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China's Nuclear Ambitions
Chris Coldewey, 8 Sep 04

Jamais’ recent post on China’s transportation situation quoted estimates of 140 million cars on the road by 2020, from 20 million today. The World Bank says that 16 of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution are in China, due in large part to sulphur dioxide and soot from coal combustion.

Faced with skyrocketing energy demands and an increasingly polluted country, China is at a crossroads. Emulate the West and ramp up the oil addiction? Leapfrog everyone and create a distributed grid of clean power? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle: it looks like China’s going nuclear.

Their plan:
1. Design safer, more modular, pebble-bed reactors to maximize efficiency and protect against meltdowns.
2. Build 30 new reactors by 2020, with eventual goals of satisfying a potential 300 gigawatt national energy demand by 2050.
3. Profit! …As time goes on, China could be looking at a largely coal-free future.

It’s not quite a Worldchanging solution, and nuclear sure comes with its own set of problems, but it may be the only realistic alternative to a fossil fuel-powered China. The kicker: as the article implies, there’s another potential task for high-temperature nuclear reactors – generating hydrogen. Could China’s nuclear ambitions jumpstart the hydrogen economy?

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"nuclear ... may be the only realistic alternative"
I hope not. And I think Amory Lovins would disagree with you [how's that for name dropping? :) ]
Sadly, here in the UK, it seems like Blair's in bed with the nuclear lobby, looking to revive nuclear power as well as reneging on a promise to ship back other countries' radioactive waste (it's a terrorist security risk now). Yeah, right. All this in a country with the best wind resources in Europe!

Posted by: John on 8 Sep 04

I like how the reference to the problems of a nuclear energy economy was just a sarcastic grilling of Lovelock's crappy essay on why nuclear is so important to prevent climate change.

i am continually amazed at the incredible speed and variety of ways that a blog can go from decent to suck.

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 10 Sep 04

"protect against meltdowns" sounds like an understatement after reading the Wired article. I'm not reading smaller meltdowns or fewer meltdowns, I'm reading: meltdowns, as we know them, are engineered out of possibility with this reactor design. Reactors of this size, configuration, and cooling design are not prone to meltdowns as experienced in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl.

While this might be a somewhat optimistic statement, I think it's equally pessimistic to paint all fission-based energy production with the same brush. As outlined in the artcile, our experience with Nuclear over the past 60 years has been plagued by military oversight, corner-cutting, and a bigger-is-better mentality. Nuclear has been ill-conceived, ill-implemented, and ill-managed, but we shouldn't necessarily assign our pessimism to the core technology.

The pebble-bed approach as planned in China is designed to be safer, and more safely scaleable. It sounds like there's a huge second chance in the offing, but only China's need is great enough to push it past the bad reputation Nuclear has won everywhere else - except France, apparently, which is now 75% nuclear-powered with no (?) major meltdowns marring their track record.

I understood that the Gaia Theory author's caution was that, while Nuclear poses serious risks, fossil fuels spell a certain death for our ecosystem. While nuclear accidents, even the worst kind, are devastating locally, have they out-polluted fossil fuel motors and plants, worldwide, per unit of energy produced? The argument is still controversial in Europe, even without a safer reactor design thrown into the mix.

Pebble-bed reactors seem just as much a "world-changing" improvement over traditional nuclear plants as hydrogen cars over internal combustion. And more important: they're closer to seeing the light of day in real production use. The design is definitely an improvement, now we just have to wait and see if the conception and implementation in China are any better than the last 50 dismal years of Nuclear in the West. I'm watching with cautious optimism.

Posted by: Andy on 20 Sep 04



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