Nuclear ban set to end soon
Beijing is nearly ready to lift its year-long ban on nuclear project approvals, top government advisers and senior executives of power firms say on the eve of the first anniversary of Japan's nuclear crisis.
They also called for the construction of more nuclear reactors in inland provinces in a bid to reduce the mainland's dependence on polluting coal-derived energy.
Their advocacy comes despite simmering opposition to nuclear power due to safety, security and environmental considerations.
Wang Binghua, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and chairman of the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, said Beijing had concluded safety checks on all operational reactors and other facilities under construction, and that approvals for new nuclear projects were expected to resume this year.
Beijing had suspended approvals for new reactors and launched comprehensive safety reviews and stress tests on mainland nuclear plants within a week after Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant was crippled by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami a year ago today.
Japan's nuclear crisis also triggered a heated debate on the mainland in the past year about the safety of atomic energy, as Beijing plans to become the world's top nuclear power by 2020.
'The safety checks found major problems that need to be rectified in 14 areas,' Wang said without providing details of the safety review findings. He said while some problems had been corrected, others were being addressed or had been listed in a three-year rectification plan.
Wang and Zhang Guobao, a CPPCC member and former director of the National Energy Administration, dismissed concerns that Beijing's nuclear expansion plan, especially in inland provinces, is reckless.
'China must develop inland reactors and that's the consensus among the nuclear industry, local governments and the public,' Wang said.
He noted that central provinces - such as Hubei , Hunan and Jiangxi - had few alternatives to nuclear power in resolving power shortages.
Pointing out that 100 out of 104 operational nuclear reactors in America were built inland, Zhang voiced his support for the mainland's nuclear expansion, including the construction of inland reactors.
However, many nuclear scientists and environmentalists are at loggerheads with nuclear advocates.
He Zuoxiu, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, slammed Beijing's original plan to build more reactors than the rest of the world combined in the next decade as another 'Great Leap Forward'. The term refers to the disastrous Mao-era pursuit of industrialisation in the late 1950s.
Even so, speculation has been rife that Beijing may moderate its nuclear ambitions and shift its priority from speed to safety following the safety review, as well as public fears of Fukushima-style disasters.
CPPCC member Lu Qizhou, chairman of China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC) - one of five state-owned power producers - blasted mainland media for their coverage of problems at a pioneering inland reactor in Pengze county, Jiangxi .
Lu, who represents the project's developer, said the reports that sympathised with local critics of the project were 'media hype' and 'an insult' to local residents.
The Pengze project, which was planned near the provincial border, has come under fierce opposition from local authorities and residents in adjacent Wangjiang county, located just across the Yangtze River in Anhui province.
Wang, whose firm helped choose the reactor's site, also denied allegations that preliminary studies had overlooked earthquake risks and the environmental impact on 200,000 people living within a 10-kilometre radius of the plant.
Separately, Zhang and Lu expressed dismay at Myanmar's decision last year to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam project, one of seven dams CPIC planned to build along the Irrawaddy River, which will cost a total of US$20 billion. 'We were invited by the Myanmar government to build the project, which would greatly benefit the local economy and its people,' said Zhang.
Myanmese environmentalists and local residents have been opposing the project for years, and the decision to halt the project was seen as a rare victory for the Myanmese.