China has its finger on the nuclear launch button. But before the Swiss start running for their government-mandated fallout shelters, we should clarify that Beijing is merely triggering the next phase of its nuclear energy plans.
Local media reported this week that China has now upped its target for nuclear power generation from 40 gigawatts to 70 gigawatts by 2020. The nation’s current capacity is only 9 gigawatts.
For opponents of nuclear power, China’s energy future is often painted more in terms of a nuclear winter, or at the very least a landscape darkened by the shadow of a thousand cooling towers. The pessimists highlight China’s poor reputation for product safety in export categories like toys and milk, as well as its frequent mining disasters.
But, like it or not, a shift in China’s energy mix is underway – and it is in favour of nuclear, which is deemed to be a cleaner source than coal.
Zhang Guobao, the head of the National Energy Administration, forecasts that the 70GW target approximates to a little over 5% of China’s likely energy demand in 10 years time. By comparison, France generates 75% of its current energy needs using nuclear power.
The growth profile is still a rapid one, of course, but is there anything to say about the risks involved? One approach is to look at the experience of the former USSR’s rapid nuclear construction programme in the 1970s. The result was unreliable generating capacity, and the infamous explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.
Andrew C. Kadak, a specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an industry veteran, now advises both the Chinese and American governments on nuclear energy commissioning and safety. He thinks the comparison with Soviet experience is overblown.
From Kadak’s perspective, China’s objectives have been pursued sensibly and safely. Yes, China is trying to add two plants a year but the US built more than 100 during the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese reactors are also subject to
the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards. Inspections have revealed no major safety issues since China built and began operating its first facility in Qinshen in the mid 1980s.
In fact, the focus on safety saw China move away from its early dependence on the former Soviet Union towards French and Canadian technology. This trend to opt for foreign expertise has continued and has led to adverse comment from some domestic quarters. An article in Business Watch last month criticised Beijing for recent selections of Westinghouse’s AP1000 technology. Selecting Westinghouse (US-based but majority-owned by Toshiba) creates the type of situation, rued the article, in which “all patriotic people in the Chinese nuclear power industry wring their hands in regret and disappointment.”
The major issue is that the Chinese government prefers nuclear plants with the specifically pressurised water reactor design in which Westinghouse and French rival Areva lead. At the moment this is closing the door on local competitors like China National Nuclear Power.
A way around the domestic criticism is to insist on technology transfer arrangements when deals are signed with foreign companies. This gets the domestic industry up to speed faster. China is also stepping up the training of the more than 13,500 technicians it needs to man future capacity.
Perhaps it will come as no great surprise that the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission worries about the sensitivity of transfer arrangements of this type. But they turn out to be a feature of previous US experience with French, German and Korean partners. Kadak argues for closer ties with China, and urges a loosening of US visa restrictions currently facing many Chinese academics.
Anyway, Kadek told the Commission in mid-2008, if Westinghouse hadn’t done the deal, the French would have jumped at the chance.
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