The Chinese government on Wednesday suspended the approval process for all new nuclear power plants until safety standards were “revised”, amid concerns triggered by safety fears in Japan’s nuclear facilities.
The announcement from the State Council, or cabinet, on Wednesday evening came two days after top government officials expressed strong support for China’s nuclear programme, and had ruled out any rethink in carrying forward the sector’s recent rapid expansion.
The government appeared to strike a markedly different note on Wednesday, following an executive meeting of the State Council chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao. A statement issued after the meeting said the approval process for nuclear power stations had been suspended “so that safety standards can be revised”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The State Council also ordered safety checks at all 13 operating plants. “Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants,” the statement said, calling for “enhanced management over existing plants”.
The government has also suspended pre-construction work on the 27 nuclear plants that are being built — more than any other country.
The State Council called on the National Nuclear Safety Administration, an environmental regulatory body, to “step up monitoring of radioactive substances” and issue timely alerts. On Saturday, the nuclear safety body began posting daily monitoring readings on its website.
Wednesday’s statement, analysts said, appeared to mark a turnaround from the government’s position over the weekend, when top officials stressed that the problems in Japan’s facilities would not derail China’s ambitious plans for its nuclear sector. It could signal a move by regulators to expand and strengthen safety and risk assessment.
On Saturday, Zhang Lijun, Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection, said China would learn lessons from the events in Japan but stressed it would not change its plans.
Zhai Dequan, Deputy Secretary-General of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and an expert on China’s nuclear sector, told The Hindu in an interview on Sunday the country’s safety record had, so far, been “excellent”, with no major accidents reported.
However, analysts say contingency plans and measures to respond to disasters had not been given serious attention by a growth-focused industry, a gap that was likely the focus of Wednesday's meeting.
Think NP plan through
“In the shadow of Japan's nuclear power plants in danger, China needs to give its nuclear power plan more time and a second thought,” Li Yan of Greenpeace China told The Hindu. “China has a much bigger potential to meet its energy needs by developing a comprehensive package of cleaner and safer wind and solar energy.”
Mr. Zhai said in China, too, “a very serious earthquake” could case “any kind of problem”.
China is currently in the midst of a record expansion of its nuclear energy sector, launching nuclear power projects with a combined capacity of 40 million kw. The sector has, so far, had few safety problems. It has, however, been dogged by claims of corruption and lack of transparency in how its biggest firms operate.
Last year, Kang Rixin, the former head of the China National Nuclear Corporation, the biggest nuclear energy company which is also spearheading the domestic industry’s overseas push in countries like Pakistan, was jailed for life, convicted of abusing his power and taking bribes of more than 6.6 million yuan (around $ 1 million).