China plans to spend 80 billion yuan on nuclear power plant security
Upgrading of security sparks speculation that Beijing may end ban on new project approvals
Beijing moved a step closer to ending its ban on new nuclear projects when it unveiled a plan to spend nearly 80 billion yuan (HK$99 billion) by 2015 to upgrade security standards at nuclear facilities.
A five-year nuclear safety plan, approved by the State Council in late May and released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Tuesday, has prompted another round of speculation that Beijing may resume its ambitious nuclear expansion plans soon.
But experts have cautioned against such optimism, saying the suspension of new nuclear project approvals, imposed in the wake of Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, is unlikely to be lifted until the completion of a once-a-decade leadership transition next month.
Although nuclear officials and power company executives are bullish on nuclear power, experts say Beijing will have to scale back its nuclear ambitions amid widespread public scepticism and concerns at home and abroad about the safety of such power.
The safety plan, which lays out a road map for China's nuclear safety to reach international standards by 2020, says that between 2011 and 2015, 79.8 billion yuan would be earmarked for upgrading security measures and promoting technological innovation to improve nuclear safety.
It evaluated the safety of China's nuclear-power industry and recommended phasing out older reactors sooner, sharing and improving access to information, enhancing research and development of safety and improving the handling of radioactive waste.
"The current safety situation isn't optimistic," it said. "China has multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies and multiple standards of safety, making them hard to manage."
It said that the operation and construction of reactors must improve.
Experts said the safety plan indicated the government was moving closer to restarting the approval process for reactor expansion. "The plan is good news for existing nuclear facilities, including those already approved and under construction, because it virtually means the end of the safety reviews and they get the go-ahead now," said Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University's Centre for Energy Economics Research.
China's nuclear sector was hit hard by the Fukushima disaster in March last year. A comprehensive reassessment of nuclear policy and safety reviews, both ordered shortly afterwards by the State Council led by Premier Wen Jiabao , took much longer than most people expected.
Despite rumours about an imminent resumption, it remains unclear when Beijing will actually lift the suspension on new nuclear project approvals because the government has yet to unveil its much-anticipated long-term development plan for nuclear power, running to 2020.
Additional reporting by Reuters