by Marjorie Cessac • Published 12 April 2023
It’s a long-distance race, though lower profile, certainly, than the one being waged on the gas and oil front since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it is underway and being relentlessly pursued by Beijing and Moscow. In terms of civil nuclear power, these two countries have long been plotting their path, leaving other major nations far behind. As of January 1, of the 59 reactors under construction worldwide, 22 are in China, and 43 use Russian or Chinese technology, according to the February 1 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), an assessment of global nuclear power conducted by atomic energy experts.
The trend is set to continue. Between 2003 and 2022, China had already built half of the world’s reactors (49 out of 99), while of the 105 that have closed, none were on its soil. “Outside of China, not much has happened in the last two decades in terms of new reactor start-ups,” said Mycle Schneider, director of the WNISR project. “Overall, there has even been a decline.”
China was the only country able to build between three and seven reactors per year between 2010 and 2023. A pace not unlike that of France’s “Messmer plan” between the 1970s and 1990s. And by 2025, Beijing still wants to bring online five reactors that are currently under construction. “China is carrying out continuous construction, it has a real industrial plan,” said Valérie Faudon, general delegate of the Société Française d’Energie Nucléaire (SFEN), pointing out that with the exception of the four Russian reactors on its territory, all the country’s plants that are currently under construction are now made in China.
“Beijing has been shopping around for technology, buying two EPRs [European Pressurized Reactor], Russian VVER [water-cooled and moderator power] reactors and American AP1000 [pressurized water] which it has then sinicized,” Schneider explained. These technology transfers have enabled it to equip itself with its own construction capacity: “After Fukushima, China moved to the third Chinese generation with its Hualong One reactor,” added the expert. This was a decisive step, which now gives China international legitimacy.
Of course, Russia remains the undisputed export champion in this field. A total of 25 Russian reactors are under construction around the world: in China, but also in India, Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, Iran and Belarus. In this capital-intensive sector, the state-owned conglomerate Rosatom is making its mark by building at its own expense, thanks to advantageous loans that clients only repay once the first megawatts have been produced.
The Russian consortium sells turnkey sites, from design and construction to reactor operation, including fuel delivery and waste management. The package includes assistance in setting up regulatory structures (safety authority) and training services. And China is taking inspiration from this. In March 2021, China delivered the first all-Chinese power plant to Pakistan, and six plants are now in operation there. Another is planned for Argentina, while discussions are taking place with more than a dozen countries, mainly within the “new Silk Roads” framework.
Throughout history, especially during the Cold War, civil nuclear power has helped create lasting strategic interdependencies. “There is hardly any other project that can weld two countries together like nuclear power does,” Schneider said. “Germany went to zero Russian gas within a year; it was harsh but possible, which is not the case with nuclear for some countries.”
“In fossil fuels, it is the raw material that counts, not the technology,” added Yves Marignac, an expert at the organization négaWatt, which is critical of nuclear energy. “In nuclear power, uranium is important, but what is even more important is the enrichment capacity and the technological mastery of the value chain.”
According to Marignac, the importance of civil nuclear power is more about geopolitics than energy, climate or industry. “In the space of 70 years, nuclear power has never provided more than 3% of the final energy consumed in the world,” he said, highlighting that in October 2022, when Poland signed with the American company Westinghouse for the construction of a plant, the first official reaction came from the White House.
With a few exceptions (such as the Polish contract), the United States, like Europe and especially France, is less keen on exporting than the Russians and the Chinese. This is not surprising: “The Americans have the same problems as we do,” said Sylvaine Dhion, who coordinated a study on the international nuclear industry for the think tank The Shift Project in 2020-2022. “The industry is in trouble because there have been no major projects for years, skills have been lost, and the country is now struggling to complete the construction of two of its own plants.”
This view brings to mind the interminable construction site of Flamanville (in the Manche region in northwestern France), with its series of delays and budget overruns, as well as the aging nuclear fleet and various technical challenges such as corrosion. These uncertainties are forcing Paris to refocus on its domestic market, sometimes allowing itself to be relegated to the background. “One would have imagined that South Africa, which has a French power plant on its territory, with EDF employees onsite, would again turn to France to build new reactors,” added Dhion. “Yet Johannesburg is also talking to China, South Korea and Russia.”
To put things into perspective, some people point to the fact that France remains a pillar of the energy transition in Europe. “In addition to its experience as an operator, EDF is currently the only vendor building power plants in Europe [in the United Kingdom],” the electricity group pointed out.
The French group highlighted its involvement in several “competitive and discussion processes”: in Poland (at least two reactors), the Czech Republic (from one to four reactors), Slovenia (one or two reactors) and the Netherlands (two reactors). “EDF has also signed an exploratory agreement in Finland and started discussions with Sweden,” the company added.
It is true that the war in Ukraine has changed the game for all energy sources, including nuclear. In order to secure their energy supplies, several countries have opted to maintain their reactors instead of closing them. This is the case in Belgium and Germany, where three of the newest reactors have been extended until mid-April. Others, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, made a significant turnaround in their energy policy in 2022, after changes in government, by announcing plans for new power plants.
“Thirteen countries in Europe want to use nuclear power, and this is reflected in studies, calls for projects and tenders,” added Faudon. In the East, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia are in this camp. Some of these countries are home to Russian technology power plants. “With the exception of Hungary and Slovakia, the others are now trying to move away from them,” noted Faudon. However, the path is likely to be steep, long and costly.