Driven by the need for clean energy in its war on pollution and further accelerated by worldwide global warming fears, China is set to resume plans for a nuclear renaissance that has many sounding an alarm over safety concerns.
China appears to be gearing up for a “Great Leap Forward of nuclear power” as the nation’s nuclear renaissance resumes following a four-year pause in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, reports China’s state-run Global Times newspaper. [See: China resumes nuclear power plant construction after a four-year freeze]
Driven by Beijing’s war on pollution and accelerated by the pledge to reduce its carbon footprint and upgrade its foreign trade, investors are betting on the country’s nuclear future, the tabloid said.
In the biggest IPO in China in almost five years, China National Nuclear Power Corp, headquartered in Beijing, raised 13.19 billion yuan ($2.12 billion) last Wednesday, according to the company’s statement on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
The stock price of the first nuclear company ever listed in China’s mainland jumped 44 percent, the maximum allowed for new listings, the first day of its debut, to close at 4.88 yuan from 3.39 yuan.
As many as eight nuclear power plants may be launched in China this year, and potentially six to eight more nuclear reactors each year, the Global Times reports:
By 2020, China expects that installed nuclear power capacity will reach 58 gigawatts, and those under construction will reach 30 gigawatts. This is nearly three times the current capacity, which is 20.29 gigawatts, or 1.5 percent of China’s total electricity capacity.
Not only is China moving its nuclear program forward using imported technology, it is also boldly experimenting with its own nuclear technologies. Doubts over the feasibility of these technologies have emerged, given few precedents exist to draw experience from. One nuclear power plant underway in the eastern province of Zhejiang — the first plant in the world expected to use the US-based Westinghouse AP1000 technology — is behind schedule due to constant changes in design and problems identified during tests.
The pace of China’s nuclear roll-out has also generated alarm.
Earlier this year, He Zuoxiu, a leading Chinese scientist who has worked on the nation’s nuclear weapons program, called the bid for a rapid expansion of nuclear power plants “insane”. The plans are moving too fast to ensure safety and monitoring standards to avert an accident, he told The Guardian UK.
“There are currently two voices on nuclear energy in China. One prioritises safety while the other prioritises development,” He told the Guardian in an interview at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
He spoke of risks including “corruption, poor management abilities and decision-making capabilities”. He said: “They want to build 58 (gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity) by 2020 and eventually 120 to 200. This is insane.”
He also said that projections should be taken with a grain of salt. “China’s nuclear industry has a tendency to exaggerate its achievements to the central government, so as to gain more funding,” He told the Global Times.
Worldwide global warming fears, however, have served as an accelerant for China’s nuclear ambitions and the need to provide its domestic markets with cleaner, more efficient energy sources that do not increase the country’s smog problem. However, concerned citizens are not convinced nukes are the answer.
Patricia Adams, executive director of the Canadian-based energy watchdog Probe International, says Chinese citizens are worried radioactive releases from nuclear facilities will contaminate their waterways and airways and are anxious about the location of power plants in seismically active regions.
“Citizens don’t trust the government to run nuclear facilities safely when it can’t guarantee the safety of China’s food supply and worry that releases of radioactivity into local rivers would contaminate domestic and argicultural water supplies as well as downstream fisheries. They have good reason to worry,” says Ms. Adams. “The nuclear industry itself acknowledges that China’s nuclear workers and management lack a ‘safety culture’ and that the regulatory regime will have difficulty coping with the massive expansion plans.”
2 The World Nuclear Association says: “Another factor potentially affecting safety is the nuclear power workforce. While staff can be technically trained in four to eight years, ‘safety culture takes longer’ at the operational level. This issue is magnified in the regulatory regime, where salaries are lower than in industry, and workforce numbers remain relatively low. SCRO [State Council Research Office] said that most countries employ 30-40 regulatory staff per reactor in their fleet, but the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) has only 1000 staff — a figure that must more than quadruple by 2020.” See: “Nuclear Power in China,” World Nuclear Association, Updated February 2015