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China plans to resume construction of nuclear plants

 February 12, 2015

Despite safety concerns, China resuming construction of nuclear plants




BEIJING--Facing growing energy demands and struggling against air pollution, China this year plans to resume full-scale construction of nuclear power plants for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

The country’s target is to triple the electricity generation capacity of its nuclear power plants to 58 gigawatts by 2020. That figure would approach the level of France, whose current nuclear generation capacity is second only to that of the United States.

But the variety of reactors that China wants to fire up has raised concerns that workers and engineers will be ill-prepared if a disaster strikes.

One type is a high-temperature, gas-cooled “fourth-generation” reactor. Work is under way to assemble the world’s first demonstration reactor of that kind at a nuclear power plant in a coastal area of Shidao Bay at the tip of the Shandong Peninsula.

Practical use of fourth-generation reactors, said to be highly efficient and safe, is expected in the 2030s at the earliest.

In January, many huge cranes were operating at the site of the plant about 600 kilometers southeast of Beijing.

“Construction work, which had been suspended due to the Fukushima accident, has finally begun,” a guard said.

China also plans to build several “third-generation” reactors for practical use at the same plant. Third-generation reactors, which were developed in the latter half of the 1990s, are the most advanced reactors currently in operation.

In November 2014, China’s National Development and Reform Commission applied to the Standing Committee of the State Council for permission to build six nuclear reactors in the coastal area of Shidao Bay and other regions. The six include China’s first domestically produced third-generation reactors and new-type reactors with little actual operating experience.

Some government officials are cautious about approving the application.

However, a senior official of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Center of the Environmental Protection Ministry said, “The application will be approved sooner or later.”

Approval would fall in line with the policy of Chinese President Xi Jinping. His government needs to secure energy sources for the country’s growing economy while tackling environmental problems caused mainly by coal-fired plants.

At a Chinese Communist Party meeting held in 2014, Xi declared, “We will promptly start construction of new nuclear power plants in coastal areas by adopting the world’s highest safety standards.”

After tripling its nuclear electricity generation capacity by 2020, China plans to construct more than 200 reactors, including those in the conception stage.

Some experts estimate that total capacity will increase to a range between 400 gigawatts and 500 gigawatts by 2050.

On March 16, 2011, five days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the Chinese government froze work at nuclear power plants whose construction had not yet started and suspended screenings of applications to build new nuclear plants.

Amid growing calls from Chinese officials to review nuclear safety standards, the government conducted stress tests at nuclear plants in various parts of the country. It also reviewed measures to deal with tsunami and secure electricity sources during emergencies.

In October 2012, Beijing worked out its “safety plan of the nuclear power generation,” and then began granting permission for the construction of nuclear power plants.

However, the reactors that were given the green light were mainly those where construction work had started before the Fukushima nuclear accident. Very few reactors where ground had not been broken obtained approval.

But the challenges of meeting energy demands while reducing environmental problems became increasingly serious for the Chinese government.

In autumn 2014 in Beijing, President Xi promised in his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that China would raise its ratio of non-fossil fuels to about 20 percent by around 2030. But keeping that promise would be difficult without nuclear power generation.

In China, three major state-run operators of nuclear power plants have adopted separate technologies from the United States, France and Russia. The various types of reactors and technologies used in China have sparked concerns about safety at the nuclear plants.

In addition, workers at nuclear plants in China have had little experience in dealing with emergencies. Critics also say that the nurturing of nuclear engineers in the country is not keeping pace with the rapid increase in the number of nuclear reactors.

(This article was written by Nozomu Hayashi and Tokuhiko Saito.)

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