China’s Nuclear Crossroads
Image Credit: Mike Lowell

China’s Nuclear Crossroads

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The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant this time last year, leading to the most devastating nuclear accident since Chernobyl, has had consequences far beyond Japan’s shores. China – where the world’s most ambitious nuclear construction plan is still unfolding – promptly suspended approval of new nuclear power plants pending changes of safety standards.

As a result, China’s 2020 nuclear target is widely expected to fall to 60 to 70 gigawatts (GW). While China’s nuclear advocacy groups are still actively lobbying the government to set the 2020 nuclear target as high as 80 GW, the country needs to resolve a number of fundamental deficiencies in China’s nuclear safety before further increasing its nuclear capacity.   

It’s first important to acknowledge that the safety oversight mechanism is one of the weakest links of the Chinese nuclear industry. Currently, the National Development and Reform Commission, which overseas nuclear development, is the most politically powerful ministry. In comparison, China’s civil nuclear watchdog is supervised by a much weaker Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Such an unbalanced bureaucratic hierarchical arrangement and internal power struggle among different stakeholders has prevented a timely overhaul of China’s nuclear oversight mechanism.

Right after the Fukushima disaster, the MEP publically expressed support for the further expansion of the Chinese nuclear industry. Since the MEP supervises China’s civil nuclear safety watchdog, such a gesture has unnecessarily blurred the administrative boundary between the nuclear safety regulator and industry development administration. This again underlines the urgent need for China to fundamentally reform its nuclear safety oversight mechanism in order to avoid the cozy bureaucratic collusion between government and industry that has befallen the Japanese nuclear industry.  

A lack of transparency in the industry also remains an issue. Immediately after the disaster in Japan, there was a panicked buying spree of iodized salt across China. Even after both the Chinese government and experts publically clarified that this was entirely unnecessary, it still took quite a while for the general public to calm down. This event not only indicates Chinese society’s lack of fundamental understanding on nuclear issues, due largely to the prolonged secretive operations of the Chinese nuclear industry, but also clearly illustrates the absence of basic trust between the Chinese government and civil society.

Since then, the lack of transparency hasn’t fundamentally changed. On January 11, when a new Global Nuclear Materials Security Index was launched, China ranked 29th among a group of 32 nuclear nations in terms of nuclear security and materials transparency.

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