Panic may slow China's surge towards nuclear energy

Last Updated 31 March 2011, 15:43 IST

Across the nation, panicked Chinese stormed stores last week for iodized salt, in the apparent belief that it would offer protection from possible radiation leaks in Japan, 2,000 kilometers, or 1,200 miles, to the east. When iodized salt ran out, they bought iodine-free sea salt. Then, even more bizarrely, soy sauce.

State-run news media and doctors pleaded with the public to stop, saying that radiation had not been detected in China, and warning that a person would have to eat several kilograms of iodized salt to ingest the required amount of iodine, inducing vomiting, or even death. Yet panic persisted. Chinese customs even changed. “Instead of our traditional greeting ‘Have you eaten?’ I heard people saying ‘Have you bought salt?’ It was so ridiculous,” said a woman waiting in line at a cellphone shop, who gave her surname as Zhang.

The salt panic, plus a surge in online voices opposing plans to build dozens of power plants across the country, suggest that the government may have a harder time than it expected managing its aggressive nuclear energy plans. Currently, these foresee an approximate eightfold expansion within just nine years. Chinese and overseas experts worry that safety cannot be guaranteed at that rate of growth, saying the country lacked experienced nuclear engineers, plant operators and a nuclear safety culture.

Slower growth in nuclear energy, broadly expected now after Japan’s crisis, may help reduce fears, but it is unlikely to address a deeper problem, one energy expert said. “The salt-buying panic shows that in the future, the lack of trust in this area between people and the government is going to be really serious,” said Kevin Jianjun Tu, a senior associate for energy and climate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Yet those still up offer a glimpse of significant opposition to nuclear power in a country where virtually no public discussion of the issue is permitted. The posts appear to come from all over: the southwestern province of Yunnan, where an earthquake killed 26 this month; the central province of Henan, home to about 100 million people; the eastern seaport Weihai; and the southern province of Guangdong, where a nuclear power plant at Daya Bay leaked small amounts of radiation last year.

Steep learning curve

China is relatively new to nuclear energy, and recent events in Japan have shocked the government, energy experts said. “They never thought it could get so bad. They have been pushing nuclear very hard, so this is a very steep learning curve,” Tu said.  Declared goals for 2020 have varied widely over the last few years, said Tu, with some in the nuclear industry claiming that a nearly tenfold increase to 100 gigawatts was achievable.  Tu believes the true plan — prior to the Japanese crisis — was to raise output from the current 10.8 gigawatts to 86, superseding an earlier target, set in 2007, of 40 gigawatts.
That would mean 8 to 10 per cent of China’s electricity would be produced by nuclear power by 2020 — still low by the standards of major economies. “That may drop to 60 or 70 gigawatts now, after Japan, and any lessening is a good thing,”  Tu said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop nuclear power in China. But how much can we safely handle by 2020?”

On March 16, responding to Japan’s crisis, the government declared it was suspending approval of new plants, pending review. The announcement is widely believed to herald a slowdown and new safety measures, but not a fundamental change in direction. “I believe the next two years will see a slowing down of new nuclear plant development in China because of safety concerns,” said Wu Libo of Fudan University’s School of Economics.

But that may not be easy, given the lack of flexibility in China’s long-term economic planning. “As for the current 25-year energy plan, it’s not easy to say how it will change, because, as you know, targets have already been set, and the Japanese threat came all of a sudden,”  Wu said. Chen Jianxin, deputy director of Fudan University’s Department of Nuclear Science, said: “Safety concerns will influence things on a large scale. After the Japanese incident, plant construction will be far more strictly evaluated.” Official corruption is another concern. In November, Kang Rixin, former general manager of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp., was sentenced to life in jail for accepting bribes and other abuses, raising questions about safety and the trustworthiness of decision-making at the top of the nuclear industry.

China has been described by social scientists such as Francis Fukuyama as a “low trust” society, where rumours quickly set off mass panic. Doubts about safety standards here are widespread. “I don’t believe that China, where accidents happen all the time, can guarantee 100 per cent safety at the Luoyang nuclear plant,” set for Henan Province, worried Duguyu, in a posting on Dahe before Japan’s crisis.


(Published 31 March 2011, 15:40 IST)

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