When China embarked on its first nuclear programme 60 years ago, it was in response to threats from the United States over the Taiwan Strait. Today, the power of the atom is front and centre of another strategy - energy self-sufficiency and to drastically curb carbon emissions. In the past two decades, China has transformed itself into one of the world's leading nuclear nations. Marking the 60th anniversary last Thursday of the nuclear industry, President Xi Jinping praised its achievements, crediting the hard work and innovation of several generations of scientists and workers. Describing the industry as the bedrock of national security, Xi said China should continue to innovate and use nuclear power in a peaceful way to open a new chapter for its nuclear industry. Indeed, nuclear energy is set to lead the pack of near-zero emission energy that will help the mainland reach Xi's target for carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030. But its lead may be usurped by solar and wind power in the decades beyond. The unfolding shift in the mainland's energy mix - with less reliance on dirty-burning coal and petroleum and rising consumption of clean energy - will accompany the nation's economic rebalancing featuring a marked slowdown in the growth of energy-intensive manufacturing industries and fast expansion in consumption and services-based activities. Xi, a tough reformist with an anti-corruption campaign whose breadth and reach have surprised many China watchers, is likely to use the same kind of determination in the reform of other areas such as the economy and the environment, where graft had previously weakened policy execution. Already, the mainland's toughest ever Environment Law has come into effect, on New Year's Day, which brokerage CLSA's head of sustainable research Charles Yonts said would see the Ministry of Environmental Protection "get a set of fangs" so that "polluters that have historically got away with slaps on the wrist or less will now face prison terms, stunted careers and meaningful uncapped fines". "The lengthy Act Three in China's War on Pollution kicks off this year," Yonts wrote in a research report. "After admitting to an environmental problem in 2013, China's leaders established a battle plan in 2014, and they are putting it into effect in 2015." Tackling air pollution is high on Beijing's agenda, as headlines and television footage of smog blanketing major cities have kept up the pressure for change. As was widely reported, during the Apec summit in Beijing in November last year, the authorities ordered 10,000 factories to suspend production and at least 11.7 million vehicles to be taken off the roads across several provinces. While shutting pollution-prone factories and grounding some vehicles when important guests visit or when pollution indices soar to alarming levels are quick fixes, the long-term solution lies in changing the nation's energy consumption mix. During the summit, Xi announced the mainland's first ever absolute limit on the emission of carbon gases linked to global warming and the greenhouse effect. In addition to capping it by 2030, he also unveiled a target for non-fossil fuel to contribute 20 per cent of the mainland's energy consumption, up from 10 per cent last year. Beijing in 2010 had already pledged to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 from the 2005 level, and raise non-fossil fuel's contribution to power consumption to 15 per cent by 2020. To meet Xi's targets, the mainland needs to add 800 to 1,000 GW of power production capacity with near-zero emission by 2030, according to the US. One GW can supply about 831,000 mainland households' annual consumption. Hu Xinmin, a manager at Hong Kong energy sector consultancy Lantau Group, said the targets were ambitious but achievable, given 57 GW, or 61 per cent of a total of 94 GW power production capacity added last year was from hydro, wind, solar and nuclear plants. Contrast that with the average annual 44 to 56 GW projected to be needed for achieving the carbon emission reduction goals. "It is not too challenging for China [to reach the 2030 goals]," Hu said. Christoph Frei, the secretary general of the World Energy Council, a global body representing government, business and academia, said: "China's commitment will drive greater energy diversity [and cut] high coal dependency … the devil is in the details of implementation, which needs to align regulatory issues and incentives, infrastructure expansion and behavioural change." Exactly how much new energy will be contributed by the various forms of clean energy in the decade to 2030 is not known, since Beijing has only set official targets for up to 2020, but some researchers tipped nuclear to lead the pack. Industry policy planner the National Development and Reform Commission's Energy Research Institute has projected the mainland would add 275 GW of wind power capacity, 385 GW of solar capacity, 85 GW of nuclear capacity and 120 GW of hydro capacity between last year and 2030. But since annual plant utilisation varies substantially by fuel type, the additional "effective" generation capacity of wind power is only 69 GW, compared to 77 GW of solar, 50 GW of hydro, if an apple-to-apple comparison is made with nuclear plants on electricity output. This is because 1 GW of nuclear generating capacity can generate about four times the electricity produced by a 1 GW wind farm, five times that of a 1 GW solar farm, 2.4 times that by a 1 GW hydro plant and 1.6 times that by a 1 GW coal-fired plant. Forecasts by Lin Boqiang, the director of Xiamen University's Centre for China Energy Economics Research, also pointed to nuclear power's leading position with 115 GW of effective capacity to be added by 2030, compared to 56 GW of wind, 58 GW of hydro and 35 GW of solar capacity. After suspending new nuclear plant construction approvals following Japan's nuclear disaster in 2011, building is expected to start this year on at least five nuclear reactors for Beijing to achieve its target to expand the nation's nuclear power generating capacity threefold by 2020, according to the Chinese Nuclear Society. Currently, China has 21 nuclear power stations, with 27 being built, and more in the pipeline. But the idea that nuclear would be the leading contributor to clean energy growth may not be welcomed by the average mainland energy consumer. Fears about nuclear accidents have deepened with the Japan disaster. Yu Yunkun, an industrial engineer working in the audio industry in Guangdong who returns home to his wife and young son in Zhejiang province during long holidays, said he felt uncomfortable when told of the researchers' projections. Guangdong and Zhejiang, two of the most economically developed provinces, have some of the largest nuclear generation capacity on the mainland and will see more expansion in the decades to come. "It is a bit worrying," Yu said. "I don't mind more nuclear plants, but they had better be built far away from urban areas, especially given the nuclear disaster in Japan a few years ago. "I don't mind paying more for electricity for a cleaner environment, perhaps up to 20 per cent more, but I would prefer to have more solar and wind farms than nuclear plants." To meet Xi's 2030 carbon emission target, Xiamen University's Lin said coal consumption needed to peak earlier than oil and gas, whose use was expected to keep growing before 2030. "Coal consumption will probably peak by 2020 in the optimistic case and 2023 in the less optimistic scenario," he said, adding that the timing would depend on how firmly Beijing would implement its pollution control measures on the biggest coal consumers such as power generators and metals smelters. Carbon gas emissions could peak as early as 2025, Lin said. Song Yanqin, a Beijing-based senior energy specialist at the World Bank, said similar to nuclear energy, expansion of hydropower would increasingly face resistance, as approvals of major projects had also slowed due to rising environmental protection and resident displacement costs. Song said solar power could have the best growth potential in the very long term, since the resource was widely available nationwide and new business models and evolving policy support would enhance its economic viability. A joint report in 2011 by intergovernmental policy adviser the International Energy Agency and the NDRC's Energy Research Institute projected that even without carbon emission tax, wind power generation costs and prices would match those of coal-fired power by 2020, as falling turbine costs more than offset rising labour and construction costs. The institute projected that wind and solar energy could supply as much as half of the mainland's power by 2050. A more even and diverse mix of energy sources would then fulfil this facet of the China dream.