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Friday, May 13, 2011

Handing China’s Nuclear Power Report Card to Zhou Enlai, Part I

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on China's nuclear energy sector. Part II examines the program's economic viability and self-reliance.

Ruiwen Lee, MPA

As the first leader who pushed for China’s nuclear power in the early 1970s, then-Premier Zhou Enlai laid out four key principles for its development: practicality, safety, economic viability, and self-reliance (适用、安全、经济、自力更生). Forty years on, as the nuclear power industry begins taking off at an accelerated pace, these four principles continue to steer nuclear power developments in China.

This two-part blog post discusses the Chinese nuclear power sector’s performance under each of these principles. This week we look at the first two of these principles, practicality and safety.

I. Practicality: The nuclear component in China’s energy mix
As with other nuclear weapon states, China’s nuclear energy industry has military roots. But given that political reasons were responsible for the country’s first nuclear power plants, China’s nuclear power capacity remained flat for decades. The early 2000s saw more power plants come online for assorted reasons dating back to the mid-1990s, but not because there was a fundamental shift in energy or nuclear policy. A country with abundant and cheap coal resources, China only began seriously considering nuclear energy as a serious alternative when power shortages hit regions nationwide in 2002.

The domestic thirst for energy to fuel the economy’s rapid growth, coupled with mounting international pressure to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as climate change negotiations gain momentum, are the main drivers of nuclear energy’s recent rise. By 2007, nuclear power contributed only less than 2% of China’s electricity production. However, the Chinese government has plans to greatly expand the country’s nuclear power installed capacity, from the present 10.8 GWe (gigawatt electrical, one gigawatt being equal to one billion watts) to 70GWe by 2020.

Beyond becoming a practical source of energy for China’s booming economy, nuclear power has also emerged as a critical non-fossil fuel source set to reduce the dominance of coal in China’s energy mix, helping China achieve its green goals.

II. Safety: The Fukushima wake-up call
The March 11th Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan has given China a timely jolt from the fantasy of its economy growing at an unbridled pace on “clean” nuclear power. Previous nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl occurred in the late-70s and mid-80s respectively, before China had embarked on its nuclear power expansion drive. That, and because it’s been a quarter-century since the previous nuclear crisis might have put significant distance between actual danger and that perceived by the Chinese nuclear authority and industry.

However, in the aftermath of Fukushima, the immediate reaction from the Chinese government was to suspend approvals for proposed nuclear power plant projects while declaring that its plans to develop nuclear energy would not stall. A Ministry of Environmental Protection official has gone as far as to claim that “there is a guarantee for the safety of China’s nuclear power facilities” and that China “will not abandon” its nuclear power plan for “fear of slight risks.”

Before Fukushima, nuclear power enjoyed a generally positive reception from the Chinese public, given its critical role in reducing air pollution and shifting the country to a low-carbon economy. This sentiment quickly vanished as a widespread nuclear scare took hold of China, with people buying large amounts of salt with iodine, mistakenly thinking that it could help ward off any radioactive effects drifting from Japan. The public’s reaction makes it obvious that nuclear power can quickly cease being everyone’s blue-eyed boy, and as such, any positive sentiment toward nuclear—no matter how long-lasting—simply cannot be taken for granted.

Other environmental issues have proven to be sensitive to the Chinese public. Escalating cancer rates associated with environmental pollution caused by factories have incited protest in various provinces. Hydropower dam construction plans have also faced strong and sometimes violent resistance. Within the nuclear industry, a construction project in Rushan, Shandong province was halted after local petitioning. To ensure that nuclear power retains a fair degree of public acceptance, the industry’s clean safety record is of utmost importance.

Next week we’ll tackle economic viability and self-reliance.

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