Nuclear power won’t solve national energy dilemmas

By Zhang Tingbin Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-17 23:03:02

It is widely believed that nuclear power will be the answer to China's energy supply problems. Although Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis has put some countries on alert about the risks of nuclear energy, China is one of the few that is still sticking with a course of nuclear power development. Of course, all of this comes as China's growing reliance on foreign crude oil has planners searching for ways to promote energy independence.

Will nuclear power really help China achieve its energy security goals? Not necessarily. Despite rapid advancements in nuclear power infrastructure and technology, the country lags far behind when it comes to the exploration and exploitation of uranium mines.

After a decade of explosive investment nearly all of China's provinces either have, or are in the midst of building, their own nuclear power plants. According to reports by the Xinhua News Agency, China now has 17 operational nuclear plants and 14.76 million kilowatts of installed nuclear capacity. Moreover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that China's installed nuclear capacity could reach 125 million kilowatts by 2035, more than any other country in the world. Obviously, the country's already sizable demand for uranium will only continue expanding in the decades ahead.

Unfortunately for those betting on a nuclear-powered future, China's local uranium reserves are inadequate to its mounting needs. As of 2009, statistics show that China had only 171,400 tons of proven uranium reserves, accounting for just 2.7 percent of the world's total. And by 2035, domestic uranium production is expected to total just 1,200 tons, well short of the amount it will need to fuel its plants.

Meanwhile, the World Nuclear Association has also pointed out that China will face a supply shortage of uranium ore in the future. The association predicts that the gap between China's uranium supply and demand will grow to 6,350 tons in 2015 and 43,800 tons in 2035, up from a difference of 1,153 tons in 2010.

Faced with a looming shortfall, China's dependence on foreign uranium will soon eclipse its dependence on overseas crude. Right now, the country relies on imported oil to meet 60 percent of local demand, and this figure is likely to rise to 65 percent by 2015. Yet, in just over two years' time, China will also be 88.2-percent dependent on foreign uranium ore.

On the other hand, the country can't continue producing and consuming coal, one of its most abundant resources, as it has in decades gone by. China mined 3.66 billion tons of coal in 2012, nearly half of the world's output that year; and if this heavy exploitation continues, local reserves will soon reach a tipping point.

In short, supply bottlenecks with China's major energy resources - coal, oil and uranium - are inevitable. At this stage, authorities and planners should encourage breakthroughs in hydrogen fusion and other types of energy while also spurring more efficient consumption.

The author is the founder of CNYUAN Think Tank, a leading financial consultancy.

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