China’s Nuclear Energy Expansion

Source: World Nuclear Association

China's domestic expansion of nuclear energy showcases a dynamic shift in the balance of global nuclear capacity. In the past decade, the country has exhibited a remarkable expansion in nuclear energy development, adding over 34 GW to its nuclear energy generation. As of April 2024, China has 55 operating nuclear reactors with a net capacity of 53.2 GW—near-tripling its capacity within this period—illustrating a concerted effort to meet its skyrocketing electricity demand while addressing environmental concerns. 

This growth narrative is complemented by the fact that another 23 reactors, equating to an additional 23.7 GW, are under construction. In early 2024, the China National Nuclear Corporation Chairman said Beijing could approve as many as ten new reactors yearly. The sheer scale of China's nuclear push, achieving in ten years what took the United States 40 years to reach in similar capacity increases, underscores the ambition of China’s nuclear energy goals. Yet, despite this increase, China’s nuclear power generation in 2022 only contributed 5% of its cumulative power generation. Comparatively, nuclear power in the US accounted for 18% of the electricity generation that same year. 

This expansion of China’s domestic nuclear energy program exists within a broader energy portfolio that remains predominantly coal-centric, with a capacity of 1,089 GW. China's energy strategy, rooted in a long-term vision laid out in 2011, seeks to diversify its electricity generation and address environmental concerns, ultimately refashioning the energy mix for future resilience and sustainability. One imperative for nuclear expansion is driven by a motivation to curb air pollution and greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants. 

Moreover, constructing domestically designed reactors like the Hualong One demonstrates a push toward technological advancement, and the offering of the design for export potentially positions China as a major nuclear power exporter in this century. Currently, the country’s nuclear fleet consists primarily of pressurized water reactors (PWR) from a variety of vendors, but future plans include primarily China-designed reactors. China's strategic focus on advancing indigenous reactor designs underscores its commitment to expanding its global nuclear footprint.

Emily Day, Della Ratta Fellow, Partnership for Global Security