China Suspends New Nuclear Projects as Radiation Fears Spread

Despite assertions from officials that the situation in Japan would not derail the massive planned expansion of China’s own nuclear power capacity, the Wall Street Journal has reported a suspension of approvals for new nuclear projects:

Details are vague about how China will conduct its safety review. Analysts said the message stops well short of a halt in the program, even as they warn that the pace of China’s nuclear construction program threatens to outstrip its ability to regulate the industry.

Despite radiation leaks and plant failure in northeastern Japan following last week’s earthquake and tsunami, analysts said it is difficult to see how China can achieve its clean-air goals without significant investment in nuclear power.

Analysts said China’s program, like those planned in the U.S. and other countries, reflects how the political pendulum had swung in favor of nuclear, not that policymakers considered it risk-free. “Before the Japanese accident happened, there was already an internal debate in China about how fast the program should go,” says Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program.

Most immediately, the State Council message may be aimed at addressing public anxiety about the events in Japan as part of a public-relations exercise. “The politicians can’t be indifferent,” said Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at London’s Centre for Global Energy Studies.

The newspaper’s China Real Time Report describes the fears of radiation that may have prompted the policy:

As news of the problems at Fukushima flowed into China Tuesday, Internet users posted panicky messages fretting about the possibility of radiation reaching Chinese cities near the coast—echoing similar alarm elsewhere in the region, especially in the Philippines.

Some residents in Shanghai stocked up on iodine pills. Parents wondered whether they should pull their kids from school. Rumors spread that people should wear neck scarves, stay indoors and eat seaweed, which is rich in iodine and thought by some to protect the body from radiation exposure.

The fear may be understandable, and it’s far too early to predict the outcome of Japan’s crisis. But much of the information circulating in China was clearly inaccurate or exaggerated, some of it wildly. Japanese officials have said radiation leaked near the plant reached levels that could pose serious health risks. They are evacuating the area within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima complex and telling those within an 18-mile radius to stay inside. In Tokyo, 200 kilometers, or 124 miles, south of the damaged reactors, higher-than-normal levels of radiation were detected for part of Tuesday, but the amounts were a small fraction of what a human body receives from one X-ray, and authorities said they posed no health hazard to humans.

There has been much discussion in America about Fukushima’s implications for the future of nuclear power there, but many of the arguments are the same as those in China. An earlier post featured Wei Gu’s defence of China’s nuclear expansion, which suggested that keeping reactors away from seismic hotspots and taking advantage of technological improvements would help prevent Fukushima-type disasters. The Economist’s Democracy in America blog echoes the former point, with reference to another article in Slate:

Mr Saletan argues that America needs to learn the right lessons from the incident in Japan, consider the relative costs of nuclear energy, and not overreact to a specific crisis caused by two unusually horrific natural disasters

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

The incident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant may change this history, but it shouldn’t change our calculations about nuclear energy all that much. While we are likely to gain valuable insights for improving the safety of nuclear energy from Japan’s experience, the main lesson seems to be that we should avoid building nuclear power plants in areas with considerable seismic activity. In America, that lesson obtains to only a small number of plants. For example, there are four reactors at two plants in California, in San Clemente and near San Luis Obispo. The nuclear plant in San Clemente is built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, and apparently withstood a 7.2 quake last year. But that sounds less reassuring since Friday’s 8.8 quake.

At the Washington Post, however, Michael A Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations listed the claim that “Better technology can make nuclear power safe” as one of 5 myths about nuclear energy:

Technology can increase safety, but there will always be risks with nuclear power. The Japanese reactors at the center of the current crisis use old technology that increased their vulnerability. Next-generation reactors will be “passively cooled,” which means that if backup power fails like it has in Japan, meltdowns will be avoided more easily. (Passive-cooling systems vary, but their common feature is a lack of dependence on external power.) Other lower-tech improvements, such as stronger containment structures, have also mitigated risk.

But what happened in Japan reminds us that unanticipated vulnerabilities are inevitable in any highly complex system. Careful engineering can minimize the chance of disasters, but it can’t eliminate them. Operators and authorities will need to make sure that they’re prepared to deal with unanticipated failures even as they work to prevent them.