U.S. v China: The Great Nuclear Power Competition

China making huge strides towards expanding domestic nuclear power generation capacity as well as technological capabilities and set to take on U.S. Dominance in nuclear power.

Rajat Narang - The Radioactive Warzone

6/18/20242 min read

The ongoing great power competition between the U.S. and China virtually spans almost across all sectors be it semiconductors, electronics, rare earth metals or nuclear power. China is making huge strides and investments towards development of its domestic nuclear power generation capacity as well as expanding technological capabilities which are likely to make China a key state player in the global nuclear power market by the middle of next decade.

As per a report by the U.S.-based Information Technology and Information Foundation, China is making massive investments towards nuclear power as per its dual-circulation strategy which is geared towards taking China towards sustainability by 2060 while also making the nation a key player & major exporter in the global nuclear power market as the world scrambles to make the inevitable transition towards sustainability.

China plans to establish 150 new nuclear reactors by 2035, as outlined under its 5-year plan spanning 2021-2025 which will add to its existing 56 nuclear power plants (NPPs), with 27 plants already under construction which are being established at a much faster pace of 7 years than its western counterparts backed by easy, low-interest financing, full state backing, focus as well as commitment and centralized & state-coordinated efforts across the supply chain. Further, China also achieved the distinction of being the first nation globally to actually commercialize a 4th generation nuclear reactor for commercial energy production in December 2023 which gives it a definite leg-up in its ability to commercialize 4th generation nuclear reactors at mass scale going forward for nuclear power generation. Further, China is also focusing significantly towards R&D for the development of nuclear fusion technologies and development of small modular reactors (SMRs). Overall, this collectively and effectively positions China almost 15 years ahead of the U.S., as per the report.

The U.S., on the contrary, has the largest number of nuclear reactors in operation at 94, however, the private nuclear power generation industry, under NRC, has been extremely slow in the addition of new reactors owing primarily to surging costs given that the latest nuclear reactor which came online at Voltge facility cost a whopping $35 billion. Further, U.S. still needs a coordinated policy solution for tackling the huge problem of nuclear waste management given that the nuclear waste in the U.S. stands at 90,000 metric tons as of the end of 2023 spread across almost 75 sites and stored in open water pools without an appropriate disposal plan or dedicated facility for it, thereby, creating significant risks of radiation leaks and radioactive contamination to the entire nation. The development of YUCCA mountain facility for nuclear waste disposal was first proposed in the late-1980s and 1990s decade, however, it has been under repeated deliberations and subjected to extensive dilly dallying over the subsequent decades without any headway which has further compounded the Gordian Knot of nuclear waste in the U.S. as it has surged by almost 25% from 70,000 metric tons in the 1980s to 90,000 MT by 2023. The 4th generation reactors are going to be an exorbitant & meaningless adventurism for the embattled private nuclear power industry across the West, unlike state-run China, while the SMRs are still a long distance away from commercialization.

The underlying structural dynamics, forces at play, overall strategic situation and the scales of destiny, thus, seemingly & inevitably favor China, way more than the U.S., at present, unless a force majeure comes into play and disrupts the developing dynamic...

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