The atomic crisis sparked by Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami is throwing a spotlight on energy-hungry China’s own plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants despite questions over safety.
In a nod to mounting concerns following Japan’s troubles, China on Wednesday ordered safety inspections of its nuclear facilities and temporarily suspended approval for new nuclear projects pending formulation of new safety rules.
However, it remains to be seen whether the world’s second-largest economy will significantly slow down a national nuclear drive dogged by questions over regulation and emergency preparedness.
China operates 13 nuclear reactors, all on its lengthy coastline — and thus also potentially vulnerable to a tsunami.
More than two dozen others are being built — estimated to account for 40 percent of all reactors being constructed worldwide — while 50 more are on the drawing board.
China is going nuclear to meet soaring energy demand and reduce its world-leading fossil fuel emissions, but many say proper safeguards are not yet in place in a nation already prone to safety scares and industrial accidents.
“There has been an inter-agency debate in China about the speed of which nuclear energy needs to be developed,” said Mark Hibbs, senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program. “The faster the Chinese program expands, the more challenging it will be for the Chinese safety authorities to ensure that safety standards are being adhered to.”
In 2008, China announced a goal of up to 40 gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity — or about 40 reactors — by 2020, but state media reports have said up to 80 gigawatts could be installed by then.
Experts have warned that the crisis in Japan, where workers are battling to avert a meltdown at a nuclear plant damaged by last Friday’s enormous earthquake and tsunami, should provoke a global rethink of atomic power.
However, Chinese Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Zhang Lijun (張力軍) said on Saturday that while China would learn from Japan’s problems, it “will not change its determination and plans for developing nuclear power.”
China’s plans are shadowed by a lack of transparency and a National Nuclear Safety Administration that is hiring hundreds of young and inexperienced regulators as it struggles to keep up with building activity, Hibbs said.
They face the daunting task of overseeing China’s “panoply” of reactor designs from France, Russia, Canada and the US, he said.