From every disaster there is a lesson and China has taken the calamity at Japan's Fukushima plant 19 months ago to heart. Rather than charging ahead with its ambitious programme, it has done what should be expected: stop, check, review and proceed cautiously. Under plans approved by the State Council, safety standards have been raised and construction of reactors will resume "steadily". It is exactly the approach needed amid so much public anxiety about nuclear energy.
Days before a tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake, caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima plant, Beijing had unveiled plans to become the global leader in nuclear energy by 2020. But amid an outcry about safety, it ordered checks on its 16 plants and a freeze on 26 others under construction. Risks were identified and failings in management found, and these have been rectified. That is as it should be. Fukushima, and the world's worst accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, show that when it comes to nuclear power, safety and preparedness can never be compromised.
But while the moratorium on projects has been lifted, the seemingly reckless drive that previously existed has been replaced by caution. No new targets have been set. Proposals for construction of reactors in inland provinces have also been dropped for three years.
Under the safety plan, a road map is laid out for the nation to attain international standards by 2020. A total of 79.8 billion yuan has been earmarked for upgrading security measures and promoting technological innovation to 2015. The early phasing out of older reactors, sharing and improving access to information, enhancing research and development of safety and improving the handling of radioactive waste has been recommended. These steps, coupled with transparency and regular updates of progress, are what are needed if public confidence in the nuclear power industry is to be restored.
Beijing has to gradually end its reliance on polluting coal and oil to produce electricity. Of the clean-energy alternatives, only nuclear can be considered reliable. It is safe if reactors are properly built, maintained and operated. The Fukushima disaster was the result of a lack of preparedness and poor oversight. Maintaining the highest safety standards prevents accidents. Beijing's new cautious approach is the right way forward. But it also has to be transparent and keep the nation informed about the industry's every development.