March 25th, 2011 | Caixin China Punches Pause Button for Nuclear Power
Nuclear reactors are under review across China following the disaster in Japan, but they’re not going away
Japan’s earthquake-related nuclear catastrophe chilled, yet by no means froze, China’s fast-advancing nuclear energy industry by forcing a closer look at the nation’s reactors and safety issues.
Five days after the deadly quake March 11, an executive meeting of the State Council chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao ended with an order for a full review of all nuclear power plants currently under construction. Moreover, the council declared, any reviewed project found lax in safety standards would be halted.
The State Council also ordered adjustments to the government’s 2007 Medium and Long-term Plan for Nuclear Development, and said approval permits for new projects, including those at a preliminary start-up stage, would be suspended pending a development plan update.
Share prices for nuclear energy-related companies fell sharply on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges the day after the State Council’s announcements. Prices for three stocks fell to the daily limit, while many others lost at least 6 percent of value.
Yet despite government review orders and stock sell-offs, most industry experts say China is unlikely to change its pro-nuclear direction. The disaster in Japan will have a tremendous impact on domestic nuclear power, they say, but the industry will survive.
More than 77 nuclear power generating units were either planned or under construction in China at the end of 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association. In addition, various local governments around the country have said they intend to build as many as 140 additional units.
Thirteen nuclear power units at six sites are now operating in China. Construction has gotten under way for 29 plants since 2007, with 14 projects project launches in 2008 alone.
The combined number of units operating, under construction and planned in China – 90 as of January – nearly equals half the number of nuclear plants currently on-line worldwide.
The government’s nuclear development plan for 2005-’20 calls for most power stations to be built in coastal areas, although inland provinces have started to report energy shortages, raising possibilities for expansions into the nation’s interior and northeast.
Chongqing’s municipal government as well as the provinces of Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Henan, Sichuan, Gansu and Jilin have submitted nuclear plant construction plans now pending before central authorities.
Questions about this unprecedented pace for nuclear plant construction have been raised in government regulatory and industry circles alike. Some fear China is headed for nuclear overcapacity, while others fear hastily built plants that pose danger.
For example, a source at the Guangdong Nuclear Power (GNP), which builds and operates plants in southern China, told Caixin he thinks China may now have too many nuclear projects under construction. He declined to be named.
Chen Bingde, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) who is also an associate dean-chief engineer at the Nuclear Power Institute of China, expressed concerns about production experience, the production capacity, and the proficiency of equipment manufacturers supplying nuclear power units planned or under construction. He raised these doubts during the 2009 sessions of the CPPCC and the National People’s Congress.
In an article for China Nuclear Industry magazine, Chen wrote that some equipment manufacturers may be overloaded, and that the parts they sell to power plants could compromise reactors in the future.
Hao Xiaofeng, head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Nuclear Safety Department, Nuclear Power No. 2 Office, said his agency has increased its staff to more than 600 from 100. Moreover, the number of his inspectors at on-site monitoring stations has tripled to more than 300. But is that enough?
Chai Guohan, the radiation center chief engineer for the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told Caixin that China’s nuclear safety inspection team is small and its task huge. Technology and equipment at the team’s disposal is old and inadequate, he said, and staffing is hampered by low salaries, high turnover and recruiting woes.
In addition, China is still in the process of writing basic laws for the nuclear energy industry.
Legal oversight of the nuclear power sector is now covered by regulations on nuclear safety surveillance, nuclear materials and through the Emergency Management Regulations for Nuclear Accidents at Nuclear Power Plants. A Radioactive Pollution Prevention and Control Law has been in place since 2003.
But China has yet to enact a proposed Atomic Energy Act, which was first drafted in 1984.
A 2004 statement on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website said the government was “speeding up the relevant legislative work” to put the act on the nation’s law books and “promote healthy and comprehensive development of the nuclear industry.” But today, seven years later, the law remains in limbo.
Another shortcoming involves public information, according to some experts. An incident in May 2010 at the Daya Bay nuclear power plant in Guangdong Province highlighted a serious public relations gap: No one from the power company – GNP – or the government spoke with local villagers about a slight radiation leak until after they got the news by telephone from a Chinese person who lives in the United States.
GNP officials declined to answer Caixin’s questions about Daya Bay’s public relations.
All of China’s operating and under-construction plants are on the nation’s east coast. Experts do not think these plants face any serious risk of inundation by tsunami. GNP, which operates five units, said in a statement that its facilities were designed to withstand the impact of a possible tsunami.
But any of China’s plants could be rattled by an earthquake; much of the country is in an earthquake zone. For that reason, specialists conduct on-site geological studies of seismic zones before a safe site is chosen for a nuclear plant, said Zhou Nianqing, a professor at Shanghai Tonji University’s Hydraulic Engineering Department, who has worked on finding suitable sites for plants, such as the Qinshan facility in Zhejiang Province.
Most of China’s facilities were built with pressurized water reactors, which Chai said can be safer during a mishap than boiling water reactors, which need a steady electricity supply to prevent radiation leakage. All six units at the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan relied on boiling water technology.
China’s nuclear sector began with military applications in mind in the 1950s. Civilian power options opened in 1983, when the government decided to install pressurized water reactors and, a year later, created the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA).
Construction of the Qinshan plant began in 1985, and the Daya Bay project started two years later. Yet overall, the industry moved forward cautiously in the early years. A third-generation reactor designed by China Nuclear Power (CNN) in 1999, for example, was eventually rejected by NNSA.
GNP’s reactor, called CPR1000, fared better. This “second-generation plus” reactor, based on the French-designed M310 system, received regulatory approval and is now widely used: Altogether, 23 CPR1000 units are currently operating or under construction around the country.
The rising cost of oil and coal in recent years has made nuclear power more competitive. Pollution-reduction policies included in the government’s 11th Five-Year Plan in 2006 gave nuclear power an added boost, as did a winter snow crisis in southern China in 2008.
International reactor construction companies were asked to compete for business in China starting in 2004, when the government launched tenders for four, million-kilowatt units at Sanmen and Haiyang using third-generation reactor designs. More than a dozen companies competed, including the U.S.-based Westinghouse.
The government picked Westinghouse and its AP1000 reactor. But the decision angered CNN and GNP, which afterward joined forces to promote the homegrown CPR1000.
Since then, Westinghouse has had to play second fiddle to domestic interests. The reason is rooted in a 2007 decision by the State Council to form an entity called the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) to oversee plant construction.
The State Council directly controls 60 percent of the company, while CNN, GNP, China Power Investment, and China National Technology Import and Export each hold a 10 percent stake.
Since 2007, SNPTC has given CNN and GNP the green light to open or start building 23 CPR1000 units. CNN is also building two CNP600 units in Hainan Province.
During the same period, SNPTC approved the construction of only four units using Westinghouse’s AP1000 design.
Supporters of the CPR1000 design have consistently praised the technology as safe and mature. But some of its safety features are similar to those installed at the crippled plant in Japan.
Now, with the pause to review China’s reactors, supporters of the AP1000 design have reason to be cautiously optimistic about winning SNPTC’s favor in the future. They’re also assuming that China will press ahead with nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima crisis era.
By staff reporters Wang Yichao, Cao Haili, Zhou Kaili and intern reporters Cui Zheng, Qu Yunxu