What China’s Growing Nuclear Power Means for the World

Beijing makes a drive to lift its presence in the international energy game

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BOBBY YIP / AFP / Getty Images

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (C) chats with Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture general manager Guo Liming (L) and EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz, as they walk past a nuclear reactor under construction at a nuclear power plant in Taishan, Guangdong province, on Oct. 17, 2013

Chinese companies have had a hard time breaking into markets considered vital to Western national security. Forays by Chinese telecoms, for instance, have failed due to supposed threats to American vital interests. But when it comes to nuclear energy, China Inc., backed by the economic might of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, is making a push overseas—and succeeding.

On Oct. 17, while on a trip to China, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne unveiled a plan that could allow Chinese companies to take majority stakes in future British nuclear power plants. Also in the news this week: Beijing’s plans to supply traditional ally Pakistan with two more nuclear reactors, worth some $9 billion.

With fallout from the Fukushima nuclear crisis still unfolding, the image of nuclear power has been sullied. Countries like Germany are transitioning from nuclear to other sources, like wind or solar. Nevertheless, China’s energy needs are voracious. Today, the country only operates 18 nuclear reactors, providing less than 2% of its total energy output, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it is building nearly 30 more to feed its growing power needs. The state is subsidizing the power push, which has made China the fastest growing nuclear-energy player in the world.

(MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?)

Yet concerns remain about China’s ability to meet stringent international nuclear standards. Endemic graft and abuse of power has compromised safety in a multitude of Chinese industries, from food to pharmaceuticals. A Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection report released in June stated that the country’s operational nuclear reactors are in “good condition” and that “quality is being well controlled” for those under construction. But the same ministry is notorious for issuing toothless regulations that are flouted by local authorities.

Like the Chinese, the British are investing heavily in nuclear power. Britain, which has not built a nuclear power plant in nearly two decades, aims to refurbish its aging nuclear assembly and build new plants. Talks about new investment are ongoing between the British government and French nuclear power company EDF, which has in the past partnered with China General Nuclear Power Group to construct new nuclear plants.

Meanwhile, China’s reactor deal with Pakistan is raising concerns that it might contravene international regulations dictating atomic commerce. India, the other nuclear power on the subcontinent, suffers from strained ties both with Pakistan and China. Trying to quell fears about China aiding Pakistan in any non-civil application of nuclear technology, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “Relevant cooperation is in strict accordance with the two countries’ international responsibility and is for peaceful aims.”

MORE: After Japan, Will China Scale Back Its Nuclear Ambitions?