UPON learning (via a terse government statement) that their bustling port city in eastern China had been tipped as the likely site of a plant to recycle used nuclear fuel, residents of Lianyungang took to the streets last month in their thousands. Police, whose warnings against demonstrations were ignored, deployed with riot gear in large numbers but only scuffled with the protesters, who rallied, chanted and waved banners in the city centre for several days. “No one consulted us about this,” says one woman who participated in the protests. “We love our city. We have very little pollution and we don’t want a nuclear-fuel plant anywhere near us. The government says it is totally safe, but how can they be sure? How can we believe them?” she asks.
Such scepticism is shared by many in Lianyungang, which already hosts a nuclear-power plant (pictured), and elsewhere in China, where the government plans to expand nuclear power massively. China started its first nuclear plant in 1994. There are now 36 reactors in operation, and another 20 under construction (see map). A further four have been approved, and many more are in the planning stages. Only one new plant has been built in America, in contrast, since 1994; four more are under construction. By 2030 China is projected to get 9% of its power from nuclear, up from 2% in 2012. In absolute terms, its nuclear generation capacity will have increased eightfold over the same period, to 750 billion kilowatt-hours a year, roughly America’s current level.
After disaster struck Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011, the Chinese authorities briefly halted this pell-mell rush toward the nuclear future, announcing a moratorium on the construction of new plants, urgent safety checks on existing ones and a prolonged policy review to decide whether nuclear power would remain a part of China’s energy strategy. The following year, however, the government resolved to carry on with its nuclear-energy programme.
The need is clear. Despite slowing economic growth, energy consumption per person is projected to rise dramatically, with no plateau in sight before 2030. Pollution from coal-fired power plants, China’s main source of electricity, causes widespread respiratory disease and many premature deaths each year, a source of persistent public anger. China has also made ambitious promises to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. If it hopes to meet such targets, it will need to embrace nuclear, “because the only other truly reliable 24/7 source of electric power is coal,” says Zha Daojiong of Peking University.China’s utilities are also keen. The state-owned firms that run all the country’s nuclear plants are thought to earn a good return on their investment (their accounts are too murky to be certain), in part because their official backing allows them to finance new reactors very cheaply, and in part because regulators have fixed power tariffs in a favourable manner. One estimate put the return on nuclear assets between 2002 and 2012 at 7% a year, compared with 3% for coal- and gas-fired plants.
China even harbours ambitions to export its growing expertise in nuclear power. After relying first on Russian designs, and more recently importing American and French ones, China has also developed indigenous nuclear reactors. A recently approved deal with Britain, valued at $23 billion, will see China help finance a French-designed nuclear-power station and possibly build one of its own design later.
But China’s nuclear push has its critics. These include those who live near proposed nuclear facilities. Many, like the protesters in Lianyungang, are happy to have the power they need to run their air-conditioners but want to keep the unpleasant parts of the operation far from their doorsteps. Chinese now has a word for NIMBY: linbi, a fusion of the words for “adjacent” and “shun”. The government has repeatedly backed down in the face of public demonstrations, twice agreeing to relocate a uranium-enrichment plant, for example. It has also put the decision about the reprocessing plant in Lianyungang on hold.
Yet attitudes to nuclear power may be less hostile than in many Western countries. A study published in 2013 found an even split between supporters and opponents of expanding China’s nuclear-power industry. Compared with their counterparts in the rich world, Chinese citizens showed much greater “trust and confidence in the government” as the manager of nuclear policy and operations, the emergency responder in case of accidents and the provider of reliable information about the industry. The lead researcher for that study, He Guizhen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that even protesters like those in Lianyungang are not implacably opposed. “Their message is not really that you can’t build these things no matter what, but that we are concerned about safety, especially after Fukushima, and we demand that you take safety seriously,” she says.
It appears this message is getting through. Early this year the government acknowledged in a white paper that its system for responding to a nuclear accident had “certain inadequacies”. In April officials revealed plans to draft a national nuclear-safety law. In May officials announced 600m yuan ($91m) in funding for six new nuclear-emergency squads, which would be ready for action by 2018. In August—on the same day that protesters marched in Lianyungang—China conducted its first “comprehensive nuclear-security emergency drill”. This week the government said officials must consult locals before settling the location of new nuclear facilities.
Deborah Seligsohn of the University of California, San Diego, says that because China’s nuclear-power industry is centrally run and limited to a handful of companies, authorities are able to keep tight control over safety standards, and that they have not hesitated to slow projects down when seeing signs of strain. Supervision, however, falls to several different agencies and levels of the bureaucracy. The burden of inspecting and managing the growing number of plants, she says, could be better handled by a more independent regulator in charge of its own budget.
In July China Energy News, a newspaper, reported that “quality problems” with domestically manufactured pump-valves were forcing some plants to shut down unexpectedly. (Most plants have since switched to imported valves.) More alarmingly, regulators this month revealed that a radiation-monitoring system at the Daya Bay nuclear-power station, which is within 50km of the huge cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, had been turned off inadvertently for three months before anyone noticed. Since no radiation leaked, the government deemed the oversight an event of “no safety significance”—one of several such lapses this year. The residents of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, presumably, would not see it in quite the same way.
Source: A glowing future | The Economist