Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 11 News List

China has nuclear solution to crisis


China needs energy. Becoming the globalized world's workshop producing everything from athletic shoes to televisions, the country's electricity meters are whirring.

As the quality of life increases for the nation of a billion people, the demand for energy from time to time dries up the electric sockets and causes busi-nesses to temporarily cease production.

The scarcity of energy stands next to unemployment and environmental pollution on the list of urgent issues facing China.

And the three are intimately connected.

Two-thirds of the country's energy needs are currently filled by coal powered plants which belch out sulphur and other pollutants, and the country's stability is dependant on quick economic growth of 7 to 8 percent per year to create jobs for the country's masses.

Thus the need for the "great leap" into atomic energy. A plutonium factory built in the western German town of Hanau could help fill the hole in the country's energy needs, China's nuclear planners hope.

In the face of German critics who say the nuclear material may find its way into military uses, the usually closed-mouthed state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has taken the offensive.

Transparency is now the name of the game.

The CNNC stresses that the Hanau facility excludes all military uses. As a nuclear power, China -- like the US and Russia -- complies with international obligations.

"In order to double gross domestic product by 2020 as planned, electricity production has to experience as similar development," the CNNC says.

At 50 million euros (US$62.5 million), the Hanau fuel rod factory is cheap. From spent fuel rods, new fuel is created using uranium more effectively and reducing atomic waste.

"That is a long-term plan," the CNNC says. An experimental, reprocessing plant for this purpose is under construction at home in China "but is not yet ready to produce uranium and plutonium."

Atomic energy's share of total energy production is to increase from around 1.53 percent (as of end 2002) to four percent in 2020.

At first blush, the number seems small, but it means that two new reactor blocks must start construction every year for the next 16 years.

Today China has eight reactor blocks and three under construction. By 2020, an addition 30 are needed. China is not annoyed in the least that countries like Germany are moving out of nuclear power.

"As safe, economical and clean energy, nuclear power has been accepted by industry and the public," the CNNC said.

China is focusing on pressurized water reactors, but is also building a fast breeder reactor as a trial reactor near Beijing in the small town of Fangshan to be completed by 2005.

The importance of the delivery of the Hanau plutonium plant for China can further be gauged by its surprising announcement that the country will comply with additional international controls for the import and export of nuclear facilities.

On Monday China applied to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 40-nation group of nuclear suppliers dedicated to the non-proliferation of atomic weapons.

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