How Safely Will China Go Nuclear?

Apr 06 , 2011

Reactions worldwide to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accidents in Japan are another reminder that in the era of globalization a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.  China now leads the world in civil nuclear construction.  Beijing, therefore, bears a great burden of undertaking a nuclear expansion that is as safe as possible. With ever-greater oil and gas import dependency, international pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, and political legitimacy resting on sustained, high-speed growth, China will continue, probably accelerate, expansion of its nuclear power industry. Our field research in China leads us to have concerns, shared by many in China’s nuclear industry itself.  Beijing should use its current suspension of new plant approvals to address concerns raised below.

Beijing must rein-in its runaway nuclear industry, rebalancing speed and safety. For the past five years, provinces motivated by local economic interests and nuclear developers driven by corporate profits, have led the charge of China’s nuclear great leap forward while the country’s regulators struggled to keep apace. Between 2006 and 2010, localities and developers began construction of 28 nuclear reactors totaling 31 gigawatts (GW) and got another 81 GW approved for the national plan.  [One GW equals about one nuclear power facility.] This put the country ahead of its 2020 nuclear development target in 2010. Consequently, the National Energy Agency (NEA), responsible for energy development in China, was forced to raise the 2020 target to 86 GW, only to find that an estimated 226 GW of new capacity in two-thirds of China’s provinces has moved past the prefeasibility study phase. Some localities, such as Rushan in Shandong Province and Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province, even began their preliminary work without permission from the National Nuclear Safety Agency (NNSA), the country’s chief nuclear safety watchdog.

As we have seen in the rest of China’s economy, the breakneck quest for high growth by local leaders in the absence of effective regulation can produce dramatic national and global externalities—adulterated goods and toxic spills crossing international borders.  Hence, the Fukushima nuclear accidents provide China with a rare opportunity to take a pause in its unbridled nuclear expansion and to assess how to move more safely into the future.

The most immediate effort should focus on empowering NNSA. During a research trip to China a year or so ago, officials told us that nationwide the agency only had a staff of 300 or so and NNSA’s budget was woefully insufficient. In contrast, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has 3709 employees overseeing 104 reactors in operation.  And even in the U.S., with this relatively heavy staffing and a complex regulatory system based in law, we are told by the NRC itself that one-fourth of U.S. nuclear plant operators fail to inform the regulatory authorities of equipment defects.  Recognizing the staff shortage in China, in March 2010 the central government allowed NNSA to increase its staff to 1000 within 2-3 years. But, expansion has been slow, in part because salaries at NNSA are far lower than those of the nuclear power companies. The agency often loses qualified people to the industry. Further, to enhance its bureaucratic clout and to prevent political interference, NNSA needs to be independent of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), itself a weak bureaucracy.  Not to be overlooked, China’s regulatory and governing apparatus germane to the nuclear power industry is dispersed among a multitude of agencies, as many as ten.  In addition to regulatory fragmentation and overlap, the current nuclear governance regime lacks regulatory independence.  Unlike America’s NRC, neither NNSA nor the China Atomic Energy Authority is independent, both being attached to rather unrelated host bureaucracies that are weak, conflicted, and/or distracted.

In light of the failure of the electrical cooling system and the backup power generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, China’s NNSA needs to thoroughly review the ability of the existing reactors in coastal areas to respond to events such as those seen in Japan.  Some of China’s reactors are close to absolutely enormous coastal cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou-Hong Kong, and Dalian.  As the nuclear expansion moves to China’s populous heartland, the ability to respond becomes even more important because the population density is high and many areas are prone to earthquakes. According to China National Geography, China occupies about 7% of the world’s landmass but accounts for 33% of the world’s earthquakes. The approval of nuclear sites near earthquake zones in Hunan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Liaoning and Sichuan provinces (most as large as European countries) is a cause for concern and needs reexamination.

Finally, China needs to accelerate enactment of an Atomic Energy Law. Absent an overarching law codifying nuclear regulation, the fragmentation of nuclear governance raises questions about the credibility of NNSA over safety regulation in the face of the powerful and alluring economic, security, climate, and corporate benefits of expanding nuclear power.

BO KONG is assistant research professor of Energy, Resources and Environment at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies–SAIS.

David M. Lampton is director of China Studies and dean of faculty at SAIS.  They are undertaking field and documentary research on the governance of China’s nuclear power industry.

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