China’s omnivorous demand for energy to fuel its booming economy has led Beijing to place a high priority on developing indigenous fossil fuel resources, and one there is paramount.
According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration, “China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, and accounts for almost half of the world's coal consumption… Coal supplied the vast majority (70 percent) of China's total energy consumption of 90 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2009.”
The EIA country analysis brief continues, “According to the World Energy Council, China held an estimated 128 billion short tons of recoverable coal reserves in 2011, the third-largest in the world behind the United States and Russia, and equivalent to about 13 percent of the world's total coal reserves. Coal production rose 9 percent from 3.5 billion short tons in 2010 to over 3.8 billion short tons in 2011, making China the largest coal producer in the world. There are 27 provinces in China that produce coal, and northern China, especially the provinces of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, contains most of China's easily-accessible coal and virtually all of the large state-owned mines. Coal comprises about 70 percent of China's total primary energy consumption. In 2011, China consumed an estimated 4 billion short tons of coal, representing about half of the world total. Coal consumption is about 3 times higher than it was in 2000, reversing the decline seen from 1996 to 2000. More than half of China's coal is used for power and heat generation; therefore, coal consumption generally tracks electricity demand and industrial growth. Industries such as steel and construction accounted for 30 percent of coal use in 2011.”
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So, where’s the snag in this roseate picture?
First, China became a net coal importer in 2009 for the first time in over two decades. Total imports rose to 240 million short tons in 2011, about 18 percent higher than 2010 levels, primarily from Indonesia and Australia, which combined had over a 50 percent market share of imports last year.
Secondly, and more ominously, Chinese experts say many of the nation’s coal and uranium deposits are co-located and that coal extraction is ruining the value of the nuclear fuel, adding that the uranium is accidentally ending up in coal-fired power stations, which belch radioactive ash that is falling on surrounding cities.
The disparity has produced conflict between China’s coal and gas sectors, but there is little doubt who the authorities support. China Institute of Atomic Energy Professor Gu Zhongmao, a top adviser to China National Nuclear Corp. said that balancing the interests of the two different energy sectors was proving a headache for the central government while the CNNC's 821 Factory former head Song Xuebin, a facility that produces uranium fuel, has filed a complaint with the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference alleging that the coal mines were encroaching on the uranium deposits.
It is an issue that cannot be sidestepped much longer. China currently has 15 operating nuclear power plants (NPPs) that provide roughly 12.5 gigawatts of generating capacity, and another 26 reactors currently under construction that will add another 30 gigawatts to the national grid. According to the pro nuclear industry World Nuclear Association, “additional reactors are planned, including some of the world's most advanced, to give a five- or six-fold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 60 gigawatts by 2020, then 200 gigawatts by 2030, and 400 gigawatts by 2050.” Chinese mining will have to be ramped up to support both the nuclear and coal industries, so the problem of commingled fuel and pollution issues arising from it can only increase.
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Chinese technology has made impressive strides in the past few decades, as evidenced by its Three Gorges hydroelectric facility to an indigenous space program, making China only the third nation, after the U.S. and Soviet Union, to overcome the immense engineering problems of developing a manned space flight program.
But in embracing nuclear power as a key component of the country’s energy future, China’s engineers ultimately will have to confront a problem that has stymied the best U.S. European, Russian and Japanese scientists for more than six decades – the safe disposal of the radioactive by products of NPPs.
It is this simple fact, more than any other that has increasingly raised concerns worldwide, despite the best efforts of boosters of civilian nuclear power. It is one thing to try and isolate radioactive waste from NPPs, quite another to try and capture expelled low-level radioactive fly ash from coal-fired electrical plants. To resolve either will prove expensive, and it is uncertain at this point whether the Chinese leadership has either the will or funding to do either.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com