Taking the fear out of nuclear energy
The central government's enthusiasm for nuclear power has not been dampened by the Fukushima disaster. There is no reason why it should have been. Reactors that are properly managed and regulated remain a good way to produce clean, plentiful and reliable electricity. But the ambitious programme that has been on hold since the Japanese plant was swamped by a tsunami a year ago should not be resumed until plans and existing facilities have been shown to be safe.
Authorities, eager to build dozens of new reactors, seem likely to lift a ban on approval of new plants in a matter of weeks. A safety review has been completed and checks and stress tests on existing facilities carried out. A report summing up the safety inspections was sanctioned by Beijing last month. That is not enough to give the green light, though; the lack of transparency leaves doubt that all is well and that enough has been done.
It is precisely because of such concerns that all but two of Japan's 54 reactors have been shut down and there is uncertainty about when they will resume operations. Before Fukushima, Japanese power companies, politicians and bureaucrats were similarly enthusiastic about the energy source, which is why 30 per cent of the country's electricity was from nuclear reactors. But even though they were accountable to shareholders, voters and society, they were not open about the industry's practices. An inquiry investigating the accident has so far revealed an ignorance of Japan's seismic risks, safety measures that were severely lacking and weak regulation.
Many other democratically elected governments have also paid heed to public fears, stalling plans for expansion. Just as after the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in 1986, there is a strong resentment towards nuclear power. Although there are also concerns among Chinese, their government does not have an electorate to face, so pushing ahead is not perceived by officials as being as sensitive. But democracy or not, it would be irresponsible of authorities to resume building reactors without proving that every possible safety concern has been met.
Authorities contend that the proposed plants are of the newest and safest designs. But more than good engineering is necessary for reactors to be safe. Regulation has to be independent and there has to be a culture in place that is constantly assessing measures and searching for improvements. China does not have a record of this in other industries, nor has it proven that this is the case with nuclear power. Revealing the results of safety checks and preventive measures put in place on existing plants is only the start. Ensuring confidence in nuclear power requires absolute transparency.