countries have cooperated on several aspects of safety, including assessment and inspection of reactor construction, operation and decommissioning of reactors, emergency preparedness and radiation protection, and collaborative research.

Still, China’s nuclear regulatory system is highly fragmented and under-funded, and lacks sufficient independence, trained personnel and R&D capacity for regulating safety at the scale that would be required should China meet its 2020 safety standards and capacity target.

Cooperation with the United States presents an opportunity to help address these issues. The 1981 protocol provides a series of learning opportunities for Chinese regulators, such as shadowing U.S. inspectors and attending workshops led by U.S. experts. Bilateral safety cooperation is not limited to the public sector. U.S.-based company Westinghouse7 is training AP-1000 reactor operators at its construction sites in China, while since 2011, U.S. company Exelon Nuclear Partners has trained China National Nuclear Corporation personnel.

In 2007, Westinghouse sold to China four of its next-generation AP-1000 reactors. The AP-1000 was certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2011. Important AP-1000 safety measures are driven by forces such as gravity and convection, and in the event of an emergency can temporarily function independently of an operator.8 While the associated technology transfer could help Chinese companies in the marketplace, Westinghouse decided that the benefits made it worthwhile, and that if it did not engage in China, firms from other countries would.9

With respect to technological cooperation, the U.S. Department of Energy is working with China’s National Energy Administration on probabilistic safety assessment workshops and pilot projects. R&D collaboration between the two governments, which seeks to “explore advanced nuclear fuel cycle approaches in a safe, secure and proliferation-resistant manner,” includes research on advanced fuel cycle technology, fast reactor technology, small and medium reactors, and materials and fuels irradiation.10

How the U.S. Benefits

The U.S. economy and regulatory system have benefited from this collaboration. Westinghouse documents indicate that each of its four projects in China creates or sustains up to 5,000 jobs in the U.S.11 American regulators are gaining insights from the experiences of Chinese regulators who oversee the work of the people building Westinghouse’s AP-1000 reactors. This type of reactor is being built at two sites in the U.S.

Conclusion–Cooperation for Mutual Benefit

Safety-related measures in China could use more support, as the planned expansion of its nuclear reactor fleet significantly outpaces China’s current institutional and human resource capacity in nuclear safety. As China is committed to relying on nuclear energy as a low-carbon source of electricity to address its climate challenge, the U.S. and China have more reason to learn together as they work to provide China with the expertise necessary to ensure the safety of its expanded nuclear fleet.

*Except as noted, this blog is based on Jane Nakano, “The United States and China: Making Nuclear Energy Safer” (paper presented at a panel discussion entitled “China’s Clean Energy Challenges” at the John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, February 6, 2014).

1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change-and-clean-energy-c; http://www.chinafaqs.org/blog-posts/us-and-china-strike-deal-climate-change-now-youre-talking; http://www.chinafaqs.org/files/chinainfo/ChinaFAQs-Taking_Stronger_Action%20V3.pdf
2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change-and-clean-energy-c
3. http://www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/UnderConstructionReactorsByCountry.aspx
4. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China–Nuclear-Power/
5. http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/03/11/china-approves-new-nuclear-reactors-in-industry-revival
6. Hearing on U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation: Status, Challenges, and Opportunities, Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 113th Cong. (April 25, 2014) (prepared testimony of Jane Nakano, Fellow, Energy and National Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies). http://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Testimony_Nakano_USCC_4%2025%202014_revised.pdf
7. Westinghouse Electric Company is headquartered in the United States, and has over 7,000 employees working in the Americas, as well as operations in Asia and in Europe. Japanese firm Toshiba has a majority stake in the company. http://westinghousenuclear.com/About/Regional-Operations; http://www.marketwatch.com/story/toshiba-buys-shaw-groups-stake-in-westinghouse-2013-01-06
8. http://fortune.com/2014/04/10/china-goes-nuclear/
9. The U.S.-China relationship has not been without difficulty, including allegations of Chinese cybersecurity breaches involving Westinghouse and other companies. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/us/us-to-charge-chinese-workers-with-cyberspying.html?_r=0
10. Hearing on U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation, above; http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/07/229239.htm
11. Hearing on U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation, above

Author Information:
Jane Nakano is a ChinaFAQs Expert. She is a Senior Fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Photo credit:
By Atomic Energy of Canada Limited via Wikimedia Commons