Nuclear vs Renewable Energy in China

Jaime Deverall
May 13, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Sanmen Nuclear Power Station in Eastern China (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Harvy, China produces around 3.3 billion tons of carbon emissions annually and is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. [1] The problem of pollution is so dire in China that according to Fullerton, in 2013, Beijing had an "airpocalypse". [2] In other words, the Air Quality Index level reached 755. To put that into persepctive, the top end of the scale is supposed to be 500. According to Murtaugh, China's horrific air pollution causes 2 million premature deaths per year and only two percent of Chinas population breathes air that meets World Health Organization guidelines. [3] However, multiple steps are being taken by the Chinese government to improve the situation. For example, according to Harvy, China has already established a target of ensuring its still- growing emissions peak by 2030. [1] China hopes to achieve this goal through a combination of approaches including renewable energy sources, nuclear energy and an emissions trading system. In this piece, we will focus on China's development of renewable energy sources and nuclear energy.

Renewable Energy Sources

According to Murtaugh, China will account for a third of new wind and solar power installations by 2040. [3] Furthermore, solar is expected to become China's cheapest source of electricity, surpassing natural gas by 2020 and coal by 2030. [3] Also according to Murtaugh, China is already a leader in renewables. [3] China is ranked first in the world by installed capacity of hydropower, solar and wind. Furthermore, by 2040, the IEA sees renewables accounting for 40 percent of total power generation. [3] According to Hirtenstein, about $333.5 billion was invested in renewable energy in 2017 with China's investment accounting for 40 percent of this total. [4] In addition, according to the latest data from the National Energy Administration, at the end of November of 2017, photovoltaic power installations totalled almost 126 gigawatts in China, which is an increase of 67 percent from a year earlier. [4] Furthermore, newly added solar capacity was 17.23 GW in the first 11 months of 2017, which is approximately four times more than the same time period in 2016. [4]

Nuclear Energy

In 2011, after Fukushima, China stopped approving the construction of new nuclear reactors in order to review its safety standards. [5] However, in March 2015, China approved the construction of two new reactors. [5] This is part of China's attempt to beat Japan in terms of nuclear-generating capacity by 2020 and subsequently become the world's largest consumer of nuclear power by 2030. [5] Koufakis reiterates this idea that China wants to aggressively expand their nuclear capacity in her piece on the future of China's nuclear industry. [6] Furthermore, Li reports developments in new forms of nuclear power that China is experimenting with such as pebble-bed reactors and floating nuclear power plants reinforcing the notion that China wants to become a world-leader in nuclear power. [7] According to He Zuoxiu, a leading Chinese scientist, China plans to build 58 GW of nuclear generating capacity by 2020 and eventually increase this to between 120 to 200. [5] However, He views these expansions as extremely risky. He suggested that if there was an accident, this could lead to the contamination of rivers and water supplies that hundreds of millions of people depend on. [5] One of He's main points is that China should gain more experience running its newly opened power plants before constructing new ones. In fact, almost all of China's working reactors were started after 2000. [5] One of these power plants in operation is the Sanmen Nuclear Power Plant, shown in Fig. 1. Other concerns that He has regarding the construction of more power plants are poor management, poor decision-making, and corruption.


In conclusion, while China is going full-steam ahead with its proliferation of renewable energy including solar, wind and hydropower, it should still continue investing in nuclear power plants. However, rather than aggressively constructing more reactors, China should first gain experience operating their existing plants to mitigate the risk of accidents caused by missing safety precautions.

© Jaime Deverall. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. Harvey, "China Aims to Drastically Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through Trading Scheme," The Guardian, 19 Dec 17.

[2] J. Fullerton, "Beijing Hit by Dirty Smog But Observers Say Air Is Getting Better," The Guardian, 31 Mar 17.

[3] D. Murtaugh, "China Is Over Coal, Bored With Oil as It Charts Green Future", Bloomberg, 13 Nov 17.

[4] A. Hirtenstein, "China's Solar Boom Boosts Clean Energy Funding Near Record", Bloomberg, 16 Jan 18.

[5] E. Graham-Harrison, "China Warned Over 'Insane' Plans For New Nuclear Power Plants", The Guardian, 25 May 15.

[6] E. Koufakis, "The Future of China's Nuclear Industry", Physics 241 Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[7] B. Li, "Recent Developments in Chinese Nuclear Energy", Physics 241 Stanford University, Winter 2016.