In 1986 The Economist published an upbeat verdict on the nuclear power industry, deeming it as “safe as a chocolate factory”.
That conclusion proved mistaken, as the magazine conceded in its most recent issue: “Less than a month later [in April 1986] one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine ran out of control and exploded.”
The British magazine was looking back on the debate over nuclear power, with a special report timed to commemorate the Fukushima meltdown a year ago. It noted that as a result of that disaster 52 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors remain offline. “The dream that failed,” proclaims The Economist’s cover.
But one place where nuclear energy remains on a growth trajectory is China, where 27 plants are under construction and the plan remains to raise atomic power output from the current 10GW to 80GW by 2020.
According to the World Nuclear Association, China accounts for almost half of current nuclear construction worldwide.
However, in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan last March, Beijing decided to take stock of its ambitious nuclear programme. As we reported in WiC102, the Chinese authorities ordered a moratorium on approvals for new plants – the stated goal being to review safety procedures after Fukushima.
In effect, this put the atomic industry on pause.
But at this year’s meeting of China’s legislature, there were signals that the delay period is over. Wang Binghua, a senior delegate to the session’s advisory body (the CPPCC), has said the government will resume the approval of new nuclear power plants this year. Wang is no disinterested party – he’s also chairman of the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation.
Other delegates, including Zhang Guobao, a former secretary of the National Energy Administration (NEA), also spoke of the need to restart the nuclear power campaign. Zhang said China had recently become the world’s largest coal importer (180 million tonnes were purchased last year) and that over-reliance on fossil fuels is not conducive to China’s energy security or ecology. Development of nuclear power was “necessary” for the country’s sustainable development.
But perhaps the clearest signal on the reigniting of China’s nuclear plans, reports the Xinmin Evening News, came from Qian Zhiming, the deputy director of the NEA. He said the government had now finalised new nuclear safety guidelines, and reiterated that atomic power remained the most reliable alternative energy. “We will still unswervingly develop nuclear power,” Qian insisted. He also predicted that new nuclear projects could begin construction again by June. China has 50 nuclear plants waiting for approvals across at least half of its provinces and municipalities.
Despite the reassurance, concerns about reactor safety have not disappeared entirely, with the Shanghai Daily noting that China has 23 seismic belts and accounts for about half of the world’s earthquakes annually (ergo, not the most fertile territory for nuclear plants).
A similar anxiety sparked recent public protests about the proposed Pengze plant in Jiangxi province, when residents of the nearby city of Wangjiang petitioned against it. Officials from Anhui province shared the same worries, issuing a formal appeal to Beijing to block it on the grounds that Pengze is too near their own population centres.
The fate of Pengze remains undecided. But even if it does get vetoed, the momentum of China’s wider reactor construction programme looks likely to be unaffected.
That seems to be the message from recent negotiations to lock-in supplies of the nuclear industry’s key raw material. As reported in WiC139, Canada’s leader Stephen Harper has signed a nuclear deal permitting Cameco and other Canadian producers to export uranium to the Chinese. The NEA’s Qian told China Daily that the nation would “import more uranium this year and buy uranium mines abroad, looking particularly towards Canada for that purpose.”
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