The 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami double disaster that destroyed Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s six reactor complex at Fukushima Daiichi was a startling reminder to the global community of the inherent risks associated with nuclear power plants (NPPs).
Eighteen months later however, for a number of reasons, proponents of nuclear energy have not only survived what many at the time believed to be a knockout blow, but a number of countries have cautiously announced plans to build NPPs, all of which of course will incorporate the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi debacle.
Advocates of NPPs rightly point out that, in a world increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions, nuclear power plants are essentially emissions-free.
Opponents counter that the nuclear power industry’s dolorous safety record, beginning with Three Mile Island through Chernobyl to Fukushima Daiichi indicates the folly of believing that a NPP to withstand all risks, from human error to Mother Nature, 100 percent of the time.
And then there remains the as yet unresolved problem of what to do with NPP waste.
But China, which in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe imposed a nationwide ban on the construction of new NPPs, has concluded that the nation needs new nuclear power installations.
Why would Beijing take such a seemingly retrograde step, especially as nuclear power currently contributes only 1.8 percent of China’s electrical output? Coal still accounts for about 70 percent of China's energy consumption and about 80 percent of its electricity production.
Simple – the mandarins in Beijing note that, unlike erratic renewable power sources such as wind and solar, NPPs generate reliable, 24/7 electrical power. China is now the world's biggest energy consumer, and building new reactors is a key part of Beijing's plans to curb demand for fossil fuels. Furthermore, the decision has a strategic element – China’s hydrocarbon imports come from volatile regions of the world such as Iran and Sudan, and Beijing has a further concern that in the event of rising international tensions, the U.S. could assert it naval power to interfere with maritime energy shipments.
On 24 October China’s State Council approved plans on nuclear power safety and development that said construction of nuclear power plants would resume "steadily" and subsequently released a white paper on national energy policy.
China currently has 15 operating nuclear reactors that provide roughly 12.5 gigawatts of generating capacity, and another 26 reactors currently under construction that will add another 30 gigawatts to the national grid.
The document blandly noted, “China will invest more in nuclear power technological innovations, promote application of advanced technology, improve the equipment level, and attach great importance to personnel training.”
But there is a downside to this roseate picture. In December 2009, nearly two years before Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed concerns that China’s breakneck development of nuclear power might lead to shortages of trained personnel, putting newer NPPs at increased risk from human error.
Even China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration director Li Ganjie, hardly an alarmist, noted at the time, “At the current stage, if we are not fully aware of the sector’s over-rapid expansions, it will threaten construction quality and operation safety of nuclear power plants.”
The good news?
According China government sources, only a “small” number of NPPs will be launched by 2015.
The bad news is that all of them will be located at coastal sites.
But not to worry – according to the white paper, all the new NPPs must “comply with the highest international safety standards.” The State Council said that all new NPPs will be constructed according to “third-generation safety standards.”
What is signally missing from Beijing’s pronouncements is any input from either the Chinese populace or the country’s nascent environment movement. It remains to be seen how the government’s embrace of nuclear power in the world’s most populous nation will be seen by country’s highly regimented populace.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com