As public opinion turns against nuclear power in Asia’s democracies, could China step in and grab some extra strategic clout in the process?
With Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s popularity sagging over his administration’s handling of the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, and with concerns growing over the safety of nuclear power, it seems little wonder that he announced last week that the country’s energy policy needed to ‘start from scratch.’
The announcement, which included a decision to abandon plans announced last year for 14 new reactors, came shortly after the government had been forced to lean on Chubu Electric Power Co. to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear plant over safety considerations. But the implications of Kan’s announcement stretch well beyond Japan’s shores. Other Asian nuclear democracies such as South Korea and India have also called for safety reviews, while renewing their support for nuclear power. With Western media continuing to run periodic scare stories about the fallout from Fukushima, it’s clear there could be one big winner from Japan’s crisis—China.
Less fettered by popular opinion, China could use its massive nuclear build-up to become the cornerstone of the nuclear industry, with global implications. Even before Fukushima, Chinese authorities believed that rapidly expanding energy demand meant the country had to look beyond its traditional reliance on coal.
And look beyond it China certainly has—while anti-nuclear advocates made much of China’s decision to suspend new approvals pending a review, the fact remains that China already has 13 nuclear power reactors in operation, with more than 27 under construction and dozens more planned. As Zhang Lijun, vice minister for environmental protection, stated in the wake of Fukushima: ‘China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power.’
Looking to indigenize its nuclear power sector as other nations have, China has plans for a first-of-its-kind ‘nuclear city’ at Haiyan. More importantly, by 2012 it will put in place the world’s greatest Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) building capacity. This indigenous capability to construct large reactor components has culminated in its offer of two 1000 MWe reactors to Pakistan.
As a result, China seems poised to benefit from any downturn in the Japanese nuclear industry. If this should be followed by a slowdown in any of the other Asian heavyweights, China could well emerge as the undisputed key mover by cornering, through its sheer size, the necessary technology and nuclear resources. Toshiba-Westinghouse, for example, has already transferred enough know-how to China for the latter to up-rate Toshiba-Westinghouse’s signature product, the AP-1000, into the CAP-1400, the first of which is scheduled to be built in 2013.
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