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US Nuclear Industry Banks on China's Demand

Firms hope US will end ban on technology sales. Even if it does, a comeback is uncertain.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1997


To the faltering American nuclear-reactor industry, the road to survival runs through China.

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Eager to bridge power shortages that could slow its industrial expansion, Beijing has embarked on a mammoth nuclear-power expansion program worth an estimated $50 billion, a bonanza without parallel anywhere.

With Canadian, Russian, and French companies ahead in the race for contracts, United States firms such as Westinghouse, General Electric, and ABB Combustion Engineering Nuclear Systems, are clamoring for President Clinton to use Wednesday's summit with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to end a 12-year-old ban on US nuclear-technology sales to Beijing. At stake, they argue, are their futures and tens of thousands of American jobs.

"If continued to be denied China, US companies will be out of the business, with a corresponding loss of trained personnel to support the 100 US civilian nuclear power plants," says a study released in June by the President's Export Council, a panel heavy with industry representation.

But other analysts say that the US nuclear industry, encumbered by financial, image, and technical problems, may be beyond rescue whether Clinton ends the ban on sales to China - a move contingent on China's meeting US concerns on arms - or not.

"I do not see a rebirth for nuclear power," asserts Carol Werner of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington think tank. "A lot comes down to safety, economics, and environmental concerns, and because the track record of the nuclear industry is something that cannot be overcome."

Other experts question whether China has the financial resources to complete its ambitious plan. "Can China really put together the financial package to do this? They are making huge investments across the energy sector right now. Where will nuclear be?" asks Jennifer Weeks, a professor at Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs.

Despite increases in recent years in nuclear-generated power worldwide, a US Department of Energy (DOE) global forecast projects scant growth through 2010. Nuclear-power production will then face a slump due to a slowdown in plant construction and retirements of aging reactors, the department projects.

Only in East Asia are governments pursuing major long-term nuclear power programs. None are bigger than that planned by China, which says it wants to expand its current nuclear capacity of 2,600 megawatts, generated by three plants, to 50,000 megawatts by 2010. That would require the construction of scores of additional plants. Eight are already under construction by Canadian, Russian, and French firms, but China is anxious to buy US technology, judged to be the most advanced in the world.

By participating in the Chinese market, US firms contend that they and their domestic suppliers will boost the American economy and create or retain tens of thousands of domestic jobs. Participation will also allow them to survive the projected global downturn in nuclear business until the beginning of what they believe will be a revival in the coming century.