Beijing Confronts Japanese Nuclear Meltdown

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 6

Chinese Nuclear Reactors

The nuclear crises at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in neighboring Japan that began with the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has induced the Chinese government to pause and perhaps moderate its civilian nuclear buildup. Describing safety as its top priority, the State Council suspended approving new nuclear power stations on March 16 so that existing safety standards and nuclear plants could be assessed in light of the events in Japan (Xinhua News Agency, March 16).

Initially the Chinese leadership resisted modifying its plans to dramatically expand the domestic production and use of nuclear power in coming years. Many other governments are pursuing similar policies—continuing with their existing nuclear programs though with enhanced safety checks. Yet these Japanese events have added to existing concerns in China and neighboring countries about the safety of its rapid civilian nuclear buildup, which also faces shortfalls in specialized nuclear equipment and trained personnel. As of early April, Chinese officials seem prepared to somewhat reduce the tempo of their civilian nuclear buildup.

Even with the anticipated post- Fukushima reductions, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is unique in the magnitude of its nuclear energy expansion plans, which Chinese officials see as essential for achieving the PRC’s energy security and other goals. Since China still imports much of its advanced nuclear technologies and supplies, the PRC will also remain for years to come one of the most lucrative markets for international exporters of advanced civilian power reactors and other nuclear energy products.

This situation is unlikely to last, however, since there is little reason to believe that Chinese industries will not, as they have done in many other sectors, soon produce and export their own more advanced systems. Over time, China could emerge as a leading supplier of nuclear services to developing countries that seek to obtain acceptable nuclear reactors and other technologies at modest cost. This transformation in turn could see a revival of the nuclear nonproliferation disputes between China and Western countries that were widespread during the 1990s but, even in the case of PRC-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, have decreased in prominence in recent years.

Ambitions

It was not until late 1991 that the PRC’s first civilian nuclear power reactor went into operation at the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant in east China’s Zhejiang province (Asia Times Online, March 30). At present, China has 13 operating nuclear reactors situated in seven power plants in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces. Altogether, these facilities yield slightly more than 10 gigawatts (GW) of total generating capacity, which amounts to only some 2 percent of China’s electricity needs. This low figure is comparable to Japan, where nuclear power provides almost 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs, or France, which derives some 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy [1].

The 12th Five-Year Plan approved by National People’s Congress on March 14 confirmed the earlier goal, set by the PRC’s National Development and Reform Commission in 2007, of doubling this figure to 4 percent by 2020. The Medium- to Long-term Development Plan for Nuclear Power issued by this Commission envisioned achieving a fourfold increase in aggregate generating capacity, to almost 40 GW, by the end of this decade (Xinhua News Agency, March 26). To achieve this goal, the PRC State Council had authorized the building of 26 nuclear power plants—12 have already started construction—with 53 additional nuclear reactors (The Associated Press, March 25). Measured in terms of ongoing and planned nuclear energy capacity under construction, the PRC is building almost half of all the new nuclear reactors in the world (MSN, March 24). A further hundred additional new nuclear reactors had been proposed for construction in China by various entities before the recent disaster in Japan (MSN, March 24).

According to some Chinese sources, until recently, certain PRC officials had hoped to have 66 nuclear power plants in operation by 2020, generating 66 GW, of 6 percent of the PRC’s anticipated total power capacity (Xinhua News Agency, March 26). This boost would help the government achieve its goal of increasing the share of energy China obtains from non-fossil sources to 15 percent from the present low figure of under 10 percent (The Associated Press, March 26). Before the recent crisis in Japan, there were some indications that the Chinese government would announce this year that it had raised its 2020 target to 80 GW or more (China Daily, March 29).

Obstacles

Even before the accident in Japan, some Chinese and Western observers had expressed concern about the speed and size of the PRC’s nuclear expansion plans. Concern focused in particular on whether Beijing could meet such ambitious targets while still adhering to the demanding safety standards required of such a dangerous technology, which necessitates highly trained nuclear technicians as well as detailed and demanding regulations supported by regulatory agencies empowered to suspend plant operations or construction regardless of planned production targets [2]. In April 2009, the head of the PRC’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, Li Ganjie, cautioned that, "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" (Time, March 28). In September 2010 Li, who is also vice-minister of environmental protection, told the media that the PRC lacked an adequate number of trained and experienced nuclear professionals (Reuters, September 20, 2010). Earlier this year, a research panel that offers recommendations to China’s State Council urged policy makers to scale back their ambitious targets to avert shortfalls of uranium, equipment, and trained personnel" (Time, March 28). Another worry is corruption. If manufacturers or regulators could be bribed to overlook shoddy work or safety violations, then a disaster could more easily occur.

Nonetheless, many PRC leaders continue to deny the problems at Fukushima require changes in China’s own nuclear policies. In an interview with the People’s Daily, Tian Shujia, a senior nuclear safety official in the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said that China’s strict laws, regulations, and technical standards regarding site selection, design, construction, testing, operation, and retirement of nuclear power plants in the PRC "guaranteed" their safety. According to Tian, the Chinese government wrote these codes taking into account developed countries’ nuclear standards, earlier nuclear accidents, and the safety recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He claimed that the PRC’s current nuclear power plants regularly record safety measures higher than the global average (Xinhua News Agency, March 26).

Chinese nuclear power enthusiasts have denied that the nuclear accident in Japan should lead Beijing to abandon its nuclear energy ambitions. Supporters argue that the Fukushima mishap was due to a rare set of circumstances—a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed immediately by a massive 14-meter-high tsunami—unlikely to recur, or occur in China. (But state television later reported that Chinese technicians were assessing the sea walls at the coastal Daya Bay nuclear plant north of Hong Kong, which presumably could be affected by some tsunamis [The Associated Press, March 29].) Chinese nuclear power enthusiasts also note that the global nuclear industry has surmounted past accidents by adopting improved safety procedures. Furthermore, they observe that other types of energy pose their own risks—from major oil spills such as occurred in the Gulf of Mexico last year to the deaths of thousands of coal miners from underground accidents (Xinhua News Agency, March 22, 2011). China’s nuclear energy industry, they add, has always had a strong safety record and never experienced a serious incident (China Daily, March 26).

Even so, some of China’s indigenous plants also employ older technologies with less effective safety standards (China Daily, March 26). Another concern is that, while the PRC’s six existing nuclear power plants are situated along the country’s eastern and southern coasts, the government is considering constructing several nuclear stations in inland provinces such as Liaoning, Jilin, Henan, Hubei and Jiangxi provinces (Xinhua News Agency, March 12). According to the State Grid Corporation of China, 31 out of 43 sites suitable for a nuclear plant are located in inland regions (People’s Daily, March 31). Nuclear energy is particularly in demand in certain areas remote from coalfields and where the local economy is developing rapidly. Yet, the location of the Fukushima plant along the coast allowed the Japanese to use sea water as an emergency coolant when the Tsunami wiped out the power to the main and back-up cooling systems. Chinese nuclear plants built at inland locations will lack this advantage. Supporters of the inland sites claim that the PRC will only construct the most advanced reactors, with enhanced safety features (China Daily, March 26). Lu Qizhou, general manager of the China Power Investment Corporation, said that the AP1000 nuclear power reactors intended for inland regions are third-generation reactors, and therefore more advanced than the reactors at Fukushima. They also employ an emergency cooling system that does not rely on an uninterrupted electric supply: the Chinese construct an enormous tank of water above the reactors and then rely on the force of gravity to ensure they operate "just like the flush toilet, no power is needed" (Xinhua News Agency, March 12).

Many Chinese are not ready to accept these assurances without further question. The crisis in Japan has made the Chinese public more conscious about their country’s nuclear power program, which until now has proceeded without the broad public debate and criticism seen, for example, with the PRC’s dam-building hydroelectric projects. On March 11, ironically the day of the accident at Fukushima, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun published an interview with Liu Wei, vice president of China Nuclear Power Engineering Corp., in which he said that, "Unlike in Japan, we do not encounter opposition from local communities" (Asahi Shimbun, March 11). Partly this absence of protests has reflected the limited scale of the PRC’s nuclear power program, partly its somewhat clandestine nature resulting from its association with China’s military program, and perhaps awareness of the imprisonment of a pair of prominent anti-nuclear activists (uranium mine worker Sun Xiaodi and his daughter, Sun Haiyan) [3]. Yet now the Fukushima incident has made many more Chinese aware of nuclear safety considerations. For example, following the accident, residents of Shanghai and other Chinese cities stocked up on iodine pills and face masks for fear that the radioactivity from Fukushima would drift towards them (The Washington Post, March 16). To counter exaggerated fears about the danger of radiation from the stricken Japanese plant, the Chinese Environmental Protection Bureau started issuing daily reports on the level of radiation in major urban areas [4]. Even so, the free ride that the PRC nuclear energy sector enjoyed in the past about deciding what to build and where has probably ended.

As of early April, some PRC officials have indicated they will scale back their civil nuclear expansion plans somewhat, at least for the next few years. Wei Zhaofeng, deputy director of the China Electricity Council, reported that the PRC’s nuclear energy sector during the next five years would reorient its approach from "energetic development" to "safe and highly efficient development." The Council is an industry group whose members include the PRC’s largest nuclear manufacturers such as the China National Nuclear Corporation, the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp, and the State Nuclear Power Technology Co. In concrete terms, Wei said this revised approach would lead to about a 10 GW decrease in the planned growth of nuclear generating capacity during this decade. Instead of nuclear power providing 5 percent of China’s power by 2020, the figure would more likely be 3 percent under the new policy (The Associated Press, March 29). In compensation, some PRC sources indicate that the government would seek to double the volume of solar energy China produces in the next few years (China Daily, April 1). Although the PRC is the world’s largest solar panel producer, some 90 percent of these panels are sold to other countries (Xinhua News Agency, March 30). The government might also soon announce modest increases in the use of other non-nuclear energy sources such as wind power, natural gas, and hydroelectric power.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, the logic of Beijing’s energy security imperatives—the need to minimize China’s dependence on foreign energy sources—will probably lead PRC policy makers to recommit to higher levels of nuclear power generation and use in coming years barring another major mishap. For the same reason, Beijing will likely also seek to improve the quality of China’s indigenous nuclear energy technology. Not only would raising domestic capabilities decrease the need for China to purchase expensive foreign reactors and related items, but the PRC could become an important civilian nuclear technology supplier in its own right, likely confronting Russia and Western nuclear sellers with a formidable low-cost competitor. If Beijing sells nuclear technologies to states of proliferation concern, which is also very possible, then Western governments could easily find themselves entangled in additional nuclear proliferation conflicts with China beyond their long-standing differences over Pakistan.  

Notes:

1.  "Nuclear Power in China," World Nuclear Association, February 2011, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html.
2. Kevin Tu, "Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Preliminary Policy Implications for China," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 1, 2011, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=43383.
3. Elizabeth C. Economy, "Japan and China’s New Nuclear Accountability," Council on Foreign Relations, March 15, 2011, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2011/03/15/japan-and-china percentE2 percent80 percent99s-new-nuclear-accountability/.
4.  "All Things Nuclear," Insights on Science and Security, March 31, 2011, http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4249388555/china-reacts-to-fukushima.