November 21, 2014 / 5:16 AM / 5 years ago

Nuclear delays pose threat to China's climate goals

* Renewables not enough to replace coal

* China unlikely to meet 2020, 2030 nuclear targets

* Success of world’s first Westinghouse AP1000 could be decisive

By David Stanway

BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) - China’s efforts to curtail coal consumption and bring spiralling greenhouse gas emissions under control by 2030 could be stymied by the slow pace of its nuclear reactor programme, with safety concerns still holding back new approvals.

President Xi Jinping last week promised to bring China’s greenhouse gas emissions to a peak by around 2030 and double the share of non-fossil fuels in the country’s total energy mix to 20 percent over the same period.

The new target could require 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of new clean generating capacity, but with renewables like wind subject to technical constraints and hydropower also nearing its peak, nuclear stands to play a decisive role, government officials and policy researchers say.

“Nuclear power is China’s only scalable replacement energy and is a vital choice in China’s energy strategy,” said Guo Chengzhan, vice-head of China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, at a briefing in early November.

Teng Fei, a Tsinghua University researcher who studies China’s emissions targets, told Reuters that without nuclear, “peak carbon” could be delayed by as long as a decade.

Government-backed think tanks have said China should aim for at least 200 GW of nuclear capacity by 2030, up from 18 GW now, but while state nuclear firms are capable of building more than 10 GW a year, they have been held back by regulators - especially after the 2011 Fukushima crisis in Japan.

Before Fukushima, Chinese nuclear executives said they could raise capacity to more than 100 GW by the end of 2020 and to 200 GW over the following decade, but the disaster forced a year-long halt to all construction, pending nationwide safety checks.

The official 2020 target now stands at 58 GW, which would still require around 40 reactors to go into operation in the next six years - a task already thought to be beyond China.

Assuming the 28 GW now under construction is completed in time, China would need to approve and build another 12 reactors quickly if it is to have any hope of hitting 58 GW by 2020, said Li Ning, nuclear expert and dean of the School of Energy Research at China’s Xiamen University.

“Meeting that target is unlikely because they still haven’t approved any new projects, and they won’t approve too many at the same time because it will create bottlenecks,” he said.

WAITING FOR WESTINGHOUSE

The halt on new approvals was officially lifted in late 2012, but while some safety appraisals have been completed, no new project has been given the full go-ahead.

Officials have said new projects could get under way before the end of the year, but Li said building was unlikely to speed up until the world’s first third-generation AP1000 reactor - which forms the basis of China’s homemade reactors - goes into operation at the end of 2015.

China originally expected to complete an AP1000 “demonstration” reactor at Sanmen in eastern coastal Zhejiang province last year, and aimed to have two units in operation in 2014, but safety questions and design changes have led to delays.

The AP1000 is designed by U.S.-based Westinghouse, owned by Toshiba. Once the first unit is completed, approvals should speed up, but another key issue is whether policymakers will risk public disquiet by approving projects in inland provinces.

Before Fukushima, several non-coastal regions were preparing bids for nuclear projects, but public opposition, especially in quake-prone regions of the southwest, persuaded regulators to refuse even to consider any approvals until at least 2016.

Regulators remain cautious, with the government saying this week that it would continue to “study the arguments” about inland reactors.

“Whether it meets its targets really comes down to how well and how quickly it can absorb new capacity,” said Li. “It is also a matter of when China lifts the ban on inland nuclear power, because it is rapidly running out of coastline.” (Additional reporting by Kathy Chen; Editing by Richard Pullin)

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