China’s Impressive Rate of Nuclear Construction

What Do Fast Chinese-Led Builds Mean for Nuclear’s Future?

China’s Impressive Rate of Nuclear Construction

Nearly every Chinese nuclear project that has entered service since 2010 has achieved construction in 7 years or less. This real-world trend flies in the face of the tiresome and longstanding claims that nuclear energy technologies inherently exhibit a negative learning curve, and that nuclear reactors require a decade or more to build.

Historic analysis shows that nuclear energy can achieve positive learning curves and fast reactor builds, but commentary on the present and future of nuclear energy technology is at any rate incomplete unless one thinks globally. In fact, China, India, South Korea, or Pakistan are proving more favorable for nuclear project construction than the West. A more comprehensive perspective indeed suggests that worldwide, even as the trajectory of renewables and storage rockets upwards, the role of clean nuclear power in supporting decarbonization will in all likelihood continue to grow as well.

Success elsewhere also illustrates that hurdles faced by recent nuclear projects in the United States, France, or Finland do not originate from some inherent quality of nuclear power, but rather logically reflect a combination of regulatory, market, political, and societal factors.

With nuclear power clearly flourishing in China, it is time for energy commentators to unequivocally acknowledge that nuclear energy can succeed under different circumstances. That recognition in turn ought to motivate clean energy advocates to contemplate what we can do to create different, better conditions for nuclear technologies closer to home.

China’s recent nuclear construction success

Every single conventional commercial-scale reactor project in Chinese history has achieved completion in under a decade (Figure 1). As annual renewable electricity generation in China has grown by 1140 terawatt-hours since 2010 (50 TWh to 1190 TWh), annual nuclear electricity production has actually kept an eyebrow-raising pace of its own, increasing by 343 TWh over the same period (75 TWh to 418 TWh).

China nuclear graph
Figure 1: Construction durations for nuclear plants in China, as well as Pakistani nuclear power plants of Chinese design and construction. This figure is our update to a similar figure originally presented by Stewart, 2022 and reflects all nuclear projects completed and commissioned before 31 January 2024. Overseas projects in Pakistan, Chinese projects based on the American and European AP-1000 and EPR reactors, and the HTR-PM high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) advanced reactor are color-coded differently from conventional Chinese reactor projects of domestic design.

The Chinese nuclear project construction record reveals a few interesting insights. Since the start of 2022, China has completed an additional five domestic reactor builds, with their completion times ranging from just under five years to just over 7 years. This continues the consistent completion record of Chinese projects even despite potential disruptions from the intervening COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Chinese financiers and builders have also shown their ability to complete reactor projects abroad in comparably attractive timeframes. China successfully constructed six nuclear reactors in Pakistan in around 5.5-6 years each (the Chasnupp and Karachi projects) in turn strengthening the confidence of other potential nuclear technology clients, like Argentina, that Chinese partners can deliver similar consistency on their power plants. This record of success poses daunting challenges to would-be competitors, particularly aspiring nuclear technology providers from the United States or Europe.

In contrast, Russian and Korean firms boast most of the other major completed overseas nuclear construction projects in recent years. Russia also possesses a reasonable record of delivering finished reactors within 6-9 years with some exceptions. Korea has built three reactors in the United Arab Emirates in under 9 years each, with the fourth unit on a similar pace towards completion.

Meanwhile the paired HTR PM high-temperature gas-cooled demonstration reactors, constructed at Shidaowan, represents the longest project duration for a nuclear reactor project in China’s history: 11 years. An important caveat, however, is that these demonstration reactors were completed a full two years prior to entering commercial operation, achieving first criticality in September 2021 and spending the next 26 months conducting methodical testing and evaluation. Given their small power output (210 MWe) and their importance as first-of-a-kind representatives of a new-generation design, it seems that project engineers and planners were in no hurry to rush the plant into service.

Why are Chinese reactors built consistently quickly?

The rapidity of Chinese nuclear construction exhibits some of the same underlying drivers as the country’s recent impressive buildout of other heavy industry capacity in sectors like battery packs, refined magnesium, and solar PV equipment.

Project developers benefit from a financing environment where it is relatively easy to raise capital for capital-intensive projects, thanks, in part, to public sector support from local and provincial governments.

And the large-scale growth of industrial and civil infrastructure countrywide in past decades has cultivated considerable megaproject management experience and construction capacity. In particular, private and public-sector projects have learned to target construction economies of scale by planning and co-locating multiple identical units or manufacturing lines at the same site, organized in successive phases of site development and expansion (Figure 2). This base of heavy industrial capacity in turn aids nuclear project development thanks to the wider availability of supply chain assets like heavy forges for reactor pressure vessel construction.

China nuclear power plants satellite
Figure 2: Satellite photography of completed reactor units and reactor units under construction, labeled by technology, at several Chinese nuclear power plants: A) Fangchenggang Nuclear Power Station (21.67N, 108.56E), B) Fuqing Nuclear Power Station (25.44N, 119.44E), C) Changjiang Nuclear Power Station (19.46N, 108.90E), D) Ningde Nuclear Power Station (27.04N, 120.28E). Imagery accessed using Google Earth and Mapbox on 21 February, 2024. Note: spatial scales may differ across panels A-D.

At the same time, Chinese planners have also specifically targeted nuclear energy with muscular policy support. National policy has long prioritized both conventional and advanced reactor technology as a strategically important domestic capability and as a promising growth sector with export potential. This stance developed in response to surging growth in Chinese energy demand since the turn of the millennium, which has consistently pushed policymakers to pursue an all-of-the-above energy strategy to ensure energy resource adequacy. Even with China’s recent building spree of solar, wind, and battery parks, domestic experts and thought leaders continue to agree that nuclear power plays a key role in the country’s energy strategy, particularly in highly-populated, urbanized coastal provinces with more limited renewable resources.

The Chinese nuclear industry has also executed a well-planned approach to developing its nuclear energy capabilities and triaging new projects.

From the start of China’s modern wave of nuclear project construction in around 2005, the nuclear sector has prioritized development of a robust and localized supply chain for reactor components, while cultivating human capital in nuclear-related fields. At the same time, planners have not shunned foreign technology, experimenting with building several American, European, and Russian reactor designs even while developing new domestic reactor technologies.

Strategic planning has targeted sites that represent low-hanging-fruit—lower-cost coastal projects that can receive construction materials and components by barge and that utilize seawater coolant instead of six-hundred-foot cooling towers, while avoiding earthquake and flood risks associated with proposed inland projects. In turn, these coastal sites are selected and laid out in ways that allow for two to four successive phases of reactor construction in pairs at the same site.

Together, this enviable progress in construction experience, industrial supply chain capacity, and strategic policy support has culminated in a consistent reactor build program that in turn ensures that finished plants are profitable in Chinese power markets.

Achieving nuclear construction success worldwide

Many of the favorable circumstances that have helped build the country’s strong nuclear power sector would of course be difficult to emulate in the United States or Europe. But in other rapidly-growing emerging economies like India, Bangladesh, or Indonesia, China’s path to nuclear construction confidence may hold valuable lessons. Meanwhile, advanced economies with diminishing nuclear sector experience, higher megaproject costs, and liberalized wholesale electricity markets can nevertheless study the Chinese experience and formulate their own unique nuclear energy deployment strategies balanced around their particular domestic strengths and weaknesses.

But aiming to match China’s rate of approving 5000-8000MW of new nuclear generating capacity per year may be overly ambitious for many advanced economies—particularly when the critical first steps in those countries may require unlearning bad habits. In particular, the United States, Europe, Japan, and others must overturn regulatory obstacles and outright bans erected by opportunistic anti-nuclear ideologues, while reshoring and expanding capabilities like nuclear fuel enrichment and component manufacturing that have languished neglected for far too long.

The exciting success of wind, solar, and storage technologies in the last decade has led many climate and clean energy advocates to declare the trajectory of the energy transition to be fixed, with nuclear power supposedly destined to diminish into irrelevance. But with electrification of transportation and buildings anticipated to drive big increases for electricity loads even in rich countries with shrinking populations, energy planners would do well to consider China’s approach to prioritizing renewables and nuclear development in parallel.

And as this overview highlights, nuclear power is surging in key parts of the world like East Asia and South Asia. Does this mean that nuclear power is poised to overtake renewables and completely dominate the future clean energy system? Unlikely. But governments and energy experts who are rightfully technology optimists on wind, solar, and batteries perhaps ought to extend more of the same attitude towards nuclear power—a supporting energy transition technology whose future seems likely to be bright in its own right.