Atomic energy strategy under a cloud

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am

Beijing's decision to suspend approvals for new nuclear plants and launch a comprehensive safety review of existing facilities and those under construction casts doubt on the country's long-term atomic energy strategy, mainland analysts say.

The move was prompted by Japan's nuclear power plant crisis which has dealt a severe blow to public confidence in nuclear safety. Coming less than a week after Beijing's ambitious nuclear power plan for the next five years was adopted by the National People's Congress, it will delay the expansion programme in the short term, the analysts say.

China was one of the first countries to decide to review nuclear policies, but analysts say Beijing has yet to address mounting safety concerns and fix safety loopholes.

Citing China's use of state-of-the-art technology at new nuclear facilities, mainland authorities insist that a crisis like that in Japan will not occur on the mainland.

But one of the risks topping the list of concerns is human error, which they say contributed decisively to past nuclear accidents, such as Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

Sceptical of nuclear experts' confidence in nuclear power technology, Zhao Yamin , a former official at the environment ministry's nuclear safety centre says the human factor must not be overlooked in China's nuclear expansion plan.

Despite China's adoption of third-generation technology at new nuclear plants, which is more advanced and safer than that used at Japan's crippled Fukushima plant, Zhao says human error often plays a critical role in nuclear accidents.

Even well-trained staff can panic and commit fatal errors when devastating accidents strike. 'We must consider the limit of human abilities when talking about nuclear safety,' he says.

Zhang Guobao, a former director of the National Energy Administration, said Japan may have missed the best opportunity to prevent the radiation crisis due to failure at the top level of decision-making. In an interview with the China Securities Journal, Zhang says Japan should have pumped sea water into the No 1 reactor in the eight hours between the quake and the first explosion.

Han Xiaoping, head of the energy research body, says Japan's nuclear crisis comes as a chilling wake-up call to China.

China has only 13 operational reactors, with a total installed capacity of 9,100 megawatts, but its nuclear expansion plan is the world's largest. The central government had approved at least 34 new plants by September, with at lest 25 under construction, Xinhua reported recently.

Beijing plans to build nuclear plants in eight coastal provinces with a total installed capacity of 40,000 megawatts by 2015, according to the 12th five-year plan, which was approved by the National People's Congress on Monday.

Power plants will also be built in five other provinces along major rivers, including Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui and Jilin .

'We simply do not have enough competent personnel to design and build so many nuclear projects and adequate, well-trained government officials to oversee the safety of them,' Han says.

Chai Guohan, chief engineer at the environment ministry's Nuclear and Radiation Safety Centre, which oversees the country's nuclear safety, echoes Han's concern.

China's nuclear safety supervision watchdog has long been plagued by problems such as understaffing, especially the lack of high-end talent, backward technology and equipment and recruitment difficulties, Chai says in an interview on the website of Caixin magazine.

Analysts also say China should learn from Japan's bitter lesson. The quake-hit Fukushima power plant was built along with many other reactors, within a short time.

'We should not build lots of nuclear power plants in a rush simply because of our surging power demand before we are able to ensure their safety,' Han says.

Analysts also say that corruption in the lucrative nuclear energy sector is another factor that needs to be watched. The former head of China's nuclear power programme was jailed for life on unspecified corruption charges late last year.

The case of Kang Rixin, general manager of China National Nuclear Corp, has raised a question over the internal management of one of China's most secretive industries. Kang was convicted in November of bribe-taking and abusing his position to enrich others.

Now, for the first time, the government has unveiled plans for a nuclear safety plan and analysts say that underlines Beijing's heightened state of alert. No new nuclear projects, including those already in the preliminary stages, would be approved pending the plan's completion, Xinhua reported.

As a direct result, China's nuclear energy plan for the next five years will be delayed by comprehensive safety checks, with some projects likely to be halted due to failure to meet 'the most advanced safety standards', Han and several other experts say.