In October, China announced a commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

That seems like a while away, but really isn’t.

Especially for a behemoth like China, currently the world’s biggest oil, gas and coal importer. Carbon neutrality would demand a fundamental redesign of its energy systems.

It would mean huge cash flows into renewables, green hydrogen, fuel cells and CCS/CCUS projects, and energy storage.

But will this be enough? No.

The reality is that China’s carbon neutral targets will be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet without a colossal nuclear buildout.

The US still has the largest number of operable reactors in the world – 96 of 442 globally in November 2020 — but countries like China have been building new nuclear power plants at a much faster rate for quite some time.

“To put China’s ambitions into context, their domestic nuclear power sector could consume more uranium in 2040 than the total amount of uranium mined globally last year,”  Bannerman Resources (ASX:BMN) chief exec Brandon Munro said in May, before the 2060 pledge.

“That voracious Chinese appetite is going to spark tremendous potential price distortion in the uranium market, because key markets in the US, Europe, Russia, India, the Middle East and Asia will have no choice but to compete with China to power their economies,” he said.

Wood Mackenzie says China would have to reduce emissions by a further 4.7 billion tCO2 or 76 per cent from the ‘base case’ (most probable scenario) to be carbon neutral by 2060.

This mammoth undertaking will require a lot of nuclear power, Wood Mackenzie Asia Pacific vice chair Gavin Thompson says.

China’s nuclear buildout (dark blue) grows exponentially between now and 2060. Pic: Wood Mac

“Our carbon neutral scenario needs an additional 620 GW of nuclear capacity by 2060, some 340 GW above our base case,” he says.

“Current capacity is only around 50 GW.

“This level of growth in nuclear reactor builds will be exceptionally challenging.”

But China also needs to work now to establish a secure uranium supply chain to manage any supply or price risks and build up its spent-fuel storage and recycling capability to match the scale of reactor builds, Thompson says.

“And importantly, China needs to attract more young people and train them as skilled workers to operate those nuclear power plants,” he says.

“None of these are easy tasks and will require comprehensive planning and decades of continuous resource commitment.” ​ ​

Which is why 2060 is not far away, at all.