Beijing defrosts nuclear plan
Shi Jiangtao and Eric Ng
Almost a year after Japan's worst nuclear crisis, China is keen to resume its ambitious nuclear expansion plans and is poised to lift its suspension of new nuclear project approvals soon.
Little is known about its secretive, year-long safety review, apart from the fact that it lasted longer than most people expected, but most mainland officials and experts remain bullish on nuclear power despite widespread public concerns and rampant speculation about a possible scaling down of its nuclear ambitions.
Undeterred by Japan's nuclear disaster, nuclear advocates say that the impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on China will be 'temporary and limited'.
Citing senior energy and nuclear-industry officials, several financial newspapers, including the China Securities Journal, have said over the past two weeks that the ban on the approval of new nuclear reactors could be lifted next month.
China was among the first countries to halt approvals for new nuclear projects and order a comprehensive reassessment of nuclear policy, just five days after a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami crippled Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11 last year.
The nuclear disaster in Japan stoked fears across the world about the safety of nuclear energy and triggered a rise in public opposition in China to the central government's plan to expand its already booming nuclear sector.
In an apparent bid to allay mounting concerns, Premier Wen Jiabao decided on March 16, 2011, to suspend approvals for new nuclear power reactors and launch comprehensive safety checks and stress tests on nuclear plants.
In addition, the State Council promised to review and adjust its ambitious plan to expand the nuclear power sector by 2020, just two days after it was endorsed as part of the 12th five-year plan by the National People's Congress.
It marked a radical departure from Beijing's decades-old nuclear enthusiasm and longstanding policy to expand the nuclear power sector.
Beijing approved a report summing up the safety inspections of all nuclear facilities last month, Xinhua reported early this week.
Liu Wei, deputy president of China Nuclear Power Engineering, a China National Nuclear subsidiary, said a key conclusion of the checks was that the safety of operational nuclear projects and those under construction was guaranteed, Xinhua reported.
The report, which did not provide details of other findings of the safety review, reiterated an assertion by many nuclear advocates a year ago that existing nuclear technology in China was capable of preventing a crisis like the one at Fukushima in the event of extreme events such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
Their main reason for such optimism appears to be the fact that all reactors operating in China are more modern than the quake-hit facility in Fukushima.
Xinhua said the draft safety plan was expected to raise safety standards for all projects, including those under construction, which are all so-called second-generation reactors.
The reactors at Fukushima were also second-generation reactors, but China says its reactors were built much later using improved technology and are thus safer than those in Japan.
More importantly, the mainland says it will officially embrace third-generation reactors in the future like thorium technology and the AP1000, developed by US company Westinghouse, which is widely believed to be more advanced and safer than the previous technology.
Yu Zusheng, a nuclear expert affiliated with the environment ministry, told the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post that the third generation of reactors was '100 times safer' than second-generation reactors.
'It is in our national interest to build more third-generation reactors and reduce the use of second-generation reactors to reduce potential safety risks,' he said.
However, many nuclear experts remain sceptical of new reactor designs like the AP1000, pointing to the fact that no third-generation reactor has been built anywhere in the world.
Wen Hongjun, a senior engineer at China National Nuclear, warned of risks regarding the commercial use of AP1000 and said China might become a testing ground for new nuclear technologies.
'AP1000 has its own technical and economic hazards that must not be overlooked,' the Oriental Morning Post quoted him as saying. He said the AP1000 was vulnerable to safety glitches in the event of earthquakes, hurricanes or plane crashes.
Staunch supporters of nuclear expansion, especially nuclear project developers, have long been critical of demands for comprehensive safety reviews and, in particular, attempts to scale back China's nuclear ambitions, which they blame on an overreaction to nuclear hazards.
They say any slowdown in the construction of new projects will inevitably affect China's ability to deliver on key climate-change commitments on emission control and energy efficiency and hamper the country's rise as a global atomic-energy power.
But critics remain far from convinced and have pointed to safety loopholes, ranging from lax management to legal loopholes, such as the absence of an atomic-energy law, understaffing at nuclear facilities and safety watchdogs and problems finding appropriate sites for nuclear plants.
China, the world's top energy user, has long wanted to tap the vast potential of the nuclear sector to fuel its energy-hungry economy, reduce its overreliance on coal and significantly increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
Beijing announced plans for the world's biggest expansion in nuclear-power capacity in the 12th five-year plan and set out a goal of building more reactors than the rest of the world put together between now and 2020.
According to the original plan, the total installed capacity would quadruple by 2015 to reach 43GW, up from 10.8GW at the end of 2010.
But that goal now looked 'very unlikely' given the post-Fukushima reality, the Oriental Morning Post reported, especially given the delay in approvals for new nuclear plants.
The China Securities Journal said the nuclear capacity target for 2020 would be cut by about 10 per cent from the original 100GW to not less than 70GW, with some planned projects, especially those in inland provinces, expected to be further delayed or even scrapped.
China's first commercial nuclear power plant began operating in 1994 and the central government had approved at least 34 new plants by September 2010, Xinhua reported earlier.
There are currently 26 reactors under construction, with a total installed capacity of 3 GW.
Figures on how many reactors have been planned or proposed vary sharply. While the mainland media have put the combined figure at over 90, the World Nuclear Association, the international body that promotes the use of nuclear energy, has said 51 were planned and another 120 proposed.
Highlighting the widespread enthusiasm among local authorities for a share of the huge profits from the nuclear-power drive, more than 16 provinces and municipalities have announced their intention to build nuclear power plants by 2015.
Nuclear safety official Li Ganjie was quoted by the China Environmental News as saying: 'Although the Fukushima accident has immense negative implications, the direction of global nuclear-power development is not expected to be altered.'
Ayed al-Qahtani, senior project manager at the World Energy Council, said the government must promote greater transparency in the post-Fukushima era and inform the public about 'all issues surrounding nuclear energy generation - available technologies, costs and benefits, as well as the risks associated.
'All viable, safe and environmentally friendly sources of energy will be required to secure the major and fast growing economy of China', he said.
Wang Yuqing, deputy director of a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference environment and resources subcommittee, said Beijing should step up research and investment in how to tackle a soaring amount of nuclear waste, as well as other risks.
'Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we must begin considering how to cope with more severe, dangerous and radical external circumstances and potential risks of human factors, such as the possibility of military attacks targeting nuclear facilities.'
Rampant corruption in the lucrative nuclear-energy sector, which has further weakened public confidence, is another factor that needs to be closely watched.
At least three high-profile scandals since 2007 have laid bare glaring inadequacies in one of China's most secretive industries, including a lack of competition, rampant political intervention and insider trading in the bidding process.
The three most senior officials convicted of corruption have been China National Nuclear general manager Kang Rixin, China Guangdong Nuclear Power deputy manager Shen Rugang and former China National Technical Import and Export president Jiang Xinsheng.
The number of nuclear reactors currently under construction in China, with a total generating capacity of 3GW