Photo: The Economist
China wants more nuclear plants than anyone else. Will it build them safely?EARLIER this month work began at a big construction site in Shandong province, south-east of Beijing. In a country overflowing with infrastructure projects, that seems unremarkable. Except the workers are restarting construction of a nuclear plant using a radical new design developed by Beijing’s Tsinghua University. This showcase of “indigenous innovation” is the clearest signal yet that China’s nuclear power is about to take off again.
Before 2011 China’s leaders were dead keen on it, hoping to raise nuclear’s share of the country’s electricity mix from less than 2%. They saw it as central to energy and climate strategy, and a future export platform. Official plans called for expanding from just 10 gigawatts of capacity in 2010 to as much as 200 gigawatts by 2030.
Then came Japan’s Fukushima disaster. China prudently put a halt to nuclear licensing and construction, including at Shandong, pending a full safety review. As this process stretched on and on, critics of nuclear power dared hope. Perhaps the leadership, unwilling to risk a nasty accident, would end the programme? Some greens dreamed that subsidies would be redirected to solar and wind technologies.
Nowhere is the nuclear dilemma as tricky as in China. Nuclear plants are costly to build and difficult to run safely. But they also promise reliable power with no air pollution or greenhouse gases. That is tantalising in a country addicted to coal: even with its ambitious plans, less than a tenth of China’s generating capacity would come from nuclear power.
In the end, China’s leadership went for nuclear. In October the State Council gave long-awaited approval for projects to proceed. That means more are now under way in China than in any country (see chart). The sheer number raises worries about safety. After all, Chinese remember all too well a horrific crash in 2011 on their high-speed railway. To blame was too much zeal for indigenous innovation (as opposed to tested international designs), too much corruption, and too little attention paid to safety. A mad dash to nuclear power could repeat those mistakes.
In fairness, it seems officials took the safety review seriously. The restarted nuclear programme will unfurl more slowly than had originally been planned, with a less ambitious target (only 130-140 gigawatts of installed capacity now seem likely by 2030). The officials have cancelled projects located in inland regions prone to earthquakes and short of water, and are increasing training for operators and funding for regulators.
What is more, officials are insisting that newly licensed plants adhere to higher “generation three” standards. Many current plants are of an older design that requires electric pumps for cooling; notoriously, these failed at Fukushima after the tsunami. Newer plants, for example those made by America’s Westinghouse and France’s Areva, have “passive” safety features, such as gravity-driven cooling, that should work even during power cuts.
The Shandong showpiece aside, industry experts hope China will now favour imported over homemade technology, at least until the local engineers can prove the safety of their designs. That may be a blow to native pride, but it is probably good news for foreign vendors–as well as for ordinary Chinese.
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