In the realm of nuclear energy, China has emerged as the definitive global leader in new nuclear construction. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that China is currently constructing 21 nuclear reactors, which collectively hold a capacity to generate more than 21 gigawatts of electricity. This staggering number places China far ahead of any other nation in terms of nuclear reactor construction.

India stands as the runner-up in the nuclear buildout, with eight reactors under construction that have the potential to generate over six gigawatts of electricity. Following closely is Turkey, securing the third position with four nuclear reactors under construction and an anticipated capacity of 4.5 gigawatts. In sharp contrast, the United States has just a single nuclear reactor under construction, situated at the Vogtle power plant in Georgia. This reactor is projected to produce slightly over 1 gigawatt of electricity. For context, a gigawatt is sufficient to power a mid-sized city.

Ehsan Hosseini, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Arkansas Tech University, believes that nuclear power plants in the U.S. can be retrieved by producing hydrogen (or so-called pink hydrogen) to address several challenges facing the nuclear industry. With the U.S. nuclear fleet identified as a vital resource for achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, the closure of reactors due to expiring licenses and competition from low-cost natural gas and renewables threatens the industry’s viability. He suggests that nuclear power plants can leverage their thermal heat and electricity to generate pink hydrogen through various methods, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions while capitalizing on their consistent energy supply. This approach involves producing high-quality steam, which can be used in the steam methane reforming (SMR) process or converted into pure hydrogen using solid oxide steam electrolyzers (SOSE).

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Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasizes that “China is the de facto world leader in nuclear technology at the moment.” Kenneth Luongo, president and founder of the Partnership for Global Security, concurs, stating that China is “the determined and pacing leader in global nuclear ambition at the moment.” China’s ascendancy to this position of leadership, however, has not always been the case.

The existing nuclear reactor fleet in the United States serves as a testament to its previous dominance in nuclear energy. The U.S. boasts a total of 93 nuclear reactors that are operational, and capable of generating over 95 gigawatts of electricity. This figure significantly exceeds the nuclear capacity of any other nation. Many of these reactors are expected to remain viable for a considerable period, as nuclear reactors can be licensed to operate for up to 60 years, and sometimes even up to 80 years.

France holds the second position in terms of operational nuclear reactors, with 56 reactors and a capacity exceeding 61 gigawatts. Following closely is China, with 55 operating reactors and a capacity of over 53 gigawatts. Kenneth Luongo underscores the general consensus that the U.S. has relinquished its global dominance in nuclear energy, a trend that began in the mid-1980s. During this period, China was just commencing its nuclear industry, coinciding with the decline of the U.S. nuclear build-out.

China’s rise as the preeminent nuclear leader stems from a blend of factors, with the principle of supply following demand being a key driver. New nuclear reactors tend to be constructed in rapidly developing economies where power is in high demand to fuel growth. Although more than 70% of existing nuclear capacity resides within countries affiliated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), almost 75% of nuclear reactors under construction are situated in non-OECD nations. Remarkably, half of these under-construction reactors are in China, as highlighted by the World Nuclear Association’s supply chain report.

China’s surge in energy output parallels its economic growth. In 2020, China’s total energy output reached a monumental 7,600 terawatt hours, a stark contrast from the 1,280 terawatt-hours recorded in 2000. However, this rapid increase in energy production came at the cost of air quality, primarily due to the extensive reliance on coal to meet soaring electricity demands. This dependence on coal prompted a dire need for cleaner electricity generation.

Recognizing the environmental drawbacks of coal, China turned its attention to nuclear energy as a means to rapidly produce substantial quantities of clean energy. The country’s commitment to this transition is showcased by its ambition to expand its nuclear capacity to 150 gigawatts within 15 years, a feat that, if achieved, will mark the most significant expansion of nuclear capacity in history. China’s remarkable transformation can be attributed in part to its government’s formidable control over the energy sector and the majority of the economy. China’s state-supported and financed industry has facilitated the construction of multiple nuclear units at a reduced cost. The nation’s state-backed supply chain and unwavering commitment to technology development have been crucial components in its rise to nuclear prominence.

China’s nuclear endeavors not only yield global climate benefits but also pose geopolitical challenges. The country’s nuclear prowess augments energy security, grid stability, economic growth, and mitigation of air pollution and climate change. However, the potential export of China’s nuclear technology to other nations could create geopolitical-economic dependencies, similar to the concerns surrounding Russia’s nuclear influence.

Contrastingly, the United States is endeavoring to regain its former dominance in the nuclear sector. Despite a slow start, both the U.S. and Europe have rekindled their nuclear energy efforts, although with mixed results. The revival of nuclear plant construction faced challenges, including a scarcity of specialized workforce and supply chain disruptions. Notably, the Vogtle Plant in Georgia experienced significant delays and cost overruns.

Nonetheless, the U.S. is making strides to regain its foothold in the nuclear landscape. A shift in political sentiment has seen bipartisan support for nuclear power. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 57% of Americans favor the expansion of nuclear reactors to generate electricity, marking a notable increase from 43% in 2020.

To reestablish its global position, the U.S. is investing in advanced nuclear technologies, particularly small modular and microreactors. These designs offer cost-effective and faster construction due to their modular nature. The NuScale small modular reactor and Westinghouse AP300 exemplify this approach, alongside more innovative designs such as the TerraPower NaTure Reactor and the X-Energy high-temperature gas cooled reactors.

However, the U.S. faces competition from China and Russia, both of which provide attractive financing and incentives to export their nuclear technology. To excel in the export market, the U.S. must demonstrate the viability of its nuclear designs by initiating domestic projects that prove the technology’s effectiveness. The race for global nuclear supremacy will intensify as demand for clean energy escalates. With nuclear energy being a pivotal player in addressing climate change, the competition to lead in this realm is likely to shape the energy landscape of the future.

Writing by Kevin Wood; Editing by Sarah White