Demand for cleaner air boosts China’s nuclear industry

It’s no secret that China’s air quality needs to improve—and fast. Pollution has become a major public health concern and the country is looking for efficient ways to clean up its dirty air. Enter, nuclear power.


China’s air quality—just how bad is it?

In many major Chinese cities, understanding the severity of the air pollution problem is as simple as drawing open the blinds and viewing the thick smog outside your window. However, the true measure of poor air quality are the PM 2.5 levels. The tiny particle known as “PM 2.5”— caused by road emissions and burning fossil fuels—is particularly hazardous to health, as it’s able to embed deep into the respiratory tract. In the short term, it can cause coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath. In the long term, it leads to asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis and even lung cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, the maximum PM 2.5 level while still remaining safe is 35 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter. The New York Times reports that PM 2.5 levels in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenyang all consistently surpass that limit. It adds that Beijing and Chengdu regularly suffer “prolonged spells of heavy pollution” where levels are 150 or higher.

The full impact of China’s pollution crisis has yet to reveal itself, but much of the damage is already evident. It’s estimated that pollution lead to 1.6 million deaths in China in 2013 alone.


The nuclear solution

Recognizing its need to improve air quality, but not wanting to halt industrial development, China is turning to nuclear energy to replace its coal-fired power plants. According to The National, China currently has 35 nuclear power plants in operation, 20 under development and plans to construct 42 more. At this rate, it’s predicted that China will have the highest number of nuclear reactors of any country by 2020.

Nuclear power provides a two-part solution for China. Firstly, it’s a 100 percent emissions-free energy source. Secondly, it’s the only clean-energy method that’s able to provide the large amounts of uninterrupted electricity that China needs to power its burgeoning, industrial cities. Although hydro, solar, geothermal and wind energy are all valuable clean energy sources, they don’t yet have the capacity to match the significant energy output of nuclear power plants.

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Banner image by Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co. via Flickr