China charges ahead with new nuclear while Europe drags its feet

Jennifer Johnson

A nuclear power plant in Lianyungang, China (Credit: Shutterstock)
A nuclear power plant in Lianyungang, China (Credit: Shutterstock)

If you live in western Europe, you could be forgiven for thinking that the nuclear energy sector is in a state of terminal decline.

The last nuclear reactor in Germany is due to be powered down next year, England’s Dungeness B power station closed seven years earlier than planned over the summer, and French president Emmanuel Macron is refusing to commit to new nuclear capacity. 

Public opinion around nuclear power is shifting in France. Surveys by the pollster Odoxa found that 67% of people were in favour of atomic energy in 2013, but by 2018 53% of people said they were opposed to it. 

Attitudes in the UK are somewhat sunnier: a survey conducted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy earlier this year revealed that 38% of people felt that nuclear provides a safe source of energy, while 20% reported the opposite. 

But funding provides a significant barrier to the expansion of the UK nuclear fleet.

There is only one nuclear power station under construction in the country – Somerset’s 3.2GW Hinkley Point C. The government had hoped to work with Hitachi to build a new atomic power plant in Wales in 2019, but the Japanese firm ruled that it was too big a commercial risk. Now the government is hoping to build the Sizewell C plant in Suffolk with the help of a funding scheme known as the Regulated Asset Base model, which has never been used in the nuclear sector before. Would-be investors have declined to provide financing for the project. 

Carbon-free power

There are few issues in energy quite so divisive as nuclear power. Critics will argue that wind and solar power are now cheaper alternatives, and environmentalists have long opposed atomic energy on the grounds that long-term storage facilities for radioactive waste have yet to be fully developed. On the other hand, proponents cite the ability of nuclear facilities to provide huge amounts of carbon-free baseload power, which will be increasingly necessary as fossil-fuel plants go offline.    

While much of Europe drags its feet on greenlighting new nuclear plants for economic and political reasons, China and India are charging ahead with development. As of May 2021, China had 17 planned reactors, the highest number in the world, while India had six. 

China is also making strides in its development of new nuclear technologies as it seeks to transition to cleaner energy, particularly with Gen IV nuclear fission projects such as the CFR-600 demonstrator being built in Fujian province as a prototype for a a 1GW commercial reactor. 

Chinese media has also reported that construction had commenced on the country’s first small modular reactor (SMR) demonstration project. 

While several countries have started to develop SMRs – scaled-down fission reactors that can be partly built in factories to cut costs – it’s believed that China’s will be the first to come online.  

The increased interest in small fission reactors could indicate that the era of gigawatt-scale nuclear power plants is drawing to a close. But this doesn’t mean that atomic energy will go quietly into the sunset. 

Rolls-Royce says its own SMR design will be up and running by 2030. The nuclear age is just getting started. 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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