In its anxiety to satisfy its seemingly bottomless demand for electricity, China plans to build nuclear reactors on a scale and pace comparable to the most ambitious nuclear energy programs the world has ever seen.
Current plans -- conservative ones, in the estimation of some people involved in China's nuclear energy program -- call for new reactors to be commissioned at a rate of nearly two a year between now and 2020, a pace that experts say is comparable to the peak of the US' nuclear energy push in the 1970s.
"We will certainly build more than one reactor per year," said Zhou Dadi, director of the central government's Energy Research Institute, which has strongly supported the country's nuclear program.
"The challenge is not the technology. The barriers for China are mostly institutional arrangements, because reactors are big projects. What we need most is better operation, financing and management," Zhou said.
By 2010, planners predict a quadrupling of nuclear output to 16 billion kilowatt-hours and a doubling of that figure by 2015. And with commercial nuclear energy programs dead or stagnant in the US and most of Europe, Western and other developers of nuclear plant technology are lining up to sell reactors and other equipment to China, whose purchasing decisions alone will determine in many instances who survives in the business.
The problem with nuclear power, some experts say, is that China's energy needs are so immense that even the enormous expansion program will do little to offset the skyrocketing power demand.
China's eight nuclear reactors in operation today supply less than 2 percent of current demand. By 2020, assuming the national plan is fulfilled, nuclear energy would still constitute under 4 percent of demand.
There has been almost no public discussion of the merits and risks of nuclear energy here, as the government strictly censors news coverage of such issues. But critics of the program question whether such a small payoff warrants exposure to the risks.
"We don't have a very good plan for dealing with spent fuel, and we don't have very good emergency plans for dealing with catastrophe," said Wang Yi, a nuclear energy expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
Chinese nuclear operators, like the people who run the plans at Daya Bay, scoff at such concerns.
"In China we have state-owned power companies, whereas abroad they have private companies," said Yu Jiechun, a senior engineer at the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co.
"It's not a matter of someone's profit here, whether we do something one way or another. The government decides, and they have spent huge amounts of money on safety," Yu said.