The dark cloud hanging over the future of nuclear power because of the unfolding crisis in Japan may have a silver lining in China by increasing attention to reactor safety.
Within days of the earthquake that crippled the nuclear plants in Japan, the Chinese government abruptly suspended approvals for new plant construction, suspended work at new plants currently under construction, and ordered a comprehensive review of its licensing and regulatory procedures.
It’s highly unlikely that China will follow Germany and talk of abandoning nuclear power given the pressing energy demands of a nation of 1.4 billion consumers with rapidly rising expectations and incomes. There are indications, however, that in the wake of the public panic in China unleashed by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the senior Chinese leadership will give much greater attention to the inherent risks of nuclear energy and begin, in earnest, to develop and deploy the robust safety and regulatory mechanisms it needs to manage those risks. Chinese officials worry that if this accident had occurred in China, panic could have precipitated potent public demonstrations questioning the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Concerns about political security, as well as public safety, will likely drive the Party leadership to strengthen the government’s management of nuclear energy.
The significant shift in official Chinese responses to Fukushima are chronicled in Chinese press accounts. Initially, spokespersons representing the interests and opinions of the Chinese nuclear industry proclaimed that the accident at Fukushima would not interrupt China’s plans. They reported that China’s nuclear power plants were safer than the facility at Fukushima Daiichi. In many ways the response of Chinese nuclear industry representatives mirrored the response of their counterparts in the United States.
At the same time the second most powerful political figure in China, Premier Wen Jiabao, organized a special ad hoc committee to review China’s nuclear energy program. Within days Premier Wen announced that China would immediately “suspend authorization of nuclear electricity projects, including projects in their initial stages of work” pending a review of safety concerns. The scope and severity of the suspensions surprised Chinese nuclear industry representatives. Their duration and effect on China’s nuclear expansion plans are yet to be determined.
The Chinese leadership’s rapid and unanticipated response may have been prompted by concerns about public panic over the nuclear crisis in Japan. News of radiation leaks prompted mass purchases and hoarding of salt in major cities on China’s east coast. Many people mistakenly believed that iodized salt could protect them from radiation or that future supplies of salt might somehow be contaminated with radiation. From the beginning of the crisis local, provincial, and national officials have issued statements meant to calm public concerns about radiation leaking from the Fukushima plant and the safety of China’s 13 operating nuclear reactors. In an effort to satisfy the public demand for reliable information, the Chinese Environmental Protection Bureau began daily publishing of the results of radiation monitoring in many of China’s major urban areas.
The volume of press coverage and the extraordinary intervention in China’s nuclear energy program demonstrate the Fukushima crisis captured the attention of the senior Chinese leadership. Before the suspension China had 25 new reactors under construction and had approved plans for an additional 32. Having been awakened to the political risks of nuclear power, China’s leaders can be expected to act in their own best interest, and begin to reconsider what is needed for China to build and operate those plants safely.
Gregory Kulacki is a senior analyst and China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). This article was first published in the UCS’s All Things Nuclear blog on 31 March 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. Cf. Chua Baizhen, “China to Cut Nuclear Goal After Japan Reactor Crisis” (Bloomberg, 1 April 2011); and Pew Charitable Trusts, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?” (2011).