Development of China's Nuclear Energy Policies and Programs

Jiechen Wang
June 11, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant at Zhejiang, China. This is the first nulear plant in China mainland. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The term "nuclear renaissance" has been used to refer to the rapid growth of the nuclear power in some countries, driving by the increasing energy demand and the concerns of greenhouse gas emission. China is a good example of nuclear renaissance. With prosperous economic development in the past few decades, China faces great challenges to meet its increasing energy demand and to release enormous environment pressure, resulting in aggressive nuclear plans. [1] Its impact on the global nuclear market is tremendous and might be stilling expanding. Thus it is important to understand the nuclear policies in China. In this report, I will summarize Chinas nuclear policies and programs at different time periods.

China's Nuclear Policies and Programs

The development of nuclear power in China can be roughly divided into three time periods: nuclear weapon era, slow transition era and rapid increase era. [2]

1. Nuclear Weapon Era: 1959-1978

China had a nuclear weapon program before the initiation of nuclear industry. The "Two Bombs, One Satellite" program is a well-known early nuclear and space project in China. Two Bombs refers to the atomic bomb and the later hydrogen bomb, while One Satellite refers to artificial satellites. [3] The research around the development of atomic bomb was initiated since 1959, which represented the starting of the nuclear weapon era in China. After the successful testing of atomic bomb in 1964 at Lop Nur, Xinjiang Province, China launched its first nuclear missile in 1966 and detonated first hydrogen bomb in 1967. These experiments demonstrated remarkable progresses in early development of Chinas nuclear power. [3] These nuclear programs were all military-oriented under the severe geopolitical tension after World War II, and did not served for industrial and commercial usage. However, these weapon programs did complete industrial nuclear science and technology infrastructure both theoretically and experimentally, and did construct foundations for Chinas nuclear energy industry today. [3]

During 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution disrupted the development and progress of China in almost all aspects. However, the nuclear-related programs continued. In 1970, China launched its first nuclear submarine, which indicated the ability to develop nuclear power systems for both military and technology uses. [2]

In summary, during "nuclear weapon era", the development of nuclear power was mainly military-orientated under the severe geopolitical tension after World War II. The commercial nuclear development was not a priority. [2]

2. Slow Transistion Era: 1978-2005

In 1978, the "Chinese economic reform and opening-up" program was initiated. Chinese economy was transformed from centrally planned system to a more market-driven system. And the major financial resources were shifted from military activities to civilian and economic activities, including the nuclear-related resources. [2] However, such shifting was slow, resulting from multiple reasons.

First, the facilities and equipment of the military-oriented nuclear system could not be converted to civilian use quickly. For example, China proposed to construct the first nuclear power plant, Qinshan nuclear power plant in 1978, shown in Fig 1. The project was initiated in 1981, and it took 13 years from the beginning to the final commercial service. Second, the financial support for nuclear energy development during this time period was insufficient. The construction of a nuclear reactor requires huge investment. In China, the nuclear energy program relied mainly on government funding, which was insufficient in 1980 and 1990s. [2] And finally, China did not have a long-term strategic plan toward energy usage at that time. China believed that its coal resources could satisfy its increasing energy demand and did not integrate nuclear energy into the overall energy plan, which limited the efforts put in commercial nuclear energy development at that time period. [2]

In summary, during this period, the nuclear-related resources were shifted from military activities to civilian and economic activities. Some nuclear power plants were constructed. The shifting speed was slow due to the limited technology, funding and policy supporting.

3. Rapid Increase Era: 2005-Present

In this time period, the technology for nuclear system was more established, and government began to give more attention to the nuclear energy development. From 2007 white paper "China's Energy Policy" released by The State Council Information Office, the Chinese government established a "Medium and Long-term Nuclear Power Development Plan (2005-2020)", stating that China will increase its nuclear capacity to about 40 GWe by 2020. [4] It also stated that China should transform nuclear energy from a moderate development role to an active development role. [4] Up to 2018, Chinese mainland has 38 nuclear power reactors in operation with a capacity around 30 GW.

More nuclear power reactors are in preparation, indicating that China will continue the aggressive nuclear energy policy in the future.


This report has summarized China's programs and policies towards nuclear power in different periods. In nuclear weapon era, the development of nuclear power was mainly military-orientated under the severe geopolitical tension after World War II. In slow transition era, the nuclear-related resources were shifted from military activities to civilian and economic activities. In rapid increase era, more attention was paid to nuclear energy, and a lot of nuclear power reactors were constructed.

© Jiechen Wang. 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] S. Zhou and X. Zhang, "Nuclear Energy Development in China: A Study of Opportunities and Challenges," Energy 35, 4282 (2010).

[2] Y. Zhou et al., "Is China Ready For Its Nuclear Expansion," Energy Policy 39, 771 (2011).

[3] C. Huang et al., "A Bibliometric Study of China's Science and Technology Policies: 1949 - 2010," Scientometrics 102 521 (2015).

[4] "China's Energy Conditions and Policies," Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, December 2007.