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China's Push for Nuclear Energy

An article in the New York Times, China Promotes Another Boom: Nuclear Power by Howard French (January 15, 2005), talks about how China has decided to use nuclear energy to satisfy their crushing need for power because it's the least bad option in terms of environmental impact.


China will commission nearly two nuclear power plants per year between now and 2020.

A controversial solution, to be sure, one that has been religiously debated in the West and is being currently promoted by a range of partisan, industry, and less partisan forces for America's own energy security and sustainability.

For instance, after work we (at GBN) did for a US agency in the Spring of 2001 on different energy pathways for a sustainable future, my old boss, Peter Schwartz, came to a surprising conclusion: that nuclear energy was the only stop-gap linking our current technological system and infrastructure with the best outcome, something along the lines of a hydrogen-based economy. (See "Go Nukes".) In short, nuclear was the least bad option. Coming from a Berkeley-based think thank, this was a bit of a heresy. I should add, in this scenario, reviving nuclear also assumed that R&D money would be poured into making the technology better, and in particular, technologies like transmutation, a yet to be discovered process to help make the radioactive spent-fuel less harmful (and maybe even useful.)

This was a disturbing conclusion (which I tried to have an open mind to), but a view that nevertheless lacks imagination. Of course, Peter and better brains have thought about this a lot more. Even so, I have difficulty accepting that we can't come up with a different, out-of-the-box design solution that helps shift the whole energy production model to a more much decentralized and distributed model, and more along the lines of McDonough's Cradle-to-Cradle principles. I'm all ears and eyes for what these might be!

Having said that, this is a fantastically difficult dilemma, one that is most acute in places like China. As Howard French puts it, with "80 percent of its electricity from burning coal, the lure of nuclear energy is as obvious as the thick, acrid, choking haze that hangs over virtually all the country's cities." So one can see why China is going down this road, albeit a road that few countries have elected (France (1/3 of their energy supply and Japan 10%) which makes you wonder right there.

But even these investments in nuclear -- as heady as they are, full of many hidden costs -- won't be enough to satisfy China's voracious energy needs. "With a country that add generating capacity from all sources equivalent to the entire current energy consumption of Britain - that even the enormous expansion program will do little to offset the skyrocketing power demand."

Another dimension that gets glossed over is that while nuclear power does require incredible technical resources, which China clearly has, the most important capabilities are sophisticated management systems and practices, which China may lack. "We don't have a very good plan for dealing with spent fuel, and we don't have very good emergency plans for dealing with catastrophe," said Wang Yi, a nuclear energy expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. " As the SARS experience confirms, this kind of omission is not very encouraging.

Nuclear power clearly puts huge burdens on good governance systems, planning, and institutions which need to be stable over long periods of time, especially when it comes to managing radioactive nuclear waste, which is harmful for up to 10,000 years. (See Learning from Nuclear Waste for more about these insights from a project on the Future of Nuclear Waste.) But human institutions rarely last that long and centralized systems are notoriously vulnerable to shocks and cascading failures. China has indeed been around a long time, but it's not immune to disruptive change; and it could collapse or fragment in the not to distant future as a plausible scenario. As one observer put it, making the information technology analogy, China can crash because it's so centralized, whereas India cannot. India is just too distributed for that to happen, because it is comprised of many different 'Indias' with much of the economic and social life happening away from Delhi. Whereas in China, Beijing is the main center of the control. I think this changing in China with several different regions and "Chinas" emerging, but the point still holds. China's centralized governance system is terribly vulnerable and poorly adapted to an interdependent, complex world. This makes going nuclear is a risky choice because it's hard to predict and ensure the stability of these managements systems.

Yet there is an important opportunity here. Why can't we give the Chinese a very best option to their dilemma, instead of having to suffice with the least bad one? A win-win market opportunity, which Storm Cunningham talks about in The Restoration Economy, and one that leapfrogs our own conceptual and problem-solving limitations, and thus a high leverage place in our global system to intervene. While we have difficulty experimenting with new approaches -- for political reasons, for infrastructure reasons, for Wall Street metric reasons, for public opinion reasons -- countries like China suffer less from these constraints. And they can't afford not to try new things, which is why they are pushing ahead with nuclear even though it's not going to be "the" solution. They need to try many things and quickly, and will be more open (in some ways) to radical alternatives. Why don't learn from China then while helping to improve the quality of the experiments, especially experiments that are not so costly to humans and the environment? And if China isn't open to this kind of dialogue, other countries in a similar situation surely will be, despite our checkered past in technology transfer.

Indeed, the ironic thing is that for all the West's eco-talk and halting walk, out of sheer necessity this fourth generation of Chinese leadership will likely prove to be the most proactive green regime we have around -- even if they don't seem so on the surface. These communists are clean revolutionaries and they have to be, given the co-related and auto-catalytic drivers of skyrocketing economic growth, population growth, and a brittle and breaking environment. They, more than most leaders in the first world, are seeing the strong cause-and-effect between these three drivers in space and time. They do have a Long View, and are determined to prototype a very different economic growth model than the West, which is something the planet needs in a big way.

So watch carefully what happens in China, learn to read the signals and early signs in this rapidly changing place. For we can see most palatably in China both the past -- the cumulative effects of our current industrial/consumption model -- and the future through their experiments. In the meantime, to make our and their future better, why don't we offer better alternatives to the nuclear pathway, options that are truly a good design solution for both people and planet over the long run, and not just until the spent fuel becomes a serious liability or a disaster strikes.

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Wired magazine did a great article on China's nuclear plan back in September: It's only marginally technical and very encouraging, both for the future of China and for the future of nuclear energy in general. It's well worth the read.

Posted by: Daniel on 15 Jan 05

We should *hurry* with and and other alternatives. Let's be omnivores regarding energy.

I say "we" because this means grassroots: talk to your neighbour, spread the news of what works, try things out ...

Posted by: lugon on 15 Jan 05

Recently we’ve seen an increase in the volume and intensity of apocalyptic warnings on peak oil and global warming. In response, some environmentalists began advocating nuclear power. We can expect this phenomenon to continue with the blessings of the nuclear industry and its federal administration supporters.

However, the case for nuclear as an environmental savior is overstated. Nuclear power plants emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases when the full life cycle is factored in, including mining, processing, transport and construction. This will continue to be the case until the entire industrial and transportation system serving the nuclear power industry is CO2-neutral.

A computer model developed by several European governments and the World Bank finds that nuclear power plants emit 34 grams of CO2 per kWh, roughly equal to gas-fired cogeneration plants and solar PV. See "Comparing Greenhouse-Gas Emissions and Abatement Costs of Nuclear and Alternative Energy Options from a Life-Cycle Perspective" and "Global Emission Model for Integrated Systems."

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuels have the potential to perform as well as nuclear or better. The cogen plants mentioned above are one example. There are numerous zero-emission processes under development for fossil fuels; these can sequester CO2 into solid form (such as synthetic limestone) at competitive costs per kWh. An example is Zeca Corporation technology that has been proven in the lab. It's far from ideal, but it's also a great improvement over the current state of affairs. Congress keeps shooting down funding for this sort of research. It's hard to see that as anything other than the triumph of business as usual.

If you think pebble-bed reactors will be a panacea, consider "The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor" which presents the anti case in a reasoned manner. Its main points:

* In the U.S., an earlier version of the technology (330 megawatt Fort St. Vrain reactor in Colorado) was abandoned in 1985 because it was uneconomical.

* Safe operation depends on perfect manufacturing of the fuel balls, which the industry has not yet achieved.

* More vulnerable to terrorist attack; malfunctions and lethal radiation release are still possible.

* Proponents say insurance liability exemptions should stay in place -- why, if the design is inherently safe?

* It has the same problems with high level waste transport and disposal as other reactor designs.

What the new nuclear evangelists seem to overlook is that the safety of nuclear power has always been more-or-less acceptable in theory. Nuclear's safety problems are mostly due to the human factor -- always have been, always will be. Safe nuclear operation depends on addressing poor administration, oversight and enforcement; lack of funding; lack of training; corruption in construction, inspection and disposal phases; sabotage and acts of war; and terrorist attack. A big nuclear boost will multiply the problem of human error proportionally.

The amount of research money invested in efficiency and renewables is dwarfed by the research budgets for fossil fuels and nuclear. We don't even know yet what we can achieve with renewables. As a general strategy, we should be making fossil fuels as clean as possible, while converting to renewables as rapidly as is feasible.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 15 Jan 05

"There are numerous zero-emission processes under development for fossil fuels; these can sequester CO2 into solid form (such as synthetic limestone) at competitive costs per kWh."

Great post, but I think you've overstated a bit here. The project you refer to is a ways away from actually functioning in the real world, I think. Or it's quite a coverup. And they are putting a lot of money into it.

Posted by: x on 15 Jan 05

I did say zero-emission technologies are under development and some have been proven in the lab. The research effort is quite public, involving many prestigious organizations in Europe, North America, and internationally. If there's any coverup, it's that the U.S. administration pays lip service to these technologies with no real commitment to full implementation.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 16 Jan 05



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