China Defrosts Nuclear Plans, Though Issues Remain

With Beijing reviving its nuclear power plans a year after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the top safety expert of China’s civil nuclear watchdog spoke in Hong Kong over the weekend about the importance of nuclear energy to China’s development strategy. From The China Daily:

During a speech entitled “One year after the Fukushima nuclear accident — the way forward with safety and risk engineering” in City University of Hong Kong, Ren said after the devastating Fukushima accident, China conducted safety inspections of its nuclear plants, the scope of which included appropriateness of site selection, ability to withstand earthquakes and floods, robustness of measures to address various extreme natural events and effectiveness of monitoring and emergency preparedness.

“The Chinese nuclear industry still feels confident to meet the installed capacity targets of 40 million and 70 million kilowatts by 2015 and 2020 respectively,” he added.

Still, challenges and opposition remain. As The Christian Science Monitor reports, a top nuclear industry insider held a weekend press conference outside the National People’s Congress in which he briefly referenced a safety review of China’s nuclear power plants that found “problems in 14 areas.” Despite China’s determination to develop nuclear power, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. And Caixin Online tells the story of four retired officials who petitioned against and ultimately convinced their government to oppose plans for a nuclear power project in Jiangxi:

Two months after the Fukushima mess, former Wangjiang County Party Committee deputy secretary Wang Jinzhou, former county people’s court chief justice Fang Guangwen, former county people’s congress deputy director Tao Guoxiang, and former urban-rural construction bureau director Wang Jize began collecting public materials on the Pengze plant. They then checked this information against national construction standards and regulations.

In July 2011, they completed an 11-page petition that called for the project to be halted and sent it to the State Council, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Anhui provincial government and the county government. The petition said the population data in application materials related to the Pengze facility was falsified, seismic data was unreliable and gifts were used to bribe villagers during a survey of public opinion.

The group first sent its petition to the county government. But it took no position until two organizations leading the project — the Jiangxi National Defense Science and Industry Office and China Power Investment Jiangxi — arrived in Wangjiang in August 2011 to undertake safety research and ask the county to provide geographic data. Fang said that it was at this juncture that the county for the first time expressed its opposition to building the plant in its vicinity. The county refused to provide the data.

Then, the Wangjiang government researched the plant more, and on Nov. 15, 2011, it completed a report that requested the project be called off. The county government gave its report to the Anhui Energy Bureau. But several months later, the county government had not received a response. Only when the document was linked to on a microblog, causing widespread concern, did the bureau say the county’s report had been forwarded to National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s top economic planner. The NDRC has not commented.

While China’s capacity targets may come down from their pre-Fukushima levels, writes Kevin Jianjun Tu of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the country must resolve fundamental safety deficiencies before it moves forward with its next generation of nuclear plants. From The Diplomat:

It’s first important to acknowledge that the safety oversight mechanism is one of the weakest links of the Chinese nuclear industry. Currently, the National Development and Reform Commission, which overseas nuclear development, is the most politically powerful ministry. In comparison, China’s civil nuclear watchdog is supervised by a much weaker Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Such an unbalanced bureaucratic hierarchical arrangement and internal power struggle among different stakeholders has prevented a timely overhaul of China’s nuclear oversight mechanism.

A lack of transparency in the industry also remains an issue. Immediately after the disaster in Japan, there was a panicked buying spree of iodized salt across China. Even after both the Chinese government and experts publically clarified that this was entirely unnecessary, it still took quite a while for the general public to calm down. This event not only indicates Chinese society’s lack of fundamental understanding on nuclear issues, due largely to the prolonged secretive operations of the Chinese nuclear industry, but also clearly illustrates the absence of basic trust between the Chinese government and civil society.

The country’s ability to safely export nuclear technology and equipment to overseas markets is yet another challenge that needs to be addressed. Thus far, China has exported its second generation reactors to Pakistan, which are less sophisticated than the imported third generation reactors under construction in China. But the country lacks both sufficient domestic capacity and faces numerous patent-related constraints before it can develop its own export-ready advanced nuclear reactors. While the second generation nuclear technology exported to Pakistan has already been phased out domestically due to safety concerns, it’s still possible for China to be lured by economic and geopolitical considerations into additional nuclear export deals with other developing countries in the future.

See also previous coverage of nuclear power in China via CDT.