Wed, May 27, 2015 - Page 1 News List

Chinese physicist says nuclear plant expansion ‘insane’

IGNORING CAUTION:He Zuoxiu says Beijing is not investing enough in safety controls after lifting its post-Fukushima Dai-ichi ban on new reactors

The Guardian, BEIJING

China’s plans for a rapid expansion of nuclear power plants are “insane” because the country is not investing enough in safety controls, a leading Chinese scientist has said.

Proposals to build plants inland, as China ends a moratorium on new generators imposed after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster in Japan in March 2011, are particularly risky, physicist He Zuoxiu (何祚庥) said, because if there was an accident, it could contaminate rivers that hundreds of millions of people rely on for water and taint groundwater supplies to vast swathes of important farmlands.

China halted the approval of new reactors in 2011 to review its safety standards, but gave the go-ahead in March for two units, part of an attempt to surpass Japan’s nuclear-generating capacity by 2020 and become the world’s biggest user of nuclear power a decade later.

US President Barack Obama recently announced plans to renew a nuclear cooperation deal with Beijing that would allow it to buy more US-designed reactors, and potentially pursue the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel.

The government is keen to expand nuclear generation as part of a wider effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and cut dependence on imported oil and gas.

He, who worked on China’s nuclear weapons program, said the planned rollout was going too fast to ensure it had the safety and monitoring expertise needed to avert an accident.

“There are currently two voices on nuclear energy in China. One prioritizes safety, while the other prioritizes development,” He told the Guardian in an interview at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, of which he is a member.

He said the risks include “corruption, poor management abilities and decisionmaking capabilities.”

“They want to build 58 [gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity] by 2020 and eventually 120 to 200. This is insane,” He said.

He’s challenge to the nuclear plans is particularly powerful because of his scientific credentials and a long history of taking a pro-government stance on controversial issues, from the 1950s destruction of Beijing’s city walls to the crackdown in the 1990s on the Falun Gong movement.

He would like to see China stop its expansion once the plants that have been approved or are now under construction are finished, and then gain a few decades experience of running them safely before expanding again. Almost all the country’s working reactors started up after 2000.

“China currently does not have enough experience to make sound judgements on whether there could be accidents,” He said. “The number of reactors and the amount of time they have been operating safely both matter.

“The safety reviews after Fukushima found some problems, but only minor ones, and the final conclusion is that China’s nuclear power is safe. But the safety checks were carried out under the old standards and the standards themselves clearly need big improvements,” He said

Chinese government officials say that nuclear technology has improved since the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, but that ignores the role human error and flawed safety regimes played in both cases, He said.

“Japan has better technology and better management, and yet it couldn’t avoid an accident despite the fact that it tried very hard to learn from the US and USSR,” the physicist said, adding that China’s nuclear monitor has sparser staffing than Japan’s, and offers low salaries that will not attract the best young scientists.

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