China’s nuclear power plans after Fukushima

The disastrous impact of the tsunami on Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station has caused governments and peoples in many countries to look again at their plans for expanding their nuclear power capacity. The USA appears to be committed to pursuing its programme of nuclear expansion, though it will review the locations of the planned plants. In the United Kingdom, the government will take an extra three months to approve the designs of the new tranche of nuclear plants, the construction of which must start soon if electricity supply shortages are to be avoided.

The most extreme reaction has been in Germany. Here energy politics has been strongly influenced, as in the past, by the Green Party which was and continues to be steadfastly against nuclear power. In recent years, growing distrust of Russia as a supplier of natural gas has allowed the nuclear power industry to gain support. As a consequence, last autumn approval was given to extend the life of these plants from 2022 to 2036. After the accident in Japan, the German government ordered the temporary shut-down of seven of the country’s nuclear plants, as well as a safety review of all seventeen nuclear plants.

In China, too, the government has been quick to take action, or rather to review planned actions. The country has the world’s most ambitious programme for nuclear power construction. It currently has thirteen operating reactors in three provinces (Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu) with a total capacity of 10.2 GW. These are operated by two companies: the China National Nuclear Corporation and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group. To date only these two companies and China Power International have received government permission to construct and operate nuclear plants. All the existing plants are pressurised water reactors, with designs and technologies variously from France, Canada and Russia, as well as indigenous designs.

Targets for future capacity have been steadily increased. In 2010, the planned nuclear capacity for the year 2020 was raised from 40 GW to 80 GW, with longer-term targets of 200 GW by 2030 and 400-500 GW by 2050. Nearly 30 GW of nuclear power capacity was under construction at the beginning of 2011, in a total of eight provinces including the original three provinces, and most of this capacity is due to be commissioned by 2015, bringing the total to about 40 GW. Only 8.5 GW of this capacity is third generation technology, from France and the USA. All the remainder use Chinese second generation technology. Some 50 more reactors have been planned with an additional total capacity of 58 GW, of which more than 50% use third generation technology. If these plans are fulfilled, a total of eleven provinces would have nuclear reactors.  A further 140 plants have been proposed.

The attraction of nuclear power to China is obvious. The government wants to reduce the country’s dependence on coal (currently nearly 70% of primary energy supply) and to constrain its dependence on energy imports. The production of ever-increasing amounts of coal places great strain on the transportation infrastructure, as well as causing environmental damage at the locations of extraction and of use, with considerable impacts on both agriculture and health. In the last three years China has become a net importer of coal, and its high reliance on coal in its energy mix is one of the causes of its high level of carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear energy provides a source of energy which, in principle, generates minimal carbon-dioxide emissions, produces no local atmospheric pollution and requires few material imports. In this last respect, China’s nuclear power industry has successfully promoted its indigenous designs, especially the CPR-1000. The other Chinese design, CNP, is seeing only limited application within China, though it is being exported to other countries, most notably Pakistan. By developing domestic expertise in nuclear technology, China’s nuclear industry not only seeks to free itself from dependence on foreign technology, but also develops a platform for exporting this second generation technology to developing and transition economies which cannot afford the third generation technologies.

As I pointed out in a column written almost exactly one year ago, such a rapid expansion of nuclear power would place a great strain on the regulatory institutions of any government to effectively monitor and control the design, construction and operation of so many plants, of differing designs, across so many locations. In a country such as China which continues to experience severe challenges regulating technical, safety and environmental standards in its energy and natural resources sectors, these difficulties will be greatly magnified, not least because of the shortage of experienced technical staff in both the companies and in the regulatory agencies.

Further, the recent and current preference for indigenous, second generation designs may result in more than 50 GW of such capacity may still be in operation in the year 2050 and beyond.

China’s government seems to be fully aware of the risks these plans pose, and the Fukushima accident has provided an opportunity to carefully review the current strategies for nuclear energy. The immediate decisions have been:

  • To conduct safety assessments of all plants in operation;
  • To halt all construction of new reactors and subject them to safety assessments;
  • To suspended approvals for all nuclear plants until next year (2012), with special attention to be focused on those to be constructed in coastal areas (about 50%).

It is also likely that the government will restrict the control and operation of nuclear plants to the three companies who already have this right.

In the meantime the group has been hurriedly assembled to draft the country’s first Atomic Energy Law. This task should be completed by October 2011and new safety regulations should be available by the end of 2011.

What remains uncertain is whether the accident in Japan will cause China’s government to reduce the rate of growth of the country’s nuclear energy sector. Previous experience in the construction of infrastructure in China has shown quite clearly that hurried construction leads to safety problems in the early years of operation. In the case of nuclear power, this danger is magnified, not only by the scale of impact of nuclear accidents, but also by the shortage of skilled and experienced engineers, managers and inspectors in the country. I would hope that a serious debate is taking place within the central government on whether to reduce the targets for the year 2020 to more manageable levels. I am reminded of two sayings, one Chinese and one English: the Chinese one is ‘one step at a time’ (‘yi bu yi bu lai’); the English one, from Shakespeare, is ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.

Of course, if the decision is made to slow down the expansion of nuclear power, then those provinces which experience this reduction of new nuclear capacity will need to build alternative power generation capacity or to seek further ways to save energy, or both. Thus it would be logical to identify those provinces which have the greatest potential for additional renewable energy capacity and which also are experiencing the most rapid economic transition from manufacturing to service provision. These might be the provinces most able to tolerate a cut in their nuclear expansion plans.

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