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A Year After Fukushima Disaster, China Resumes Nuclear Energy Projects

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (file photo)
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (file photo)

This week China announced it will resume its nuclear energy program, nearly one year after several projects were suspended following Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident.

Top party leader Wen Jiabao said China will safely and effectively develop nuclear power. On Wednesday, nuclear energy officials announced that Beijing had decided to lift the suspension on new nuclear plant approvals and construction.

China's policy announcement marks a shift following the nuclear crisis in Japan. Then, Beijing suspended yet-to-be-approved projects and recommended safety inspections at the already operating plants.  

Nuclear power is considered a critical part of the government’s plan to diversify energy sources beyond coal, which generates about 80 percent of China’s electricity. Nuclear energy, which produces almost zero carbon emissions, accounts now for less than two percent of the nation's primary energy consumption.

To meet its growing energy needs, and reduce its reliance on more polluting forms of power, China plans to more than double the amount of nuclear energy it produces by 2020.

Kevin Tu is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he leads the center's work on China's energy and climate policies. He says he is not surprised by Beijing return to the nuclear path.

"The fact that it took about one year for China to resume its nuclear development indicates that the Chinese government has already learned some lessons from the Fukushima-Daiichi accident in Japan," he said.

Tu says that the leadership has realized it has to be cautious on overly rapid nuclear expansion.  Before the accident in Japan, policy makers and industry experts were hinting at seeking a more ambitious expansion plan beyond the 40 additional gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2015.

Fukushima, says Tu, scaled back those ambitions.

"Most decision makers and energy experts in China probably have already realized nuclear energy safety should be the first issue for the Chinese nuclear development,” says Tu. “But the problem is there is disagreement about how safe is safe enough," he said.

A nuclear plant under construction in the eastern province of Jiangxi has come under criticism. Residents living near China's first inland plant say it is too close to populated areas, and is built on a seismic zone.  

Petitions to halt construction have been directed to the provincial government, which has appealed to the central authorities.

"Before Fukushima Daiichi the Chinese general public actually has very little understanding on nuclear development because of the lack of transparency of the government's operations in China, especially in terms of the nuclear energy, however the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis has become a wake up call for the Chinese experts and the general public," he said.

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