China not only needs to guarantee the absolute, long-term safety of existing and new nuclear power plants to avoid a Fukushima-style disaster, it also needs to find ways of dealing with the large quantities of highly radioactive waste its reactors produce. This waste must not be allowed to pollute the environment or groundwater over its lifespan (which could be thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years).
It needs stating from the outset that, when talking about the paramount importance of nuclear safety, I am not focusing on the number of fatalities in the immediate aftermath of an accident. People who compare these figures to the numbers of people killed in airplane or car crashes are missing the point: a nuclear accident could affect the environment of future generations for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years.
Experts who base pro-nuclear arguments on the fact the number of deaths per terawatt-year (a unit for measuring produced energy, electricity and heat) are among the lowest for nuclear power – only eight compared to 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas and 883 for hydropower according to statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency – should be criticised. They are making the wrong comparison.
In the United States, government policy has so far failed to deal with the waste issue. For many years, the US has converted nuclear waste into solid form, placed it in stainless-steel containers, and buried it. But available storage space is dwindling, while the country still has almost 80,000 tonnes of waste material waiting to be dealt with.
In France and the United Kingdom, a more advanced method for dealing with nuclear waste is used to an extent: extracting plutonium from nuclear waste and converting it into Mox fuel. Russia, India and Japan also carry out some limited reprocessing activities, while the United States plans to build a Mox plant in South Carolina. Mox fuel can be used in both fast reactors (where the fission chain reaction is sustained by fast neutrons) and thermal reactors (which use thermal, or slow neutrons). The difference is the ratio of natural uranium to plutonium. However, while the technology for the production of Mox fuel is well established, it is not happening on a large scale.
No country in the world has solved the problem of dealing with highly radioactive waste material. China is no exception: it lacks a clear policy for dealing with the long-term issue of waste storage (even as plans are afoot to turn west China into a reprocessing hub for the whole of Asia).
Meanwhile, the debate around the relative merits of fast reactors continues: while they are seen as a solution to the “fuel shortage” problem because of their efficient use of uranium resources, reactor design is more challenging and safety concerns have been raised in countries including India.
China, however, plans to use fast reactors in most of its future nuclear plants. In other words, most of the 400 to 500 gigawatts of nuclear power to be generated by 2050 is to come from fast neutron reactors. But preparations for implementing this plan are poor. In technological terms, China is far behind countries like Japan and India, while Chinese experts do not seem to have fully taken on board the major concerns surrounding the safety of fast reactors.
There are as of yet no clear answers to these problems of nuclear safety or technological readiness. But the Chinese Academy of Engineers has come up with a “Great Leap Forward”. It is a dangerous policy.
There is one more aspect of nuclear security that needs to be factored in: the risk of war or terrorist attack. China should promote work towards an international convention that, when war breaks out between two or more nations, nuclear-power stations will not be targeted. Anyone responsible for an attack on a nuclear plant, regardless of whether that side wins or loses the war, will be charged by the international community with the crime of destruction of humanity’s environment.
Of course, terrorists will not be limited by this convention, and we can only rely on international cooperation to combat their activities, while working to make China’s existing and future plants as secure as possible against the threat they pose. Precautions must also be taken at reprocessing plants and Mox fuel facilities.
I believe China should abandon plans to use slow, fast and thermal reactors for short-term development goals, as the conditions are not ripe for significant expansion. How, then, do I think nuclear power should be employed?
I advocate using nuclear power not for basic electricity supply, but for sea transport. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers require complex engineering, as well as protection against damage by missiles and torpedoes. Producing a large, fully protected, nuclear engine would improve China’s technical capabilities and increase knowledge in protection against damage from war and terrorist attacks. Crucially, should there be any damage, it would be the ocean that was polluted – a less appalling prospect than polluting surface and groundwater.
Nuclear engines should also be used for large-tonnage shipping. China’s shipping industry is one of the biggest in the world and makes a huge contribution to economic growth and marine transport. But it relies heavily on oil for fuel. To ensure sustained power for this huge industry, it would be better to use nuclear reactors.
I also support the development of floating nuclear power plants – seaborne, mobile reactors – to provide electricity during emergencies.
Finally, I advocate the development of small reactors to provide both electricity and heat. Although these small reactors are less efficient, it is easier to make them safe than large reactors and the excess heat can be used for residential heating, cooling and cooking to make our cities cleaner.
All of these activities, I support. But I am not in favour of the current policy of using nuclear power as a core source of electricity.
He Zuoxiu is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and researcher at the CAS Institute of Theoretical Physics.
Homepage image by U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys shows USS Washington, a nuclear-powered supercarrier.