Fukushima Overshadows China’s Nuclear Expansion

The situation at the Fukushima power plants has cast a shadow over China’s planned expansion of nuclear power. From a New York Times opinion piece:

Japan now has 54 nuclear reactors, ranking third in terms of energy output behind the United States and France. Japan also has an unusually shoddy record for nuclear safety. The long string of occasionally fatal nuclear mismanagement lapses over the past few decades in a nation famed worldwide for manufacturing quality control and high-tech achievement is troubling and almost incomprehensible, to say the least. Part of this story is distinctly Japanese, as lack of transparency, insufficient inspection regimes and a sometimes paralyzing inability to make imperfect but practical decisions can leave an industry vulnerable to the sort of dangerous situations that confront the Fukushima reactors.

These problems may be less “distinctly Japanese” than the author suggests, however. The New Yorker’s Letter from China paints a mixed picture:

China is in the throes of building more new nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined. It is adding twenty-four reactors and quadrupling its nuclear-power capacity in the coming decade to some forty gigawatts. The pace is so fast that the country’s nuclear safety chief publicly warned in 2009 that China would encounter safety and environmental hazards if it did not make a point of ensuring good construction. “At the current stage, if we are not fully aware of the sector’s over-rapid expansions, it will threaten construction quality and operation safety of nuclear power plants,” Li Ganjie, director of National Nuclear Safety Administration, told the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy in April 2009.

… In some cases China builds world-class pieces of infrastructure, but we have also seen a steady drip of deeply disconcerting examples of a system growing too fast for its own good. Most recently, when Liu Zhijun, chief of the Chinese Railways Ministry was sacked on corruption charges, it emerged that his agency—celebrated for installing high-speed trains—installed concrete bases for the nation’s train tracks that used cheap, faulty chemical hardening agents, which don’t allow trains to maintain their current speeds of about two hundred and seventeen miles per hour for long.

So, how do some of these Chinese plants look up close? For that, I called Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science at M.I.T., who has worked closely with Chinese nuclear officials at the Daya Bay plant in Shenzhen. “I served on a safety oversight board at the Daya Bay plant, and we had free access to the facilities, including all levels of management. These are basically French-designed plants, and they were very well maintained. And our goal was to try to create a U.S.-type operating culture, and we tried to do that, and the Chinese were very receptive to that.” He went on, “The plants that are now being built have all the current state-of-the-art designs in them. The plants that failed [in Japan] were relatively old. That’s the good part. The unknown, of course, is how do you plan for a humongous earthquake and a humongous tidal wave, especially when they are situated in a place vulnerable to this kind of upset.”

At Reuters, Wei Gu argues that nuclear power expansion remains a necessity for China, and that Fukushima-type scenarios should be avoidable:

While rare nuclear accidents can involve large loss of life, China’s reliance on coal brings unacceptable fatalities too, and with more regularity. Officially, mines claimed 2,400 lives in 2010. Even hydropower has its own problems. The Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydropower project in the world, has been linked with increased risk of landslides, and major ecological damage.

China has two defenses against Japan’s kind of problem. First, geography. While China too has had earthquakes — including the 1976 quake which killed 225,000 people — the country is big enough to place plants outside danger zones. That’s not necessarily true for other disaster-prone nations like Indonesia and the Philippines.

Second, China’s latecomer status means it has a chance to focus on safer technology. Japan uses second-generation nuclear technology; the affected plant is 30 years old. China’s third-generation plants are built to withstand higher internal pressure and can cool more easily. Japan’s catastrophe will no doubt lead to further technological advances.

While careful selection of sites might reduce the danger, the construction of major dams in areas known to be already seismically active does not offer an encouraging precedent. Power station placement is further complicated by the inefficiency of power transmission over long distances, while local governments are bound to fight to pull in investment; seismicity will be neither the only nor perhaps even the primary criterion.

Chinese officials have emphasised design changes that might have averted the problems at Fukushima, such as cooling systems powered by gravity, “just like the flush toilet”, instead of diesel generators. Armed with these innovations, they say, China will push on. From China Real Time Report:

Liu Tienan, a deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, who is also the chief of China’s National Energy Bureau, paid a visit Sunday to a key nuclear-energy research bureau, and said Chinese authorities do have much to learn from Japan’s unfolding crisis even as they press ahead with nuclear energy use ….

Mr. Liu put the stress on the safety of nuclear power during his visit, according to a statement summarizing the visit posted Monday to the NDRC’s website. He “urged the authorities to seriously analyze and summarize lessons learned from Japan’s nuclear accident, to ensure the safe development of nuclear power industry in the spirit of being responsible for the Party and for the people,” the statement said ….

Mr. Liu’s comments came a day after somewhat less anxious-sounding remarks Saturday by another Chinese official, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Zhang Lijun, who was speaking to reporters at the tail end of the National People’s Congress meetings in Beijing.

“Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China’s nuclear power plans,” Mr. Zhang said. “But China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power.”

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