Watching Japan’s nuclear drama unfold across the East China Sea, China is glued to the edge of its front-row seat.
There is a good reason for the rapt attention: In addition to fears that radiation from Japan could somehow reach its shores, China has more ongoing and planned nuclear construction than any other country — about half of the world’s total.
While it has joined governments in Europe and the United States in announcing a safety review of its nuclear power sector, the pressure to complete its nuclear projects – both those under way and on the drawing board — is intense.
And its record in keeping corruption and mismanagement at bay in construction projects is checkered, to say the least.
“One wonders how long a pause Chinese officials and businesses will feel they can actually take in examining the nuclear power issue,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. “China’s demand for energy — if policy planners are correct about economic projections — is like a freight train that is accelerating, and the demand is only growing.”
China’s power consumption grew 14 percent in 2010, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. At the same time, China’s leadership is aggressively trying to wean the country off coal, a huge source of air pollution and associated health issues in China.
In the last decade, Beijing has made nuclear power a central component in its energy strategy. China has 13 operating nuclear reactors producing nearly 2 percent of its total power output, but there are another 27 reactors under construction, 50 more planned and more than 100 proposed. With new reactors coming every year, China is aiming for a tenfold increase in its nuclear generating capacity by 2020, with rapid growth projected to continue until 2050.
Reason for pause
As the struggle to contain radiation was beginning at damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, in neighboring Japan, Beijing called for a comprehensive safety check and revision of safety standards for all nuclear plants in China.
"Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants," the State Council, the power core of China’s central government, announced on March 16.
Coming from the State Council the edict carries weight.
“The Fukushima tragedy really gave the Chinese a serious wake-up call on the importance of nuclear safety,” said Zhou Yun, a Chinese nuclear security expert from China doing post-doctoral research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.
But the accident in Japan does not mean China will move away from nuclear power, analysts agree. And it seems unlikely to significantly slow nuclear plant building.
Regulatory body needs bodies, teeth
Under the State Council's order, power plants and other nuclear facilities that are operational or under construction will be inspected, said Zhou. But the new standards will be imposed only on plants that have either not yet been approved or have not advanced beyond site preparation.
Significantly, the nuclear oversight body also is limited both in technical capacity and clout in the Chinese government hierarchy, she said.
The National Nuclear Safety Administration is a division of the Ministry of Environmental Protection in China, several steps removed from the State Council. On the other hand, the state-owned nuclear power companies — China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and China National Nuclear Corp. — report directly to the council.
“In a country like China — or more generally in Asia — you have to show respect to people with higher titles,” said Zhou. “That’s why people argue that the NNSA should have a higher level, directly under the State Council, not just a group or division or subdivision under Environmental Protection.”
The elevation of the nuclear safety agency, “making it an independent regulatory body with authority,” was one of several recommendations made in a January 2011 report by the State Council Research Office to keep pace with safety issues in the nuclear industry.
The research office also warned that safety could be compromised by a growing shortage of technical expertise — particularly among regulators because their salaries are not keeping pace with those of workers in the plants.
The challenge to technical inspectors is complicated by the variety of power plant designs China has in operation—with technology imported from France, Canada and Russia and the United States, as well as a domestic nuclear reactor design based largely on the French technology.
Finally, there is concern that this rapid growth in nuclear facilities presents not only a potential danger from the plants, but from the stress the growth puts on the nuclear supply chain, including nuclear fuel suppliers, transport systems and waste disposal sites.
Growing awareness, anxiety
Until now, government and business advocates of nuclear power in China have been largely untroubled by public opposition to nuclear power.
The only exception has been in Hong Kong, which operates with greater freedoms than China’s mainland, under a democratically elected local government.
When the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station was built about 30 miles from Hong Kong, and opened in 1994, it did so over vocal opposition in Hong Kong, where more than 1 million people signed a petition to halt the project.
Two minor radiation leaks in the plant within the past year — which management said were contained within the plant — have revived unease and debate among Hong Kong legislators, but there has been no such open discussion in mainland China.
“For the most part, people did not pay much attention before the Fukushima nuclear incident,” said Zhou, the Harvard researcher.
But that is rapidly changing, she said. Chinese cyberspace is filled with discussion about Japan and nuclear safety. Anxiety about a possible impact from the leaked radiation prompted many Chinese to hoard salt and wear paper masks in misguided attempts to protect themselves.
Even so, China’s citizenry is more informed than in the past — in part because of government reforms and more recently because of an explosion in access to information technology.
They are increasingly aware of corner cutting in construction that has had deadly effects — such as in Sichuan, where dozens of schools collapsed in the 2008 earthquake there due to shoddy materials and construction, killing thousands of children.
And in a major corruption crackdown in the railway ministry that is still unfolding, it emerged that one of the guilty parties had allowed use of a cheap chemical hardening agents for its high-speed rail system, calling into question their safety for trains moving up to 250 mph. The Chinese rail network has been accused of pushing the trains beyond the recommended speeds.
Corruption and greed also were cited as key reasons behind the melamine-tainted baby formula scandal that hit Chinese consumers in 2008.
The potential for catastrophic consequences offers some hope that the Chinese government will see its nuclear power industry as an area where it has too much at stake to allow scandal, said Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute.
“There is huge capital investment,” in nuclear power, he said. “The central government is inescapably responsible for their performance in a way that they arguably are not for dispersed and decentralized problems with the food chain supply.”
Nonetheless, Fukushima has put nuclear power on the radar for a populace that was previously focused on enjoying its benefits.
“Internet users spent a lot of time blogging and in group forums discussing the Fukushima incident and its consequences,” said Zhou.
“People suddenly realize that China is building a lot of nuclear power plants. They check the map and find 27 or 28 under construction,” she said. “So they start questioning the government: Do we really have a nuclear safety culture?”