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Nuclear coastline

2012-10-30 16:11 Global Times     Web Editor: Gu Liping comment

Those unfamiliar with He Zuoxiu, the renowned 85-year-old theoretical physicist who worked on China's first nuclear bomb back in the 1960s, might be surprised to learn that he is one of the most strident critics of China's inland nuclear programs.

"There is no such thing as an 'absolutely safe' nuclear plant. The Japanese are lucky that the Fukushima crisis broke out on a coast, where they could just dump the highly radioactive water into the ocean. Imagine if the crisis had happened inland and the radioactive waste contaminated the underground water. The consequences would have been catastrophic," He said.

He is among a group of environmental activists and academics who have opposed the idea of expanding nuclear power plants to inland China. Their voices have become increasingly influential as more and more Chinese citizens have taken to the Internet to voice their opinions. Their influence soared in December 2011, when four retired government officials from Anhui Province posted a petition online demanding that the government cancel a nuclear project in nearby Pengze county, Jiangxi - an inland province.

Though energy officials and administrators in Jiangxi never announced that they would abandon the project, the debate over the Pengze nuclear plant has come to a temporary cease-fire, as the central government announced Wednesday that China would resume construction of nuclear power plants in coastal areas but halt all inland projects for the next three years.

The suspended programs

The day after the news of the State Council's nuclear energy plan was revealed, the stock price of a number of nuclear-related companies saw a sharp rise because the policy finally gave the green light for further nuclear construction, which had been on hiatus since the Fukushima tragedy.

The new policy has, however, dealt a blow to 31 inland nuclear projects that had passed preliminary reviews, including the Taohuajiang nuclear plant in Hunan Province, Pengze in Jiangxi and Dafan in Hubei.

Located along the Yangtze River, the three facilities had been competing for the honor of being "China's first inland nuclear plant" since the National Development and Reform Commission gave them the go-ahead in 2008 to put down groundwork for construction.

All nuclear projects under construction were ordered to stop in 2011 after the Fukushima crisis. A year and a half later, any hopes they may have had of being completed before 2016 have been extinguished.

According to previous news reports, by the end of 2011, the three projects had spent a total of 10.6 billion yuan ($1.69 billion) on infrastructure. The Pengze nuclear plant even excavated the top of a hill to prepare for groundwork.

"The inland nuclear plants can choose to stay where they are and hope for a change of policy in the future, or move to a coastal site and start all over," said a source from the nuclear industry who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Some of the companies are already pondering the second option," the source added.

The China National Nuclear Corporation, China Power Investment Corporation, and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Company, the three immense State-owned enterprises that control over 80 percent of the nuclear projects in China, declined to answer any questions from the Global Times.

According to the Southern Weekly, once the Pengze nuclear plant is completed, the local government could collect as much as 3 billion yuan ($481 million) in tax per year. "We are waiting for instructions from the central government so we can figure out what to do," said an official from Pengze county, Jiangxi Province before hastily hanging up the phone.

"It's only a matter of time before China will restart its inland nuclear program," said Lin Boqiang, an energy expert from Xiamen University. "The demand for energy is huge in the inland provinces. Sooner or later, our government will have to face that challenge."

The energy trade-off

As a member of the National Energy Expert Consulting Committee, a government think tank that wields influence over China's energy policy, Lin was optimistic about the future of inland nuclear stations.

"It's essentially a trade-off. Nuclear power is cheap, stable and does not produce polluting emissions like coal plants do. It does contain risks, but when you consider the other options, nuclear power may not be a bad idea," Lin said.

According to Lin, the cost of electricity produced by coal plants is around 0.33 yuan per kilowatt hour, whereas the cost of nuclear electricity is 0.429 and hydroelectric is 0.25 yuan per hour. The remaining options, including wind and solar power, are both expensive and highly unstable.

"China has limited hydropower resources, and coal plants create an enormous amount of pollution," Lin added.

The China Energy Policy (2012) published by the State Council said that China is determined to reduce up to 45 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. To achieve that goal, China has to shut down numerous coal plants and replace them with clean energy.

"Of the total 442 nuclear stations around the globe, 65 percent are located inland. In the US, that number is at a striking 85 percent," Lin said, "We cannot afford nuclear accidents anywhere. The consequences are equally catastrophic no matter where they happen, whether in coastal regions or inland."

But He Zuoxiu, the prominent activist arguing against inland nuclear plants, said that inland nuclear accidents are a lot more deadly, especially in a highly populated country like China. In the event of a major accident, the highly radioactive materials could at least be dumped into the sea if the plants are on the coast, he added. "If coastal nuclear plants pose the same danger as the inland ones, I will fight to abolish them too," He said.

The new standard

Although the finer details of the new nuclear policy weren't made public, the announcement on the State Council website pointed out that construction will be carried out at a "steady" pace and all projects will be subjected to the most stringent safety requirements in the world.

"New nuclear units must comply with the third generation safety standard," the announcement stressed.

Apart from all the technical specifications, Wang Zhaofu, a senior expert from the China Nuclear Energy Association, told the Global Times that the third generation safety standard is an effective set of rules that aim to reduce the accident rate at nuclear plants by one order of magnitude. "From 0.01 percent to 0.001 percent for example," said Wang.


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