The big debate on whether or not to use nuclear power as an energy option has raged among countries like the U.S., Britain, and Germany for decades, with not even the advent and threat of global warming forcing a conclusion. China, however, has always stressed energy diversity and been determined to develop and use this alternative energy source.
China's energy needs have soared in tandem with its rampant economic growth, and summer in many cities is a time of power cuts as air conditioners devour electricity at such alarming rates that state grids can't cope. Where, then, is the extra energy to come from?
China has limited resources in relation to its vast territory and huge population needs. Coalmines are mainly situated in the north and water in the south. Quality coal for industrial purposes is even less abundant. The building of hydropower stations is obviously costly and, as a result, China has not developed enough hydropower facilities in the past decades, apart from the gigantic Three Gorges plant.
More pressure for developing clean and renewable energy is being exerted because of global climate change and the environmental headache China is suffering. Electricity generation is responsible for about one third of worldwide greenhouse gases and China, a confirmed member of the Kyoto Protocol, needs to take a hard look at its energy industry, which relies heavily on thermal power. Wind and solar power are also options, but both are far from being utilized on a grand scale because of technical and cost hurdles.
Nuclear energy for civilian use has long been an option as the required technology was available. Soon after the founding of new China in 1949, the country's leaders began considering development of the nuclear bomb by relying on China's own technology to meet the threat of the enemies during the Cold War. China tested atomic and hydrogen bombs successfully in the 1960s and began developing nuclear power stations to solve its energy problems soon after. As early as in the 1980s, the first generating unit, called Dayawan Nuclear Station, began construction in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Supported by and equipped with technologies from France and Britain, the station began operation in 1994, providing electricity not only for Guangdong, but also for the power-hungry Hong Kong nearby.
Qinshan Nuclear Power Station, located in Haiyan County, Zhejiang Province, is the first commercial unit of this energy source in China. Construction started on March 20, 1985, and it began generating electricity on December 15, 1991, making China the seventh country to self-develop and build a nuclear power station in the world, after the United States, Britain, France, Russia, Canada and Sweden. The second phase of construction at Qinshan was put into use in 2002. Further expansion of the station is now underway and it is expected to have an installed capacity of 2.6 gigawatt (gw) by 2011, thus providing 16 billion kwh of power annually to the vast area of east China.
Security concerns have long dogged the nuclear industry, with leakage incidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island still fresh in the minds of many. China has kept a good record in this regard, a vital factor for both government and the public to approve nuclear power as a "sunshine" sector in the country's energy industry. Sun Qin, Director of the China Atomic Energy Authority, has said that China will have 11 nuclear units in operation by the end of 2007, and the country will increase its nuclear power installed capacity to 40 gw by 2020, to account for 4 percent of the country's total electric power, a jump from the current 1.8 percent.