Debate on nuclear power revived

Updated: 2011-03-18 10:19

By Liu Yiyu, Hu Yinan and Jin Zhu (China Daily European Weekly)

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Debate on nuclear power revived

The Tianwan nuclear plant in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province. China plans
to expand its nuclear capacity to 86 gW by 2020.Geng Yuhe/ For China Daily

Escalating crisis in Japan sparks stringent safety measures, suspension of new construction

China will suspend approval of new nuclear power stations and assess all nuclear projects including those under construction, in the wake of the crisis in Japan, the government has said.

A thorough safety check of nuclear facilities and energy projects under construction will be conducted immediately.

"Any hazards must be thoroughly dealt with, and those that do not conform to safety standards must immediately cease construction," a State Council statement said on March 16.

"We must fully grasp the importance and urgency of nuclear safety, and safety must be the top priority in the development of nuclear power."

The State Council called for "the most advanced standards" to be used in safety checks. Any project failing to meet these standards must be halted, it said after the meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao.

China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC), the country's largest nuclear power operator, said it is examining all existing plants as well as those under construction, and a government team will re-examine safety standards.

"The move will slow down development but we see safety as our top concern," said CNNC spokesman Song Kexiang.

The latest announcements come amid the escalation of Japan's nuclear crisis after a major earthquake and tsunami hit the country's northeast coast on March 11. The affected nuclear power plant continued to battle a meltdown a week after the disasters hit, in turn resurrecting questions about the long-term safety of nuclear power.

Worries of widespread contamination from the damaged nuclear facility loom large, as nearby residents were evacuated or asked to stay indoors.

Fears of nuclear radiation in Japan have overwhelmed the direct damage from the 9.0-magnitude quake off the coast of Sendai, and the ensuing tsunami. About 12,000 people have been listed as dead or missing, and officials believe the final toll will be much higher.

Japan's latest nuclear crisis has seen the evacuation of more people than the explosion and fire at the Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986, the worst on record. With multiple blasts at its plant, a "highly rare" scene in the nuclear sector, experts say the mounting crisis in Japan will go down as history's second-worst nuclear accident.

The nuclear threat in Fukushima has sent shockwaves around the globe, provoking rounds of fresh sentiment against nuclear power. Earlier catastrophes sparked similar responses and halted plans to build nuclear reactors in many industrialized countries for years.

G.R. Corey, then vice-chairman of Commonwealth Edison Co, wrote in a review of the partial core meltdown at the United States' Three Mile Island in 1979: "The immediate effect of the accident was to raise questions and slow down the development of nuclear power. Its secondary effect has been to stimulate a wide discussion of energy options.

"Its long-run effect, therefore, should be to help us all - both the public at large and the technical community - to face up objectively to our energy supply problems." Corey's report was published in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) bulletin.

"Three Mile Island has not changed our energy options. Oil is running out and, for the next 20 or 30 years, we must rely primarily upon coal and nuclear," Corey concluded.

Moving from coal

Today, almost 32 years on, China's energy officials seem to be following that line of logic. A day after Japan's tremor and tsunami, the vice-minister of environmental protection, Zhang Lijun, said China "will not change its determination and plan to develop nuclear power. Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China's nuclear power plants".

China, the world's second-largest energy consumer after the US, is building 12 nuclear plants in addition to the six in operation, with at least 25 in the pipeline.

Production capacity is scheduled to be expanded from the current 10.8 gigawatts (gW) to 86 gW by 2020. Even by then, only 6 percent of China's electricity will be produced by nuclear power (up from the current 1 percent). In comparison, it is about 20 percent in the US.

The drive is crucial to easing pressures to reduce China's reliance on coal. Coal, a sector in which 2,433 workers were killed in 2010, still accounts for at least 70 percent of the country's energy mix.

The move toward nuclear generation is also vital in curbing the growth of carbon emissions and combating climate change, authorities say. The country is committed to reduce its carbon intensity from 2005 levels by 40 to 45 percent by 2020.

New focus on safety

Japan's nuclear radiation crisis prompted energy officials to review existing safety standards and raise entry barriers.

Chen Zhanghua, an expert from the China National Committee on Nuclear Safety, wrote on his micro blog: "The most direct consequence of the Japan incident . . . would be enhanced security standards for the nuclear power industry, to shore up defenses against even the most devastating natural disasters."

China adopted its nuclear power industry standards from the IAEA, said Bao Yunqiao, secretary-general of the China Energy Research Society.

"The safety standards for every nuclear project, whether in operation or still in the planning stage, are the same as those globally," he said.

Many Japanese nuclear plants, including those damaged by the quake and tsunami, were built in the early 1970s. Most Chinese plants in operation were started during or after the 1980s, and thus boast newer technology and are better prepared for catastrophes, Bao said.

Long prior to the latest crisis, scholars had claimed that problems with Japan's nuclear plants were deep-seated. While Chernobyl led to cutbacks in government funding on nuclear energy projects throughout the world, Japan's number of reactors grew from 32 in 1987 (the year after Chernobyl) to 55 today, radiation expert Leuren Moret said.

Many of the reactors "have been negligently sited on active faults, particularly in the subduction zone along the Pacific Coast, where major earthquakes of magnitude 7-8 or more on the Richter scale occur frequently", she wrote in an article for The Japan Times in 2004.

"There is an extreme danger of an earthquake causing a loss of water coolant in the pools where spent fuel rods are kept if the heat-removing function of those pools is seriously compromised - by, for example, the water in them draining out - and the fuel rods heat up enough to combust, the radiation inside them will then be released into the atmosphere," Moret warned.

In the US, senior engineers in Northeast Utilities, which then operated five nuclear plants in New England, also warned that fuel pools in plants across the country were risk-prone unless the rods could be submerged at all times.

"And if earthquake, human error or mechanical failure drained the pool, the result could be catastrophic: a meltdown of multiple cores taking place outside the reactor containment, releasing massive amounts of radiation and rendering hundreds of square miles uninhabitable," said an article in the March 4, 1996, Time magazine.

Beyond the money

Back in China, Bao, a former head of the Experts Group in the State Council's National Nuclear Energy Leading Group, said a similar danger lurks.

Some local governments are keen on encouraging companies to invest in the industry while ignoring safety requirements. These authorities do so in the hope that the projects can boost economic growth, Bao said.

"A common misunderstanding among them is that once companies have enough money, they're qualified to build nuclear reactors, just like what they did with the coal-fired power projects in the past," he said.

"This is a very dangerous thought. It may threaten the safety of our future nuclear power projects."

Bao's findings were supported by the State Council, China's Cabinet, in a report its research office published in January after a five-month probe into the industry. The pace of the nuclear power industry is so fast that it will endanger its long-term development, the report said.

"Medium- and long-term goals should be realistic and the scale of recent projects must be particularly controlled," it said.


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