17 Mar 2011

Will China’s nuclear nerves fuel a boom in green energy?

Surely China’s decision to suspend approvals of new power plants won’t stop the long march to a nuclear future? Don’t be so sure, leading experts tell Channel 4 News.

Chinese shoppers crowd into a Beijing supermarket to buy salt

China has signalled a rethink of its nuclear power boom in the wake of the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant.

The country’s Communist government has suspended approvals for proposed nuclear sites and launched a comprehensive safety check of atomic plants that are already operating or under construction.

Some experts say the move is unlikely to change China’s massive atomic energy drive.

But other China-watchers are not ruling out a huge policy shift that could change world energy markets forever.

Safety crackdown

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu announced a safety crackdown as the crisis unfolds in northeast Japan, with military helicopters using seawater to cool damaged reactors.

Photo gallery: Japan quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

She said: “First, we will immediately organise full safety checks on all Chinese nuclear facilities within the country.

“Secondly, we will reasonably increase the safety management of all facilities currently in use. Thirdly, we will fully check nuclear plants currently under construction.

“Fourthly, we will strictly examine proposed nuclear projects before approval.”

Some analysts say the safety push is likely to slow, but not stop, China’s plans to vastly expand its nuclear power network.

China operates 13 nuclear reactors, all on its coast, and therefore inside another potential tsunami danger zone.

More than 24 others are being built – that’s about 40 per cent of all reactors being constructed worldwide – and 50 more are in the pipeline.

Despite the announcement on safety measures, China’s Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Zhang Lijun said the government would maintain its overall nuclear energy strategy, as outlined in a recent five-year plan.

But some international experts say it’s too early to write off Beijing’s decision to suspend new approvals as a public relations exercises.

Antony Froggatt from the international affairs think-tank Chatham House said China has to reduce its traditional reliance on coal, but a recent drive to promote renewable energy sources like wind farms means this is far from a straight battle between fossil fuels and nuclear power.

He told Channel 4 News: “Moving towards non-coal based electricity production is an important part of their focus on energy security. Renewable energy like wind is an important part of it.

“Every target that China has put forward, it’s met or exceeded. It’s phenomenal.”

The Global Wind Energy Council predicts that China will easily surpass its target of installing 70 gigawatts of new wind power in the next five years.

And those targets were set before the recent events in Japan, which have raised the possibility of a spike in the cost of nuclear power due to increased safety regulations.

Mr Froggatt said: “If nuclear becomes more expensive because you have to do these other things, then that makes a difference in your choices. These alternatives – wind, solar and thermal power – become increasingly attractive.”

Read more: Amazing Japan tsunami video shows child rescue

Public opinion

It’s also too simplistic to write off the effect of public opinion over the perceived safety of nuclear plants in China, according to Mr Froggatt.

Supermarkets across China have seen panic buying of salt by people who believe its iodine content will protect them from radiation – a myth Beijing has so far failed to debunk, despite a string of public announcements.

Despite its reputation, the Chinese government has a track record of paying attention to public dissatisfaction over energy and the environment.

Mr Froggatt said: “There have been protests against nuclear power in China. Expansion on this scale would mean you would have to build new sites in areas that haven’t had nuclear before, and you tend to get more opposition in those areas.

“There are papers documenting occasions when environmental protests have taken place and that has influenced policy. You can’t totally rule it out.”

Photo gallery: Japan’s battle for nuclear safety

Export boost

Nick Mabey, a former senior adviser to the UK government who now heads the sustainable development think-tank E3G, said there would be real anxiety in Beijing over the safety of China’s nuclear programme as well as an awareness of the greater export potential of non-nuclear technology.

He said: “They are extremely aware of the issues around ensuring quality and construction.

“They’d be very wary of looking like they weren’t taking any notice. They’re acutely aware of the problems that emerged after the earthquake in Sichuan and the quality of the concrete in the schools.

“I imagine there’s a mixture here of wanting to show that they are being responsive to public concerns and real fear about the quality of their own facilities.

“It probably has been a shock to them that the Japanese have lost control so comprehensively.”

Serious nuclear accidents by country

He added: “China is much more focussed on renewables than it is on nuclear. They see renewables as a primary focus.

“In terms of solar energy, they are the world’s largest manufacturer. They want to be the low-cost provider in the emerging markets of the developing world

“Their first interpretation of this crisis will be that people are going to use more renewables and less nuclear. That increases the market for export globally. There is a push into non-nuclear operations.

“Even though they have brought in nuclear technology, they are not, as far as we are aware, targeting that as an export industry.”

Fears in Europe

Public concern in Europe is forcing governments to follow China in announcing safety overhauls.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she aims to accelerate Germany’s move away from nuclear energy and has ordered the closure of all nuclear plants which began operating before 1980 for at least three months, while checks are carried out.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has called for stress tests on Europe’s nuclear power stations and raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future for the EU.

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has commissioned the Chief Nuclear Inspector to write report on the implications of the situation in Japan for Britain’s atomic power plants.