Nuclear safety lies in
With ambitious expansion plans, China must work to create a robust
and reliable nuclear regulatory system, says Qiang Wang.
worldwide are in China, and the country wants to triple its nuclear-
power capacity in just 4 years — from 12.5 gigawatts in 2011 to 40 giga-
watts in 2015 — a feat unlikely to be achieved anywhere else in the world.
As we approach the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster,
it is pertinent to ask whether China has learned any lessons from its
great rival, Japan. Will the 28 reactors it is constructing be well run and
properly regulated? Will they be safe? It is far from clear that they will.
China’s nuclear expansion relies on generation III reactors, such as
the Westinghouse AP1000 and the Areva European Pressurized Reac-
tor (EPR). The industry promises that these models are safer because
they put greater reliance on ‘inherent’ safety measures — for example,
they do not require active pumps to maintain safe
operation — but we must take these assurances
on trust. Of greater concern, perhaps, is whether
the Chinese business and construction system, in
which corruption, shoddy work and cost-cutting
often flourish, will sacrifice safety for speed.
What China needs to avoid is a repeat of the
situation in 1998, when its home-made CNP-300
reactor at Qinshan had to be rebuilt because of
defects in the welding of the steel vessel that con-
tained the reactor.
Areva says that an EPR nuclear reactor can be
built in China for about US$4 billion — 40% less
than it costs in Europe — and in about 46 months,
compared with 71 months in Europe. This is the
same reactor that faced massive cost overruns and
delays when attempted in Finland and France.
To date, the AP1000 reactors in the Zhejiang and Shandong prov-
inces are the only commercial units worldwide. Of the four EPR units
under construction worldwide, two are being built in China’s Guang-
dong province. China seems to be the nuclear industry’s living labora-
tory for generation-III reactor designs and construction.
This means that China should have the world’s most rigorous regu-
latory system. However, the nation’s industry rules and guidelines are
a decade out of date, and the country has no coherent legal system to
govern the use of nuclear energy. Furthermore, China has taken no
effective action to reform and strengthen its nuclear regulations or its
regulatory bodies in the wake of Fukushima. Regulatory failures in
Japan turned the accident at Fukushima into a crisis. China’s system
is just as bad, if not worse.
Just like Japan’s, China’s ability to monitor and
ensure nuclear safety is undermined by a cosy
relationship between state-owned nuclear regu-
lators and state-owned operators, as well as by a
revolving door that allows staff to move frequently
hina has restarted its aggressive nuclear-power programme after
a 19-month suspension in the wake of the Fukushima accident
in Japan. Almost half of the atomic reactors under construction
between government and industry. The nation’s nuclear governance is
fragmented and split between multiple agencies. Worse, the regulators
are lower in the political pecking order than are the operators.
China’s two main regulatory agencies, the National Nuclear Safety
Administration and the National Energy Administration, are several
steps removed from the ruling State Council. Yet the major nuclear
utility companies — the China National Nuclear Corporation, the
China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and the State Nuclear Power
Technology Corporation — report directly to the State Council. Thus,
it is the operators, not the regulators, who will have the ear of those in
power in the event of an emergency.
Had there been greater transparency and public participation in
Japan’s nuclear industry, then the closed community of the ‘nuclear
village’ that dictated the nation’s nuclear development would not have
formed, and the Fukushima accident would per-
haps have been averted. It is unclear how China
avoids the conflict of interest that brought down
Japan’s nuclear policy-making.
At present, China’s nuclear policy-making relies
too heavily on closed expert panels. And because
most of the nuclear institutes in China are subsidi-
aries of nuclear utilities, the majority of the experts
involved in evaluating proposals to build new reac-
tors are affiliated with nuclear operations.
Like Japan, China does not yet foster trans-
parency and public participation in its nuclear
issues. The public is invited to comment on
environmental-impact assessments of planned
projects, but is given just ten days to do so, mak-
ing thorough and independent evaluation of
nuclear safety virtually impossible.
China needs nuclear energy to meet its energy demands and
carbon-reduction targets. But it needs to do more to reform and
strengthen its nuclear-safety system to match its expansion. It must
aim for greater transparency and public involvement and set up
independent nuclear institutes, giving them long-term financing to
carry out independent nuclear research, especially on nuclear-safety
software. But most urgently, China needs to set up a comprehensive
legal framework to govern nuclear energy and give responsibility for
reactor safety to an independent, credible and authoritative regula-
tory body. As dozens of nuclear construction sites across China whir
into action again, one thing is sure: the nation has its work cut out to
gain the trust of its people and of the world. ■
Qiang Wang is director of the Western Research Center for Energy
and Eco-Environmental Policy at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and
Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Urumqi. The views
expressed are his own.
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