China's revised nuclear plans

After the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in March 2011, China’s government stopped issuing approvals for the construction of new nuclear plants and launched a review of its nuclear power programme. In October 2012, the government issued a new Energy White Paper and adopted a Nuclear Safety report which together re-affirmed its commitment to nuclear energy, though with greater emphasis on safety.

The government may re-start issuing approvals for new reactors soon, possibly after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party in November. This will send out a signal to the world that China’s nuclear programme is back on track, and it may encourage other nuclear nations to pursue their programmes with greater vigour.


China’s nuclear power programme dates back to the early 1990s with the commissioning of the Daya Bay plant in Guangdong Province in 1994. Construction of other plants proceeded slowly. Only three units with an aggregate capacity of 2 GW were in operation by the end of the 1990s and by 2011 the number of units had reached 15, totalling 12 GW. These are all pressurized water reactors, but of several different designs – French, Russian, Canadian and Chinese. They are operated by just two companies; China National Nuclear Corporation and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group. Their safety record to date has been relatively good, with no incidents above level 2 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (level 7 being the worst).


The surge of demand for electricity in the early years of this century caused the government to draw up ambitious plans for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. This ambition was consistent with the need to reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector and to constrain the need to import energy. By 2010, the country had 21 reactors under construction, with a total capacity of about 21 GW. Most of them are due to come into commercial operation by 2015. A further 36 plants with a total capacity of about 40 GW were being planned. Many of these plants were to be CPR-1000s, a Chinese design based on French technology which is considered to be second generation and far from the best and safest available.


In 2010, estimates of the total capacity of nuclear power generation available by 2020 reached as high as 80 GW, higher than that of France today. Draft proposals existed for a total of 150 GW of additional nuclear capacity and China’s total nuclear capacity was projected to reach 160 GW by 2030.


In response to the accident at Fukushima in March 2011, China’s government immediately halted all approvals for new nuclear plants and undertook a review of the safety of all operating plans and those under construction. It also launched a number of other initiatives covering technology, policy and emergency preparedness.


In June 2012 the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued the “12th Five-year Plan for Nuclear Safety and Prevention and Control of Radioactive Pollution and Long-term Goals for 2020”. This was formally adopted by the State Council on 16th October and ten days later the government issued a White Paper on Energy Policy.


The key points from these two documents are:

·       China’s nuclear energy programme will continue, though at a slightly slower rate. The target capacity for 2015 is 40 GW and for 2020 is 60-70 GW, down from the earlier 80 GW.

·       The use of second generation Chinese CPR-1000 technology is likely to decline. In its place preference will be given to Westinghouse’s third generation AP-1000 technology, because it has much more effective safety systems and in order to minimise the number of different technologies in use.

·       Plans to build new reactors in inland areas, close to demand centres, will be scaled back. Instead, remote coastal locations will be selected.

·       A massive programme of investment will be needed to improve the safety of the existing reactors and to develop better emergency response systems.


In fifteen years’ time, China is likely to have the largest nuclear power industry in the world, unless the USA (currently 100 GW) expands its capacity. At the same time it will have built up its capacity and skills in all aspects of nuclear energy, and is likely to become to a leading supplier of equipment, services and technology in this field. The major uncertainty is the industry’s ability to manage safety risk, and the reaction of Chinese society to any accidents.


The Fukushima accident came at a critical time in the development of China’s nuclear power industry as it forced a review of the nuclear strategy itself as well as of growing safety concerns which had already been raised by both international and domestic regulatory authorities. The new approach suggests that much greater attention will be paid to safety in the nuclear power industry as well as to greater engagement with international actors in order to improve technological and safety standards.


Despite this renewed emphasis on safety and these strategic changes, three concerns remain, aside from the perennial issue of nuclear proliferation. First, the scale of expansion of the nuclear power industry requires an equally rapid growth in the workforce along the full supply chain within the industry as well as in the regulatory agency, the National Nuclear Safety Administration. Second, the general safety culture in China lags behind that in most countries with established nuclear power industries, and will take longer to change than the formal training programmes.


Finally, as the number of reactors grows, the governance of safety will have to be transformed from a command-and-control system, which is possible with a small number of reactors, to a more sophisticated regulatory approach. Recent history has shown that China’s government has often failed to deliver high standards of safety and environmental regulation in other sectors. The causes of these failures include conflicts of interest, the power of state-owned companies and local governments, and the immature state of the legal system.


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