March 25th, 2011 | Global Times Glowing future on horizon for nuclear power plants in China
The Fukushima nuclear accidents, throughout the aftermath of Sendai earthquake and tsunami, have created panics worldwide. The attempt to rescue the plant and avoid catastrophic environmental damage has held public attention for weeks.
It has also given rise to serious questions about whether nuclear power is worth the risks. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 27 out of 65 nuclear reactors being built are in Chinese mainland.
Contrary to many people’s belief, the Fukushima accident is not evidence that nuclear power is horribly dangerous. Although there are still uncertainties lingering ahead, given the unprecedentedly strong earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that hit the plant, the Fukushima plant still survived all these extreme conditions, the reactors scrammed (automatically shut down), and the containment vessels remained generally complete. These devices precluded a Chernobyl-like disaster as well as the possibility of a large quantity of radioactivity threatening public health.
Because the tsunami destroyed the emergency cooling systems designed to remove the residual heat after the reactors shut down, the nuclear fuel was still releasing small quantity of decay heat. Venting was done to reduce the inner pressure with some radioactivity released and then the hydrogen explosions occurred.
The public’s fear is irrational, but there are lessons to be drawn from Fukushima. For instance, its spent fuel pools were located inside the main building, and the makeshift cooling system struggled to cope with the overheating fuel.
After the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, more measures concerning safety have been adopted. In general, current nuclear safety measures are reliable, even under some extreme circumstances.
Chinese nuclear power plants enforce even more advanced and reliable safety systems than Japan’s, since most of those plants were built after the Chernobyl disaster and are using pressurized water reactors, which are better than old boiling water reactors in Fukushima.
The Fukushima nuclear accidents will not hinder China’s civil nuclear development. The past few years have seen an unprecedented civil nuclear boom, with worries largely pushed into the background. The events in Japan led directly to a special meeting of the State Council on March 16. As a result, a temporary halt has been put on China’s nuclear construction while more enforceable safety regulations are put into place. The exceedingly fast development of civil nuclear power plants in some areas should be reined in.
This isn’t a setback at all. And it is highly unlikely that nuclear power will cease to grow due to a single foreign accident. The growth of nuclear power has been justified and incorporated into China’s long-term energy plan. The Fukushima accident will not significantly impact China’s plan.
Only nuclear power seems to offer commercial limitless energy potential. The environmental costs of other sources are still too high.
The fixed demands for nuclear power require more rigorous regulations and designs. China has established enforceable mechanisms to monitor the safety and discern the risks of nuclear power plants. There are, however, human resource problems facing the regulatory bodies, many of which are understaffed.
The London-based Daily Telegraph reported last Sunday that China is leading the world in developing a revolutionary nuclear design based on thorium rather than the current widely-used uranium reactors. Thorium is safer, cleaner and more efficient.
I can hardly agree that China is leading the world here. But thorium is a very good choice. China and other countries, in particular India, have been investing money in nuclear innovation and we should be optimistic about the future of Chinese nuclear power.
Global Times reporter Wang Di compiled this article based on an interview with Wang Kan, director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy Science and Engineering Management at Tsinghua University.
By Wang Kan