China Suspends Nuclear Plans; CO2 Emissions Could Rise from More Coal Use

China has temporarily suspended approval of new nuclear plants to scrutinize safety issues more closely.

The announcement, made March 16, reflects growing anxiety over the crisis in Japan. Earlier in the week, China said it was committed to pushing forward with development of approximately 28 new reactors with a combined capacity of about 10.8 gigawatts (GW). 

China’s new five-year plan – due next month – was expected to set a target of between 70 GW and 80 GW of new nuclear power. 

Lin Boqiang, director of the Center for Chinese Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University in China, said the suspension will only be a delay of China’s large-scale nuclear policy. 

However, according to Reuters, opposition to nuclear energy in China is growing. Earthquakes are relatively common in the country, and plans even exist for a power plant in the province of Sichuan, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2008.

Coal Could Replace Nuclear

If China backs away from its ambitious nuclear targets, coal is likely to replace a large portion of the country’s nuclear generation target. 

Likewise, if Germany and other European countries follow through on the phase-out of nuclear plants, CO2 emissions could rise there from increased biomass-, gas- and coal-fired generation. 

As Japan recovers, it will burn more natural gas to replace the destroyed reactors in Fukushima, and others that have been shut down. 

Japan is the world’s largest coal importer, buying about 165 million metric tons in 2009, according to the International Energy Agency.

Germany’s renewable energy industry lobby BEE said on Wednesday that solar and wind could fill the gap, if Germany shuts down its seven oldest nuclear power plants, as stated earlier in the week.

The group, which represents wind, solar, hydro and biomass interests, said those sectors could supply 47% of Germany’s total power needs by 2020. 

"Renewables could be ready to provide 47 percent of German power supply up to 2020. This way they would not just compensate for the nuclear withdrawal (meant to happen by 2021 at the latest) but in addition offer affordable and sustainable power," the group said.

For the last decade, Germany has been debating whether or not to shut down all 17 of its nuclear reactors. Continuing nuclear operations will hold back renewables from coming to full play by 16 years, BEE said.

An executive from Peabody Energy Corporation (NYSE: BTU), one of the largest coal companies in the world, told a conference on Tuesday that coal producers stand to benefit from the disaster in Japan. 

Japan used coal for about 25% of electricity production in 2007, and nuclear accounted for 24% in 2008, according to the US Energy Information Administration notes.

Most of the imported coal comes from Australia, where supplies have been constrained since the catastrophic floods  shut down coal mines and limited export terminal operations.

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