Expert Interviews: Are Chinas Nuclear Power Plants Safe?

2005-02-03
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An aerial view of the Daya Bay nuclear power plant near Hong Kong, under construction in 1998. Photo: AFP/Stephen Shaver

Beijing's plan for dozens of new nuclear power projects has raised concerns in the West. In a series of interviews with Radio Free Asia, some say China has shown it can operate nuclear plants safely, but others cite the dangers of building too many reactors too fast.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, told RFA's Wu dialect service that China's accelerated program might stretch the available number of qualified nuclear professionals too thin and leave little time to learn from the experience of earlier plants.

China now has nine operating nuclear power reactors, all in coastal areas far from coal sources. Five are at Qinshan in Zhejiang Province, 100 kms southwest of Shanghai. Four more are in Guangdong Province, including two at Daya Bay near Hong Kong. Two more reactors are under construction at Daya Bay, with another two planned in Jiangsu Province, north of Shanghai. Some 26 nuclear power units are either planned or proposed, including six new reactors slated for Guangdong and four in Zhejiang.

Similar problems affected the expansion of the U.S. nuclear program in the 1970s, Lochbaum said.

"The safety went down due to shoddy construction, the costs went up because of the repairs necessary to fix that shoddy construction, and overall it probably wasn't the best way to do it," he said.

Specter of Three Mile Island

"I'm not saying China's going to have those same problems, but they're faced with those same challenges. If they don't do a better job of managing those challenges than we did, then they're going to wind up too close to the same destination we reached," he said.

In 1979, shoddy construction took its toll in a nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island power plant, where a relatively new reactor suffered a cooling system failure followed by a series of human errors.

The resulting partial meltdown caused the temporary evacuation of some 150,000 residents and the beginning of a shift in the public perception of nuclear power.

After freezing nuclear power development in 1997 because of an oversupply of electricity, China's government approved a huge new building program in 2003 when shortages returned.

Under the National Development and Reform Commission's plan, China will need to nearly triple its total generating capacity from 350 million to as much as 900 million kilowatts by 2020.

'One bad day' at a nuclear plant

Lochbaum said the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union demonstrated the enormous potential costs of nuclear power and ambitious development programs.

"It came at a huge price. The consequence of the Chernobyl accident in dollars is greater than the economic benefits of all other nuclear reactors built and operated in the Soviet Union," he told RFA.

"One bad day at one plant completely wiped out all the benefits from that industry over all this time, and not too many other technologies have that kind of risk-reward system."

In the Chinese example of the nuclear plants that I've seen, I think the likelihood of that occurring is extremely low.

Other experts said that while China placed a high priority on safety in the nuclear power industry, there were concerns of systemic problems with safety regulation.

"Safety regulation is very crucial to the safety of nuclear energy," Matthew Bunn, nuclear policy expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told RFA.

Safety concerns not yet allayed

"If you look at safety regulation of other industries in China, you find problems again and again and again, even in industries where there are very high hazards like nuclear energy—for example, the toxic chemicals industry," Bunn said.

Bunn also cited safety problems in China's coal industry, where the frequency of deadly accidents suggests that safety has taken a back seat to the nation's energy needs.

"The nuclear regulatory agency in China has only fairly modest resources and so far not a whole lot of experience in regulation because civilian nuclear energy is still young in China," he said.

If they don't do a better job of managing those challenges than we did, then they're going to wind up too close to the same destination we reached.

"So I think there are reasons for concern. It's not a done deal that it won't be safe, but it's not a done deal yet that it will be safe."

Advocates of nuclear power defend China's record.

Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said China had been clearly focused on avoiding problems already found elsewhere in the world, including Japan.

"I don't think you can compare nuclear operations with the operation of a coal mine or a coal-fired plant," Kadak told RFA.

"Basically, they recognize the difference and, in the Chinese example of the nuclear plants that I've seen, I think the likelihood of that occurring is extremely low because they understand that there are differences," Kadak said.

China now has nine operating nuclear power reactors, all in coastal areas far from coal sources, according to the World Nuclear Organization.

Five are at Qinshan in Zhejiang Province, 100 kms southwest of Shanghai. Four more are in Guangdong Province, including two at Daya Bay near Hong Kong.

Two more reactors are under construction at Daya Bay, with another two planned in Jiangsu Province, north of Shanghai.

Some 26 nuclear power units are either planned or proposed, including six new reactors slated for Guangdong and four in Zhejiang.

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