A few weeks ago, the US government assessed a report of a supposed leak at the Chinese nuclear power plant in the city of Taishan, in Guangdong province. The power plant has been built thanks to the collaboration of Beijing and a French partner company, which has been the one to firstly warn about an “imminent radiological threat”. The CNN spread the news and reported that, according to US officials and some documents the outlet gained access to, the Chinese safety authority was trying to avoid the eventual shut down of the nuclear plant by raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside of it.
Instead, with an official statement on the 16th of June, the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and the Nuclear Safety Administration claimed that the level of radiation was increasing due to damaged fuel rods, assuring that the situation was not critical yet, given that the majority of rods were perfectly working. In this way, Beijing stopped the warning escalation caused by the CNN news, trying to reassure both partners and citizens.
This incident queried many doubts about the recent development of Beijing’s new path regarding its energetic future. Few days after what happened in Taishan, the Chinese Academy of Engineering stated Beijing’s intention of becoming a dominant actor in the nuclear market within 30 years. Not only China will go down this road to keep up with Western companies, but it is also committed to develop higher safety standards at lower costs. The PRC fuelled a great amount of investments in nuclear development, with a special concern for the export area, in order to set a strategic and broad scope for the future. For instance, Pakistan has already been a major importer of Chinese nuclear technologies, and many other countries are starting to show interest in the latest developments.
In order to hit these high goals, Beijing has decided to pursue its strategy of technological supremacy in a competitive market dominated by long standing actors like France, the US, Russia. Since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, the country has taken distance from the idea of being the “world’s factory” which prevailed during the last twenty years. Indeed, starting from 2015 Beijing invested in new technologies that are crucial for the development of the nuclear field, simultaneously cutting major costs. The main example is represented by faster neutron reactors designed to recycle large amounts of plutonium fuel. The main challenge ahead in order to achieve this technological leap will be the effective transition from research and development to commercial deployment and export efficiency.
The bigger picture behind these aims is the even more ambitious goal of carbon neutrality within 2060. In September 2020, in the framework of the UN General Assembly, President Xi announced the decarbonisation of China within 40 years. This statement shocked the international community, which did not expect Beijing to present itself as a responsible stakeholder in the most looming global issue, as its high emissions currently makes it the major contributor to global warmth: in China the carbon usage, representing more than 50% of the whole national energy production, reaches the highest percentage in the world.
On the other hand, the percentage of electricity produced by renewable energies is only around 15%. Although, with the incoming investments of the new 2021-2025 quinquennial plan, Beijing headquarters seem willing to be faithful to what publicly stated. At the core of this sustainable transition and strategic transformation Xi puts nuclear energy. Many nuclear plants will be built in the future to keep up with the electricity demand, exploiting new Chinese technologies that will help to create modern and safer reactors, without excluding the collaboration with other major foreign companies.
As a matter of fact, fulfilling such a commitment is a complex task also for the second economy in the world, and this is why China is exploiting its political relationships. The 19th of May, President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin assisted from remote to the construction’s start of four new nuclear reactors in Tianwan and Xudapu. This close collaboration is part of a broader commitment made by Moscow and Beijing to achieve ambitious plans that will demonstrate the strong bond between the two. The Chinese President has also pressured Russia to become more involved to tackle the global warming issue. By doing so, Beijing wishes to enhance its international image, while the close collaboration with Moscow will also help to achieve the energetic transition and nuclear policy, thanks to Russia’s experience as a major actor in the nuclear and energy market.
The Chinese commitment expressed at the UN General Assembly turned out underlining its ambition to be regarded as a responsible stakeholder at the global level. The upcoming huge investments in nuclear development have been labelled under the energetic independence and the green transition. Although, it is conceivable that Beijing’s choice is also driven by major geopolitical interests. If the technological transition is successful, it will likely grant Beijing a major influence on other countries, under the Belt and Road Initiative’s framework. In the domestic sphere, the application of new technologies will probably allow to reach energetic autonomy, while opening up to further economic development. At the international level, being able to export more efficient and cheaper technologies than its competitors’ will presumably increase its global political weight, as Beijing would be granted a favourable negotiation position vis-à-vis potential partners.