China's nuclear plan back on track after 19-month freeze

Partial resumption of programme suspended after Fukushima signals China's readiness to rekindle its ambitions for atomic power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 7:21am

Beijing has officially lifted the freeze on new nuclear projects, ending a 19-month ban on approvals imposed in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster last year.

But a State Council meeting yesterday, chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, also decided to raise safety standards significantly and to drop proposals for the construction of nuclear reactors in inland provinces for the next three years.

Just a week after the approval of a five-year nuclear safety plan, the government gave the green light to the long-term development plan for nuclear power, which runs to 2020 and signals its readiness to rekindle its ambitions for atomic power.

"The adoption of the safety plan and the long-term blueprint eventually puts an end to the ban on nuclear-project approvals and means authorities are again ready to give approval for new projects," said Yang Fuqiang , a senior energy adviser for the Natural Resources Defence Council's office in Beijing.

But Yang and other experts also noted that, with a ban on building inland reactors by 2015 and much stricter safety standards, China's nuclear ambitions and the pace of its nuclear expansion will be significantly scaled down from plans adopted before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

According to the State Council decision reported by Xinhua, all new nuclear reactors must meet safety standards for so-called third-generation reactors.

"Only a few nuclear plant projects that have gone through comprehensive considerations will be allowed to be built in coastal regions and there will be no nuclear projects in inland regions during the 12th five-year period," it said.

Just days before Fukushima China had rolled out a plan to become the world's leader in nuclear energy by 2020, with more reactors to be built by then than the rest of the world put together. But Japan's disaster in March last year changed everything.

Amid widespread scepticism about the safety of nuclear power and concerns about the frenzy for nuclear expansion, Beijing ordered a comprehensive reassessment of nuclear policy and safety reviews and banned the approval of new projects.

"Even with the resumption of new approvals, I don't think we will see a reckless expansion as previously planned because of the months-long postponement [in the lifting of the ban] and simply the fact of the halting of inland reactors," Yang said.

Nearly one-third of the newly planned or proposed nuclear plants were located in inland provinces, due to strong lobbying from local authorities, nuclear officials and power company executives, citing the need to reduce China's dependence on polluting coal-derived energy.

Lin Boqiang , director of Xiamen University's Centre for Energy Economics Research, said the government's decision sent mixed signals to the nuclear industry.

"We have yet to see a clear goal for the revised scale of nuclear-power capacity by 2020 and other important details, but what is certain is a significant slowdown of its expansion," Lin said.