China nuclear power plant construction boom leaves US in the dust

By Ben Aris in Berlin August 28, 2023

China has thrown itself into expanding its nuclear power plant (NPP) generating capacity and will soon eclipse the US as the world’s biggest nuclear power-fuelled economy, Bloomberg reports.

On July 31, the US celebrated the start of power generation from Southern Co.'s Vogtle Unit 3, marking its first new reactor in seven years at a cost of $30bn – twice the initial estimated cost. On the same day, China’s State Council approved six new reactors with a combined total cost of $17bn.

Since 2000 the US has built a total of three new NPPs, whereas China has built between six and ten new NPPs every year in the same period.

The divergence between the United States and China in terms of nuclear power speed and cost has grown into a chasm that the US has no hope of closing.  China is expected to overtake the US to become the world's leading home to nuclear energy as soon as the middle of this decade.

The rapid development of China’s clean nuclear fuel sources come in the context of its efforts to establish and alternative pole of geopolitical power in the shape of the expanded BRICS+ that added six new members at a summit on August 24.

The world’s other emerging markets are increasingly looking to China, and its partner Russia, for help in developing their own economies and increased access to funding and technology. Russia has also been actively marketing its nuclear technology to other emerging markets as Russia’s nuclear exports are booming.

One of the factors driving China’s rapid NPP roll out is interest rates. China's lower lending rates compared to many other developing nations allow for more affordable financing of nuclear plant construction, where upfront costs are paramount and heavy. A slight difference in interest rates can make the crucial distinction between nuclear energy being cheaper than coal and gas or significantly more expensive.

Another factor is the steady construction pipeline in China. Predictable demand enables equipment and component manufacturers to standardize production, and experienced construction crews can avoid costly delays. Replicability of the construction plan becomes essential.

China's one-party system also plays a role. The country's ability to permit and execute infrastructure projects efficiently contrasts with the complexities of the US's democratic process.

The US has shifted its focus away from large-scale nuclear plants due to escalating costs and delays. Instead, research and investment have veered towards small-scale and modular reactors. While these technologies hold promise, they remain unproven and will take time to be deployed at scale for grid improvement, Bloomberg reports.

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