Here´s a wonderfully written article from the New York Times on how China´s environmental policies are a disaster for the Chinese people, and for the world as a whole. The story explains, in detail, how while other industrialized countries only saw the consequences of pollution once they were rich that China is still far from being rich and is already incredibly polluted. This is summarized in a great metaphor as China is described as a smoking teenager with emphysema. I can personally testify that my family cut short our latest visit to Beijing last year because two of my children started having respiratory problems and we ended up mostly locked in our rooms at the Hyatt Hotel.  Fon´s offices in China are in Hong Kong, by the sea. We considered having them in Beijing but high pollution was a factor in our decision. While Hong Kong is also polluted it is not as bad. I can imagine that American companies sending employees to work in Beijing could eventually be sued in the same way they were sued in the 80s when they had employees working in buildings with asbestos. By now we have enough information to know that a person who moves to Beijing for a few years from say San Francisco is likely to suffer health damage akin to starting to smoke.

What should China do? In my view there are two simple steps to take. One is to steadily increase taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels so as to encourage people to get small cars and use public transportation.  This is what also USA should do, to bring gasoline prices to European levels.  The second one, and I know that I will be criticized for this, is to go nuclear “a la France”. France derives 2/3 of its electricity from nuclear plants. China should replace coal burning for nuclear energy. Of course solar and wind energy should also be widely adopted but with the energy intensive developmental model that China is pursuing I don´t see another possibility than going nuclear.  Nuclear energy has its risks but I think that at this point with all we know about global warming it´s the lesser of two evils.

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Mike Sax on August 26, 2007  · 

China could create a “Manhattan project” for renewable energy. For example, the efficiency of solar panels is very low today and could be improved immensely. There is a TON of innovation to be done in converting, transporting, and storing energy. If they do the research (hold the patents), they can certainly do the manufacturing, and China could be the center of what will replace today’s nuclear, coal, and oil industry. This may seem like only a long term solution, but the whole point of a “Manhattan project” is that it creates a sense of urgency that, combined with specific goals, produces results.

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Pablo on August 27, 2007  · 

The problem for china going nuclear is again costs. While a new coil plant could cost something between 400 to 600u$s per kilowatt installed, a new nuclear is 2000-2400u$s.
The same happens with other technologies, such as wind (1500-2000u$s) although there are comments that they can reach values of 800u$s/kw. A similar analysis could be done with Photovoltaics (PV) (2000u$s/kwh).

Wind, (PV), wave, tidal and many others new technologies are considered as intermittent. (The in/out line does not depend on the operation, rather on atmospheric situations). This is not a minor concern. Since grid networks should assure power regardless climatically conditions, intermittent technologies should not be in exceed of 20% of the whole country wide matrix capacity. Another concern is that the power factor (maximum amount of energy produced within the year in regard of the installed capacity) is no more than 49% (in best cases: Germany, Argentina, India). In other worlds, 1mw of installed wind energy would produce 490kwh.

There is not a short/mid term solution. On one hand, even though china starts deploying a vast nuclear infrastructure, with GDP’s of two digits, the increase on demand in energy supply is marvellous, therefore very difficult to catch-up AND replace current matrix. On the other hand, if the cost of energy production goes up, annual growth will go down carrying with it many china-dependent economies. The migration should be progressive (30-50 years)


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David on August 27, 2007  · 

Indeed nuclear plants are a huge investment, but unit production costs for nuclear are incredibly competitive once the operation is in place. Same for hydro but then output volumes are more volatile.

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Pablo on August 27, 2007  · 

Yes David, the O&M (operation and maintenance) costs for new Nuclear power plants are rather competitive with other technologies, however, when evaluating waste management and disposal the whole picture changes. In the case of china, large amounts of nuclear waste will be generated, that will lead to the construction of safe long-term underground repositories that could safeguard the life over ground. This is often called ‘environmental cost’ (EC) and it is associated with the damage (real or plausible) it will produce to the environment. To put in numbers:

Wind O&M: 0.34-0.90 cents/kwh
Nuclear O&M : 2.75-1.15 cents/kwh

These W&D management are not so often considered when evaluating one marginal power plant, rather it is an ‘infrastructure country investment’ not included in Business cases.

Nevertheless, China is leading the nuclear investment, building 5 nuclear plants inland and 2 in Taiwan(China). India is as well building 7 Nuclear in 2007, while France is building 1. Personally, I believe that Nuclear is a good option for energy security in these high GDP economies, and perhaps the option to go nuclear is the only way to assure sufficient energy to keep growing, but it will not replace the actual generation matrix.

Note: approximated values in US Dollars, and for US markets
Sources: and


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Martin Varsavsky on August 29, 2007  · 

Thanks Pablo,

One of the reasons I write my blog is to learn from commentators such as yourself.

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Alexandra Lowenstein on September 2, 2007  · 

China should not go nuclear…they should lead the future by picking up where the US and its petro-slaves refuse to go.

1 book says it all:

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David Flitterman on September 3, 2007  · 

Hi Martin,

China going nuclear for its power generation, while possibly controversial, actually makes a lot of sense, as I think Pablo also concluded. James Lovelock, a renowned green Ecologist, and early advocate of the need to combat Global Warming, is surprisingly very much in favor of nuclear power. While Fusion Power may be the ultimate solution, today we have to make do with Fission. But, he concludes it is still a much more efficient power generator with LESS cost to the environment than Fossil Fuels. Here are a few startling facts from James Lovelock’s “Revenge of Gaia”: Our population today burns 27 billion tons of CO2 yearly. If it were possible to capture all this gas and keep it from escaping into the atmosphere, it would require a mountainlike container almost 1 mile high and 12 miles in circumference at the base – EVERY YEAR to store it. The same amount of energy generated by nuclear fission produces 2 million times LESS WASTE, and would fit into a cube only 16 meters in volume.

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