China has accelerated its peaceful nuclear power program to create the fastest growing commercial nuclear industry in the world, giving it a prime position in nuclear construction and research and design. Coupled with the country's willingness to join the international nuclear power community, China is poised to take a leading role in nuclear energy construction and technology.

These are the conclusions made by Pillsbury Energy Infrastructure and Projects attorney William Fork, who recently spoke on the subject at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program at Princeton University. Here, Fork and Energy Infrastructure Projects colleague Li Zhang highlight key trends in China's nuclear energy program.

Q. The largest number of the world's nuclear power plants is under construction in China, with 28 units either under construction or as anticipated projects with completed permits. Can you put this in perspective for us?

Fork: The U.S. has 104 units in operation that produce about 100 GWe per year, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of America's electric power. Currently, China has 13 units in operation producing about 11 GWe, which meets less than 2 percent of its electricity needs. In light of China's amplified nuclear construction, we predict that China will increase its nuclear power output to 40 GWe by 2015.

Additionally, China's 2015 target for reaching for this growth is five years earlier than a previous stated plan. By 2020, Chinese nuclear power companies are expected to be able to produce between 70 to 80 GWe of power per year, or about 5 percent of the country's installed capacity. All things being even, China's nuclear output is projected to exceed that of every country except the United States by 2020.

Q. China's extraordinary economic growth has placed a significant burden on its energy infrastructure. Why is it turning to nuclear energy to provide power?

Zhang: In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's leader in total energy consumption based in terms of oil equivalents. The vast majority of electric power in China is generated from coal-fired plants with hydro plants being a very distant second. The environmental and public health impact caused by residual pollution led to a government decree that 15 percent of all its energy should be supplied through non-fossil energy by 2020. A peaceful and safe nuclear program fits into this mix. Q. How is the government achieving nuclear sector growth?

Fork: The state-owned nuclear power companies are taking the lead. China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is the largest of three key companies, with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) and China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) both emerging as strong players. Planning is coordinated through China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the National Energy Administration (NEA), while the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) is responsible for nuclear safety regulation.

Today, about half of China's newest nuclear reactors and other equipment are provided by foreign manufacturers. As China continues to expand its nuclear footprint, its goal is to maximize domestic manufacturing of nuclear plant facilities and equipment with self-reliance in design and project management.

Q. Does China have goals for its nuclear program other than providing clean power for consumption?

Fork: While its first goal is produce cleaner, cost-effective electricity to serve its 1.3 billion population, China also intends to develop nuclear power technology for export. China's State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) is the technology development arm responsible for coordinating research projects, as well as for developing proprietary reactors and processes that will ultimately be licensed to third parties. Among other projects, it is developing the CAP1400, a Gen III+ 1400 MWe reactor based on Westinghouse's current AP1000 design. Planned commercial deployment is in 2017.

CNNC plans to invest more than $100 billion in developing the nuclear industry's infrastructure by 2020. Last year, it announced development of a nuclear power base called Haiyan Nuclear City, located 70 miles southwest of Shanghai, and a Beijing Nuclear Technology Park to host research and development.

Zhang: Two nuclear reactor projects developed in China have captured the eye of the global nuclear power industry.

One is the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR), a 20 MWe fast neutron reactor, which is a Russia and China co-op project based at the China Institute of Atomic Energy near Beijing. Pre-project and design work for two commercial 800 MWe sodium-cooled fast neutron reactors began in 2009 and construction is scheduled to begin in August 2011.

The other is the High Temperature Reactor-Pebble Bed Module (HTR-PM), a project based on the 10 MWe prototype research reactor (HTR-10) built by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The construction of the HTR-PM is currently being planned by Huaneng, CNNC and Tsinghua University.

Q. How is China addressing fuel supply issues?

Fork: China is pursuing access to the international fuel market in order to keep pace with demand and is focusing on localization of fuel fabrication capabilities. It is also considering using reprocessing technologies to secure future nuclear fuel supplies. CNNC reports that it is at least a decade away from beginning large-scale commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing.

Q. China's experience in construction, its ability to provide competitive financing and pricing for construction and engineering, as well as the developments it is making in reactor technology seemingly give it an edge to becoming a powerhouse in the nuclear community. What more does it need to do before it can leverage export opportunities?

Zhang: Commitment to safety is a key standard for countries looking to export expertise and technology. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) report in 2010 found that China has a high-level of commitment to nuclear safety and that it is extensively using the IAEA Safety Standards in developing its legislative framework.

Joining the international nujclear community and conforming to its standards and practices are also essential. China became a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 and joined the Zangger Committee in 1997. In 2004, it became a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose members agree to coordinate their nuclear export control regimes and voluntarily implement export control guidelines established by the NSG. The Chinese export control regulations have largely reflected the prevailing international export control standards and practices promoted by the NSG.

Q. What about policies and laws regarding nuclear liability?

Fork: China's Guo Han No. 64, issued in 2007, sets operator liability limits at 300 million RMB (around $45 million) with a state guarantee of up to 800 million RMB (about $120 million). International experts have voiced concerns about the enforceability of this decree, the decree's liability limits, and the lack of a comprehensive nuclear liability law that incorporates internationally-accepted principles to provide compensation in the event of a nuclear accident.