A Nuclear Industry Wake-Up Call

The Fukushima nuclear accident has sent sudden vibrations of doubt through China’s bold plans to expand its nuclear power industry.

The long-term impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident will be felt strongly in China. Beijing’s decision to suspend new approvals of nuclear power plants and conduct a thorough-going review of the industry is a welcome step. In fact, if the right lessons are learned, the disaster may end up ensuring the long-term sustainability of nuclear power in China.

China’s nuclear ambitions are grand. There are 13 reactors now in operation and another 34 are planned. Until the accident, nuclear power was planned to go from about 1 percent of power production to nearly 5 percent by 2020. Nuclear power is a key part of the strategy to gradually cut China’s reliance on coal power. Coal now accounts for about 70 percent of China’s electricity production.

The suspension of new projects is unlikely to halt China’s nuclear power program, a program that accounts for some 40 percent of all nuclear power plant construction in the world today. But the slowdown could help the central government reassert control over a process that has probably grown too big, too fast. It will force more focus on quality of construction and safe operations. And a slower pace will help ensure that there are enough trained operators to run nuclear plants. (The South China Morning Post quotes an expert from Lloyd’s Register as saying that while it takes five years to build a nuclear plant, it takes eight years to train operators.) And it will force the government to think hard about how to manage a serious accident.

The rush to build nuclear power plants poses some serious questions for China.

Surprisingly, there’s still no long-term storage facility for spent power. China is not alone in this. The United States and most other nuclear power countries still don’t have a permanent – or as permanent as can be designed – solution to waste storage.

But it is troubling that a hard state like China, where the government can accomplish so much so quickly, doesn’t have a permanent facility. Some nuclear waste is being sent to a site in northwestern China where the permanent storage facility is planned. But at Guangdong’s Daya Bay plant and the neighboring Ling Ao complex, one of the country’s most important commercial nuclear power sites, most of the waste is still being stored on site. As we learned in Fukushima this on-site storage – common throughout the world – can be a disaster. Some of the most serious problems at Fukushima seemingly came from spent fuel rods when the water covering them evaporated.

Nuclear power requires a thorough-going commitment to safety and integrity – and a willingness to say no to unsafe practices. It means never cutting corners. Nuclear power needs a strong system of checks and balances, usually in the form of a powerful independent regulator. Japan’s nuclear power industry in the past decade has suffered as a result of repeated safety problems and the ensuing cover-ups. Even making allowances for the extraordinary circumstances that are unfolding, Tokyo Electric Power’s public response to the crisis has been badly handled, reflecting the legacy of a secretive company. In an extraordinary outburst, Prime Minister Naoto Kan himself expressed frustration with the company.

Although I have no doubt that there are many skilled and well-intentioned people in China’s nuclear power industry, it’s hard to imagine that China is well-prepared to handle a nuclear crisis – not just the technical aspects but the public relations aspects. Nothing in the government suggests openness. The Chinese request for more timely information from Japan on the accident is in ironic contrast to the stonewalling during the spring of 2003 when China tried to cover up SARS. Can we really expect frank real-time coverage of a nuclear accident in China?

The salt-buying panic in China the week after the accident is a reminder of how little the Chinese people trust their government to provide them accurate information. While the Japanese remained resolute as one of the world’s most serious nuclear accidents unfolded in the midst of the terrible human tragedy in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, Chinese people (who were, of course, upwind of the reactor and in no apparent danger) stampeded in search of salt that wouldn’t help them even if they needed it.

The relationship of the Chinese people to their government is a complex one, but it would be tested as never before in a nuclear emergency in our age of SMS messages, blogging and a real-time flow of information. Imagine the panic as millions of people tried to flee affected areas. Think of the capacity of public authorities to respond. By forcing all of us to think about a catastrophic accident, Japan may be doing China a service.

It’s possible that China’s nuclear power industry is immune from the shoddy construction so evident throughout the country, a shoddiness reflecting China’s relentless quest for growth. In Korea, a significant and apparently quite-safe nuclear power industry was built at a time when Korea’s pell-mell growth saw the rest of the country’s construction industry plagued by poor quality. And last year’s corruption conviction of a China National Nuclear Corporation general manager may just be an aberration. It may be that the sites for the numerous nuclear power plants along China’s coast are excellent.

Or it may be that there are flaws we don’t know about. When Guangdong’s Daya Bay plant was built two decades ago, great care was taken, in part to assuage the fears expressed by the million people in neighboring Hong Kong who signed a petition against the plant. The reinforcing bars used to strengthen the concrete containment vessels were manufactured using only the best materials. Only after the containment vessel was built did workers discover that many of the bars in fact had not been used, potentially opening the way for a catastrophic failure. It was only at the insistence of the Hong Kong partner, CLP Holdings (then known as China Light & Power) that the problem was publicized. Other measures were taken to buttress the containment vessel but it was a reminder of how complex these projects are.

Today, a “Pillar of Shame” stands at a viewing site overlooking the plant. The pillars stand as a mute reminder of the need for vigilance. CLP has a culture of transparency and safety that starts with its chairman, Michael Kadoorie, whose family controls the century-old company. There’s no reason that China cannot develop a similar culture of transparency and operational integrity. But we can also say that China has yet to be tested. Fukushima is a wake-up call for China’s nuclear power industry. Let’s hope that the right lessons are learned.

Originally published in Caixin. Can be accessed at english.caixin.com/2011-03-24/100240600.html