Approval of safety plan indicates end to hiatus on new nuclear plants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Beijing has approved a five-year safety plan for its nuclear facilities following a year-long inspection in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster last year, prompting speculation that the central government may soon lift its moratorium on atomic power plant approvals.

The decision was made at yesterday's State Council meeting, which was chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao (pictured).

Analysts said the move once again underlined Beijing's determination to pursue the expansion of its nuclear industry, despite the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant in March last year, and the fact that the safety reviews took longer than most people expected.

A statement issued after the meeting said the safety risks of the country's nuclear plants, including those being built, were 'under control' and met national and International Atomic Energy Agency standards, according to Xinhua.

However, key safety issues listed in the statement included a point that some nuclear power plants failed to meet new requirements of flood control, and that some were not fully prepared to handle a tsunami like the one that struck Japan and resulted in the nuclear meltdown.

'Some civil reactors and fuelcycle facilities did not meet new earthquake standards,' it said.

The statement fell short of offering any further details about those safety risks. It said all the problems were in the process of being rectified, with partial progress having already been achieved.

No mention was made of when the central government would resume its approval of new nuclear power plants, or whether the safety checks prompted any changes in China's nuclear ambitions, which envision the country becoming the world's leader in nuclear energy by 2020, according to a plan drawn up before the Fukushima disaster. Despite widespread public concerns over the safety risks of nuclear energy, advocates remain undeterred, claiming that China has higher safety standards for its nuclear sector and that the impact of a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in China would be 'temporary and limited'.

Dr Yang Fuqiang, a senior energy adviser for the Natural Resources Defence Council's office in Beijing, said the State Council's approval of the safety plan came as a clear sign of Beijing's readiness to resume approval of new nuclear reactors, as many people have long speculated.

He noted that any decision by Beijing to lift the ban on nuclear projects would be done largely to stimulate the economy, which has shown signs of slowing.

Yang added: 'But I am still deeply worried, as we have yet to see any substantial changes that are urgently needed to improve nuclear safety.'

Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University's Centre for Energy Economics Research, said it remained unclear when the government would lift the ban on the approval of nuclear projects, despite the adoption of a new nuclear-safety plan.

'It reiterated Beijing's determination to develop nuclear projects,' Lin said. 'But whether the ban will be lifted may also depend on public perceptions of the safety issue, as well as on possible changes to nuclear policies in other countries.'