China Recharges Nuclear Power Ambitions

After defrosting its nuclear plans earlier this year, and amid ongoing questions over its safety in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster last year, a nuclear official predicted on Wednesday that China’s nuclear power installed capacity will hit 42 gigawatts by 2015. From Xinhua News:

There will be 41 operating nuclear power units in China by 2015 or a little later, Zhang Huazhu, chairman of the China Nuclear Energy Association, told a seminar in Zhuhai City of south China’s Guangdong Province.

“At that time, China will be building nearly 20 extra nuclear power plants,” he said at the seminar under the theme of “Nuclear Power and Environment” co-sponsored by two universities in Beijing and Hong Kong.

China now has six power plants and 15 working nuclear power units, producing nearly 3.5 percent of the world’s total electricity generated by nuclear power, which also accounts for 1.85 percent of China’s total electricity generation.

“With their good performances and the carefully chosen locations of the sites, China’s nuclear power plants have little chance of repeating what happened in Fukushima,” Zhang said, referring to the Japanese nuclear plant that was hit by massive earthquake and tsunami last year, resulting in meltdowns and the release of radioactivity.

Official media reported in September that China would resume building nuclear reactors in the fourth quarter of this year, and the latest estimate would account for 10 percent of the world’s total output of nuclear power. The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck points out that the 42 gigawatt figure exceeds the 40 gigawatt target indicated in a white paper published by the government last month, but is still significantly lower than the target referenced in the initial draft of China’s current 5-year plan:

The failure to meet the 50 GW target is due in large part to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011. Since then the Chinese government has treaded carefully on nuclear energy, including instituting an initial six-month moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima. When the suspension was first lifted in October 2011, China appeared to embrace nuclear energy as eagerly as before, with one Chinese official telling the New York Times at the time that China would still meet the highly ambitious 50 GW target. It has since scaled back this estimate.

Besides reducing the pace of its nuclear expansion, the Chinese government has been careful to emphasize it has learned the right lessons from Japan’s nuclear tragedy.

“With their good performances and the carefully chosen locations of the sites, China’s nuclear power plants have little chance of repeating what happened in Fukushima,” Zhang said on Wednesday.

This comment seems puzzling given that the State Council said last month that it would only approve the construction of nuclear power plants in coastal regions in the years ahead. This makes complete sense from an economic standpoint given the greater demand for electricity in China’s economically dynamic coastal regions compared with more inland parts of the country. However, as Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy more recently (and less dramatically) demonstrated, nuclear power plants located in coastal regions are vulnerable to weather related disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes.


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