“Nuclear is the safest option”

Fukushima triggered public alarm in China, but state energy researcher Jiang Kejun believes nuclear power remains the country’s best bet. He tells Meng Si why.

In the early days of the Japanese nuclear crisis, the Standing Committee of China’s State Council suspended approval of new nuclear-power projects. Later, an official at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – China’s top economic planning body – indicated that China would not abandon nuclear power as a result of events in Japan and that, as long as safety is assured, development would still be rapid. So what is the real impact of Japan’s disaster on future energy policy in China? chinadialogue’s Meng Si spoke to Jiang Kejun, senior researcher at NDRC’s Energy Research Institute.

Meng Si: The Fukushima radiation leak prompted a variety of reactions around the world. In China, a number of government departments stressed that the incident would not change the country’s determination or plans to press ahead with nuclear power. What’s your view?

Jiang Kejun: There will be a short term impact, but not a long term one. In the short term, nuclear approvals will slow down, and it could be several months before the current moratorium is lifted. I think the public focus on nuclear power is a good thing – the Fukushima incident has brought everything out into the open, helping everyone to develop a better understanding of the energy they use. In the end, people will realise that nuclear power is the safest energy source.

MS: How do you reach that conclusion?

JK: It’s not my conclusion – you only need to look at the data. The Japanese government is extremely conscientious, and if we haven’t yet been told of workers suffering radiation exposure on a large scale, then it hasn’t happened.

The Three Mile Island accident in the United States caused very few deaths, some illnesses. There are huge variations in the figures for Chernobyl: the International Atomic Energy Agency says fewer than 50 people had died [by 2005] as a result of the incident, while some environmental groups put the figure at 90,000 or even well over 100,000. But even if you use the higher figures, when you average it out, nuclear power is still extremely safe.

I remember a report by a journalist who, after researching nuclear power in depth, came to the conclusion that it was the only source of energy he could trust, because it has the strictest approval and monitoring standards. It’s like trains and planes – you’re much less likely to die on a plane, but when there is an air crash it gets lots of attention.

Compare nuclear power with other energy sources. When it comes to chronic diseases, coal is the worst. Mining disasters aside, each year sees more than a thousand cases of silicosis, and the numbers get even worse if you add in related cancer cases. There are issues like this with all fossil fuels.

Even around Fukushima, the radiation impact is limited. Some of the numbers might sound bad, but the situation is still some way from the worst case scenario.

MS: There is a view that if this can happen even in cautious Japan, then there is a huge question mark over China’s nuclear management. What would you say to that?

JK: The technology Japan uses is somewhat outdated, while the nuclear technology now being used in China is the most advanced in the world. When the Daya Bay plant was built, with extensive safety measures, it was the best in the world.

I think the problems in Japan have more to do with where the authorities decided to locate the plant in the first place than whether Japan was or wasn’t careful. And actually it’s not just Japan – globally, those deciding the location for major projects often fail to take into account all sorts of factors. For example, dams in China are thought to be designed to withstand the sort of disaster that only occurs once every few centuries. But the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan shows just how hard it is to predict the severity of such an event.

When we talk about nuclear safety, it’s important to remember that it’s essentially a technological matter, and that standards for the nuclear industry are among the highest of any industry in China. China’s nuclear technology can be said to be very safe. 

MS: But isn’t that based on a relative concept of safety? As our knowledge increases, isn’t it true that what is considered safe today might not be in the future?

JK: It is a relative concept, yes, but personally I’m in favour of nuclear power. It isn’t that I particularly like nuclear, but I like coal and hydropower less because the problems with those energy sources are bigger. And even wind power, for example, which is widely considered a clean technology, can also have a negative impact on birds and ecosystems.

Today there are many NGOs opposing nuclear power, but they don’t have the data to support their position. Nobody wants accidents to happen, but what else are we going to use if not nuclear power? If you look at the whole process, fatalities caused by nuclear power per unit of electricity generated are one hundredth those caused by hydropower, and about one twentieth those caused by coal power – and that’s just fatalities, the differences in other areas can be even larger.

MS: Why do you think the public were so alarmed by the Fukushima accident?

JK: I think the media performed badly in this case. First, they failed to go out and get the basic facts about nuclear power. To discuss this subject, you need a very strong technical background – you can’t just talk about it in the same terms as anything else. But at the start, journalists just repeated what they heard, throwing in all sorts of different opinions, and the reports made the situation sound terrifying. The average member of the public is unable to differentiate between them.

One error, at the very start, was that it was often reported that radiation levels were “10,000 times” over the legal limit. Actually they weren’t, they were 10,000 times higher than background radiation levels. What does that mean? The media didn’t explain that, in Tokyo and where the plant is located, background radiation is 0.04 microsieverts, and so 10,000 times is 400 microsieverts. Just compare that with the radiation caused by an X-ray. [One X-ray causes exposure of 1,000 microsieverts, according to the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention].

In fact, radiation levels around nuclear-power stations tend to be comparatively low – levels of radioactive substances around coal-fired power plants are 10 times or more those near nuclear plants. Europe has plenty of money and doesn’t want to use coal. Have any of these anti-nuclear environmental groups asked people whether they would be more willing to live near a nuclear-power plant or a coal-fired one? Personally, I would opt for nuclear.

So when the media reports these sorts of stories, they need to think about their own role and responsibilities, acquire the necessary background knowledge and provide the public with accurate information.

MS: Disregarding government subsidies, what are the market prices for nuclear, coal and hydropower, and what will the future trends be?

JK: Currently nuclear power doesn’t really need to be subsidised. The order of expense is: photovoltaic solar power as the most expensive, then offshore wind, onshore wind, natural gas, nuclear, coal and hydropower. The costs of nuclear already include waste handling and safety management.

Coal will become more expensive in the future, due to pollution issues – nitrogen and sulphur scrubbers will be needed in power plants. There won’t be much change in nuclear-power prices, though the cost of the safer third-generation reactors are likely to fall by about 20%. There is huge potential for solar power to get cheaper, maybe by 50% over the next 10 to 20 years. However, there is not much scope for wind power to get cheaper – by the end of 2010 it had already fallen to a little over 3,000 yuan (US$462) per kilowatt.

MS: Does handling nuclear waste account for much of the cost of nuclear power? There is public concern that this will turn into a permanent burden.

JK: Nuclear-waste storage today is very safe. There are still some problems that need to be worked out, but they are all within a controllable and acceptable range. Fourth-generation nuclear reactors will increase fuel usage rates by several dozen times and at that point very little waste will be produced. Actually, we are already capable of processing nuclear waste, it’s just the cost is high, and so we store it.

MS: Germany has announced closure of seven nuclear power plants and many expected a power shortage – but no large scale power cuts seem to have happened.

JK: Since the shutdown, many industrial sectors have complained that this is a blow for them. Germany is already preparing to import coal from the United States, which is tantamount to exporting pollution and fatalities to a different country. I think Germany has not made a wise choice, and in the long term, this will damage the competitiveness of the nation as a whole.

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. Guo Xiaohe, a chinadialogue intern, also contributed to this article.

Homepage image from Baike shows the Sanmen nuclear-power station in China’s Zhejiang province.