Business, Economics and Jobs

China nuclear: Japan tsunami won't stop Beijing


People attend a candle light vigil for victims of the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami in Hong Kong on March 20, 2011.


Antony Dickson

BEIJING — China has put the brakes on its nuclear power drive for safety checks in the wake of Japan’s earthquake-and-tsunami-driven nuclear crisis, but there’s little chance of Beijing turning its back on nuclear power for good.

China has placed high hopes on nuclear power as an alternative to heavily polluting coal. With the country’s insatiable demands for energy growing as incomes and standards of living increase, coal simply isn’t a viable long-term option — particularly as China’s coal addiction has made it the world’s largest emitter of climate change-causing carbon emissions.

But experts say the Japan crisis sent a much-needed warning signal to slow down and review plans to dramatically upscale nuclear power capabilities.

“Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants,” the Cabinet said on March 17.

Wang Yanjia, an environmental policy expert at Qinghua University in Beijing, said China had to act in the wake of Japan’s experience.

“What happened in Japan is a very big issue, and it served as a warning [for China],” said Wang.

China now has 13 operating nuclear power plants, but is in the midst of planning and building 28 more in the coming years, increasing its nuclear power generation capacity by 10 times in the next four decades. Yet only days after the Japan crisis began, the ruling State Council called for the suspension and safety reviews.

Of course, that does not mean China has taken nuclear off the table, but it does mean officials are taking seriously the potential for a crisis here at home. As of last year, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest overall energy consumer, as energy demand doubled within a decade.

The soundness of China’s nuclear power expansion was called into question last fall when the head of the country’s nuclear energy program was imprisoned on corruption charges.

In addition, this week, scientists in South Korea say the yellow dust that blows over their country every year from China contains some radioactive matter, presumed to be from China’s operational nuclear plants or their waste. Beyond that, a senior Chinese official has voiced some concern that China doesn’t yet posses enough trained engineers and safety experts to manage so many plants.

In other words, there are many ways China’s nuclear drive could veer off the road — corruption, improper waste disposal and basic lack of knowledge. The latter was underscored just last week when China went on a futile salt-buying binge, with many under the apparent misimpression that trace amounts of iodine in table salt could protect against the health effects of radiation. Salt hoarding might have been somewhat bemusing, but it underscored a larger point about a total lack of education on nuclear safety in China.

Unlike other developed countries, Chinese people haven’t been properly educated about risks and safety regarding nuclear power, its waste and its potential impacts. Li Bo, director of the Friends of Nature environmental organization, said it’s now very clear China needs more discussion and education about the risks and potential problems associated with nuclear power.

“The sheer factor that so many people in China have so blindly rushed to buy salt as a solution really indicates how little the public knows about safety issues surrounding a nuclear crisis,” said Li. “So little information has been disclosed among the public about the nuclear energy policy debate.”

Yang Fuqiang, senior energy and climate change advisor in the Beijing office of the National Resources Defense Council, said Japan’s experience had to make China take notice.

“What happened in Japan impacted China quite a lot and we have to double-check the situation of our own nuclear power plants’ safety,” said Yang. “What would we do if a similar disaster happened in China?”

Yang noted that China’s existing nuclear power plants are located mainly on the southeastern coastline, within proximity to major population centers.

“Shanghai and Hangzhou are only about 150 kilometers from the Qinshan nuclear power plant,” said Yang. “If a similar accident happened there, millions of people’s health might be harmed and it could cause major damage to the public and environment, and be a great economic lose.”