HONG KONG — China’s nuclear power sector, once felt to be weakened after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has regained its expansive mood.
Yesterday, the State Council, or China’s Cabinet, gave a go-ahead to four new nuclear reactors, the freshest evidence that the country’s nuclear power development is back in the fast lane.
China, one of the most ambitious nuclear reactor installers in the world, suspended its efforts to build more in 2011, when a fatal tsunami hit neighboring Japan and severely damaged nuclear power plants in the Fukushima prefecture. But unlike governments in Germany and other countries that decided to phase out nuclear energy, Chinese policymakers decided to resume its expansion after running a yearslong safety check.
In 2014, China’s installed nuclear power capacity climbed to 20 gigawatts, an increase of 36 percent from a year ago, according to the Beijing-based China Nuclear Energy Association.
Data from the World Nuclear Association, another nongovernmental industry group based in London, show that the double-digit growth has continued into this year, with 30 nuclear power generators of 26.8 GW currently in operation in China and 21 additional plants under construction.
The new approval yesterday will allow China to add two more nuclear reactors in Jiangsu province along its eastern coast, as well as two reactors in the southern Chinese region of Guangxi. The two nuclear reactors in Guangxi will use homegrown Hualong One technology.
The drive to ‘peak coal’
China has long been hungry for nuclear power, as policymakers here are seeking cleaner fuel to replace dirty coal. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that his country will try to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, researchers say, the importance of nuclear power has grown further.
A report published in 2014 by Tsinghua University in Beijing suggests that without the addition of nuclear power plants on a large scale, China’s carbon emissions peak could be delayed by as long as a decade.
China plans to install 40 GW of nuclear power plants before 2016. However, industry statistics show that despite a rapid expansion over the past two years, the country still lags far behind its set target, with 26.8 GW of nuclear reactors being built so far.
Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University’s Center of China Energy Economics Research, said that the slowdown in nuclear power development may have a long-lasting impact on the country’s climate action.
As the nuclear power plants buildup is lower than expected, and constructing newly approved projects takes time, China’s plan of having 15 percent of its power generation from non-fossil fuel by 2020 is at risk, Lin said.
Perhaps because of such concerns, the government here wants to speed up nuclear power development over the next five years, aiming to reach a total installation of 58 GW by 2020 while having another 30 GW of nuclear reactors under construction.
Building reactors inland?
A portion of those upcoming projects may be sited in the country’s inland, where no nuclear plant has yet been built. State-owned China National Radio recently quoted Xu Dazhe, director of the China Atomic Energy Authority, as saying that Beijing is considering including inland nuclear plant construction in its 2016-20 development plan.
But previous efforts to expand nuclear reactor construction into the interior confronted resistance. In central China’s Pengze county, which was supposed to build the country’s first inland nuclear power plant, protests were sparked in 2012 as residents there accused the project planners of using inaccurate data as well as manipulating public opinion polling.
He Zuoxiu, a physicist in the Chinese Academy of Sciences who helped develop China’s first atomic bomb during the 1960s, wrote an op-ed in 2012 calling for the government to “immediately stop building any inland nuclear power plants.” He noted that regions in the interior face potential risks such as lacking sufficient reliable water supplies to cool down nuclear reactors during droughts.
Some environmentalists have expressed disagreement with China’s nuclear power ambitions, regardless of whether the plants will be built inland or along the coast.
“In our view, nuclear is an unsafe and unreliable technology,” said Li Shuo, a climate policy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia. “While the country was waiting for restart of nuclear project approval, the cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar has dropped further. Why still stick to an energy source that belongs to the last century?” he asked.
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