Concerns over China’s nuclear power expansion

Observers worry China’s nuclear safety regulatory regime lags behind the country’s ambitious expansion plan

China has announced its intention to build a new wave of nuclear power plants to “ensure stable economic growth” and “safeguard energy security”, but there are concerns that the country’s current regulatory regime may be unable to cope with the magnitude of the task.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Energy Commission last Friday, Chinese premier and chair of the commission Li Keqiang said China would "embark on new major nuclear power plant projects in the eastern coastal area at an appropriate time.” He stressed that the projects would need to meet the highest safety standards.

Li’s remark is widely seen as a signal that the Chinese government will expedite the approval of nuclear power plants. China suspended the building of new nuclear schemes shortly after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 and recommenced the approval process in late 2012. Only three nuclear power plant projects were given the green light in 2013, but the number is expected to double this year. State media Securities Daily reported that China is likely to start building six to eight new nuclear power plants in 2014.

According to the World Nuclear Association, China now has 20 nuclear plants in operation and another 28 under construction.

Frustration over the country’s worsening pollution problems may be behind the new push, according to Lin Boqiang, director of the Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University. “The incentive for China to restart pursuing nuclear power plants is likely to be related to the country’s growing pressure to combat bad air quality," he told chinadialogue.

Jiang Kejun, the leading energy researcher at China’s economic planning body the National Development and Reform Commission, told National Business Daily it was the perfect time for nuclear power plant expansion, as the country pushes the development of clean energy.

However, Yang Fuqiang, from the US-based National Resources Defence Council, said the current nuclear safety regulatory regime was inadequate. “It lacks authority and capability,” he said.

Others also expressed concern. “Society as a whole has a very low level of understanding of nuclear science and our technology backup is far from sufficient. If we want to improve the nuclear safety regulatory regime, these problems deserve great attention,” said Wang Yi, chief scientist of the Sustainable Development Strategy Study Group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.