China Raises Concerns over Its Power Plant Safety

China nuclear powerSHANGHAI — A newly published government report presents a sobering view of safety issues in one of the world’s fastest-expanding nuclear power markets, saying that “the current safety situation isn’t optimistic.”

The report, published by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection earlier this week, made the conclusion based on safety examinations in China’s fleet of nuclear reactors. Currently, China has 15 nuclear reactors in service.

As those nuclear power projects differ from each other, “China’s multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies and multiple standards of safety have added difficulties to the nation’s nuclear safety management,” the report says.

It also points out other problems with China’s nuclear safety program, including ineffective emergency response mechanisms and the lack of a nationwide network for monitoring radiation levels. The report says that environmental damage during uranium mining presents another challenge, though it gives few details.

But those safety problems are unlikely to drive China away from nuclear power. Chinese leaders appear determined to reduce the use of foreign fuel for energy security concerns and to combat climate change by ramping up the share of low-emissions energy sources. Analysts here believe nuclear power will remain a priority for Beijing.

However, the ministry recommended speeding up the phaseout of older nuclear reactors, finding better ways to deal with radioactive wastes and enhancing nuclear safety research. There is also a call to reform inspection and regulatory systems.

“Government departments in charge of nuclear-safety monitoring should work more independently, authoritatively and effectively,” the report says.

The goal, according to the report, is to dramatically reduce risks associated with nuclear power by 2015. By the end of this decade, it adds, China should be able to lead the world in nuclear safety standards.

Nuclear expansion still on hold

What remains untouched in the report, however, is when China will lift its ban on nuclear power expansion. As Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 shocked the world with its life-threatening radiation releases, China suspended its new project approval and ordered safety checks for all existing plants.

Those safety checks have already been completed, and China’s nuclear operation is considered safe in general, the National Nuclear Safety Administration said in a statement published in June. But Chinese nuclear power operators are still under a government order to prepare themselves for problems that might occur if more natural disasters as destructive as the one in Fukushima occur.

More work is also needed to build trust with a public that remains suspicious of nuclear power. Earlier this year, protests were sparked in central China’s Pengze county when an approved nuclear facility construction plan there was about to turn into a reality. The event showed that the Chinese government will have to get citizens on its side before planning more nuclear facilities.

If those plans succeed and the nation’s nuclear power expansion goes ahead, China’s nuclear power capacity is expected to reach 40 gigawatts by 2015 and 80 GW by 2020, according to the government plan. Nuclear reactors operating in China today have a net capacity of around 11.9 GW.

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