Following an unprecedented magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a devastating tsunami, Japan has struggled to deal with a slowly evolving but increasingly horrifying nightmare: avoiding a full-scale nuclear power reactor core meltdown and spent-fuel rod leakage. With the harm caused by the Fukushima Daiichi accident to its neighboring regions having far exceeded that of Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan is expected to have a profound psychological impact on both decision makers and ordinary citizens alike in China, where the world’s most ambitious nuclear construction is scheduled to unfold in the coming decade.

Japan is confronting its most difficult crisis since the end of World War II. After a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off its Pacific coast on March 11, a powerful tsunami not only quickly hit the devastated country, but also cut off external power to two nuclear power stations and flooded diesel generators that power the critical coolant-circulating system. With workers unable to remove decay heat from the reactors’ radioactive fuel rods, the failure of the critical cooling system at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant soon escalated to a slowly evolving but devastating nuclear accident. The severity this failure caused to the crippled reactors’ neighboring regions far exceeded that occurred at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979.

Prior to the nuclear crisis in Japan, Chinese decision makers have long faced the challenge of how to fuel its booming economy. Since the inception of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, coal has dominated China’s energy sector; Beijing currently consumes almost half of the global coal supply. However, the unprecedented exploitation and utilization of coal in China has also created enormous environmental and social challenges. These include widespread coal mining waste and questions about land subsidence; severe water contamination; mounting safety challenges; a bottleneck in transport infrastructure, especially rail; deteriorating air quality; and carbon emissions abatement pressure, especially after China overtook the United States in 2006 as the leader in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.1
To tackle these challenges and enhance China’s national energy security, Chinese decision makers have identified massive nuclear development as a promising technical solution. While China’s installed nuclear power plant capacity reached only 10.8 Gigawatt (GW) by the end of last year, Beijing plans to increase its capacity to 40 GW by 2020, according to the Medium- to Long-term Development Plan for Nuclear Power issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in 2007. Some widespread reports say the Chinese government may revise the 2020 target upward to 70 to 86 GW, while several experts in the Chinese nuclear industry claim that a 100 GW level is achievable by that time.

In the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis, on March 16 Beijing halted approvals of new nuclear power plants pending changes to safety standards. This move signaled a shift toward caution from a country that is embarking on the world’s biggest nuclear expansion program but where public fears of nuclear contamination are growing. Such concern was best illustrated by a recent panicked nationwide buying spree of iodized salt—even though a few kilograms of iodized salt per day is necessary to prevent the possible thyroid cancer caused by ingesting a hypothetically high level of iodine emissions that do not yet exist in China. In addition, the State Council has ordered safety checks at existing plants.

While the international community should applaud Beijing’s temporary nuclear suspension as the right decision made in a timely fashion, how the Chinese government will improve the safety of its medium- to long-term nuclear development plan is still an open question. This is particularly true as Chinese decision makers balance the necessity of nuclear development with safety concerns in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Considering energy demand increases due to economic growth, burgeoning air pollution, increasingly vulnerable energy security, and mounting political pressure to mitigate climate change, the Chinese government has no easy solution to meet these simultaneous challenges. Not surprisingly, decision makers are used to making difficult tradeoffs among various energy sources: coal, which is carbon-intensive and dirty; oil, which poses national security concerns and pollutes the environment; gas, which is scarce and costly to develop; large-scale hydro power, which is ecologically devastating; nuclear, which is technologically risky; and renewables, which are often not only expensive but also intermittently available.

During China’s twelfth Five Year Plan period, which covers 2011 to 2015, the government plans to slow air-quality deterioration and coal-consumption increases while reducing carbon emissions intensity by 17 percent. Without further increasing its domestic nuclear power capacity, China will have a much more difficult time meeting its vitally important environmental targets under this plan.

Given that China is therefore likely to expand its nuclear power industry, it is extremely important that decision makers identify any potential or existing weakness in their massive nuclear expansion plans. The accident at Fukushima underscores that even in a country with a very high level of nuclear technology development and safety standards, the residual risk of a serious accident exists and thus cannot be underestimated.

Such accidents indicate that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate the risk of human-induced errors associated with the design, construction, operation, maintenance, decommissioning, and disaster response of nuclear power plants. That is particularly true for nuclear safety, where, until recently, China had not allocated enough personnel and financial resources to assure satisfactory oversight for a growing fleet of power reactors. China’s leadership is now expanding the number of personnel and the budget at its regulatory agency, which nevertheless must rely increasingly on a comparatively young and inexperienced staff.

In addition to strengthening the hand of nuclear regulators, Chinese decision makers should systematically evaluate whether a sufficiently qualified workforce is available in the country to build all planned nuclear power plants in accordance with high international safety and quality standards, and review how China will meet the manpower requirements for operation and maintenance of all projects. The know-how, infrastructure, and manpower requirements for managing a serious accident should also be reassessed in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident.

Another challenge facing China is the very severe earthquakes it experiences. Leaders should therefore conduct a thorough evaluation of seismic safety in the entire Chinese nuclear program. This study should include an evaluation of the risk of a tsunami along the country’s eastern coast, where nearly all of China’s nuclear power reactors are located. 

In responding to the Fukushima accident, China will also likely shift resources from replicating earlier-design reactors on many sites to more advanced reactors, which include more modern and also “passive” safety features that do not require operator actions or electronic feedback in order to shut down safely in the event of a particular type of emergency. This is a logical development, but Chinese decision makers should avoid being overly confident about new and untried safety technologies. No matter how theoretically sound a newer-generation nuclear technology seems to be, such technology may have never been sufficiently tested in any part of the world. Not surprisingly, all newer-generation nuclear technologies still impose significant risks in terms of design experience, construction safety, and operation reliability.

China has a twenty-year history of experimenting with technology, including both domestically designed and constructed pressurized water reactors (CNP300 at Qinshan I and CNP650 at Qinshan II), imported nuclear techniques from France (M310 at Dayawan), Canada (CANDU 6 at Qinshan III), Russia (AES-91 at Tianwan I) and the United States (AP1000 at Sanmen and Haiyang that are still under construction), and hybrid type that originates from imported technology (CPR-1000 at Ling’ao I & II).  However, from the perspectives of design standardization, operation safety, and ease of maintenance, the existence of too many types of nuclear reactors is considered a very risky approach to deploying nuclear power generation technology in any given country. Chinese decision makers therefore should restrict any further diversification of the country’s nuclear reactors, and concentrate nuclear research, development, and deployment on one or two types of standardized reactors.

Furthermore, China must be careful not to over-emphasize its rapid nuclear technology indigenization—or risk compromising the overall safety of its nuclear-generation fleet. To build up its domestic nuclear capacity, climb the nuclear value chain, and prepare China to export nuclear equipment, the Chinese government has pressed its foreign partners to quickly transfer technology to China as part of its national nuclear development strategy. However, indigenization of nuclear technology in an overly hasty fashion may create safety deficiencies, which could lead to a serious accident with detrimental impacts on not only the long-term future of nuclear development in China but also the country’s credibility as a reliable international partner in the nuclear power sector.

Currently, the domestically designed and constructed two 310-MW pressurized water reactors at Qinshan-I are considered to be China’s weakest nuclear power facilities in terms of operational safety. More stringent monitoring and special safety measurements should be adopted to ensure continuously safe operations of Qinshan-I during the rest of its design life span.

Additionally, China must use extreme caution in reassessing its large-scale deployment of nuclear power reactors in inland China. After having set up all of its operational nuclear power plants along the country’s eastern coastline, China is now beginning to build reactors at inland sites. However, large-scale deployment of nuclear power stations in inland China will impose unprecedentedly high risks on China’s scarce fresh water resources and could lead to unmanageable chaos if a major nuclear accident occurs.

Due to the country’s uneven resource distribution, inland China has long exported a significant portion of its energy supply to the more developed coastal provinces. In the past, some inland provinces abundant in energy resources—such as Hubei (hydro-abundant and home to the Three Gorge Dam, China’s largest hydro project)—have experienced severe power shortages due to large-scale exports of their indigenous power capacity to the coastal region, thus forcing them to resort to the technologically risky nuclear-generation option. To alleviate the necessity of large-scale deployment of nuclear power reactors in inland China, lower the national average of power transmission losses, and preserve scarce fresh-water resources, Chinese decision makers should consider optimizing the inter-regional power capacity allocation across the country.    

Finally, as the Fukushima accident demonstrated, China would not be able to effectively manage a serious nuclear accident without the trust of its citizens, especially those who may be subject to drastic actions, such as evacuation, if a major nuclear accident occurred. Unfortunately, a trust deficit between the Chinese government and its people currently exists.

From a cultural perspective, China has long been a family society, and trust is sometimes difficult even at the community level.

To make matters worse, no established and thriving independent expert community currently exists in China. Generally speaking, Chinese experts can be classified as either “within-the-system” types who team with the government or “out-of-system” types who lack such a connection. With an overwhelmingly high proportion of governmental and social resources going to the former group while bypassing the latter, independent expert opinions that have been key to increasing the transparency of nuclear programs in many countries are largely suppressed in China.

During interviews on national television and in other mass media, many experts in China often mix their role with that of a government spokesperson, even without direct instruction from the authorities. This exacerbates widespread distrust of media reports on nuclear affairs among many Chinese, especially Internet users. To prepare Chinese society as part of a national nuclear emergency response strategy, the nurturing and establishment of a trustworthy expert community with independent thinking and speaking abilities is urgently needed in China.

In wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, China has temporarily suspended its massive nuclear expansion plan. Nevertheless, given all the energy and environmental challenges Beijing now faces, the further expansion of China’s nuclear power capacity seems inevitable. To ensure the safety of nuclear development and maintain social stability, it is extremely important that Chinese decision makers identify any potential or existing weakness in their massive nuclear expansion plans. This should at least include human resource challenges, natural disasters such as severe earthquakes and tsunamis, technological risks embedded with new and untried safety features, danger imposed by rapid nuclear technology indigenization, threat brought by large-scale deployment of nuclear power reactors at inland sites, and the lack of a trustworthy expert community with independent thinking and speaking abilities.

1   According to the revised Chinese energy statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010, China passed the United States as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2006 instead of 2007.