China’s Nuclear Responsibility

Chinese policymakers are right to take a cautious approach to the country’s rapidly developing nuclear industry.

Just two weeks into the New Year, and already there have been two bits of news on the Chinese nuclear industry that are noteworthy.

The first came on January 4, when China’s CCTV proudly announced a breakthrough in reprocessing technology. In typical Chinese style, it was a concise and cryptic report that left the rest of the world guessing as to the real scientific significance of the announcement—was it a completely new method of extracting plutonium from the spent fuel rods, or was it simply some kind of a first for China’s commercial reprocessing technology for use in civilian reactors (China has had knowledge on reprocessing for producing plutonium-based weapons since 1968)?

Whatever message China wanted to convey with the report, it’s clear that reprocessing spent fuel for extraction of fissile material for use in civilian reactors is likely to be the trend in the future if the promise of a nuclear renaissance is to be realized.

India, for its part, has always practiced a closed fuel cycle, and reprocessing has been a part of the programme. In fact, coincidentally, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh three days later inaugurated a plant with a capacity to reprocess l00 tonnes of spent fuel a year at Tarapur, a nuclear power station site close to Mumbai.

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The United States, which had given up reprocessing in the 1970s on account of proliferation concerns, is once again considering a change in its once-through nuclear fuel cycle in favour of reprocessing as a way of maximizing energy extraction and dealing with the problem of nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, several political and technical solutions for checking proliferation from the plutonium extraction necessary for reprocessing are under the active consideration of the international community at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The second important bit of news, which appeared on January 11, relates to a report prepared by China’s State Council Research Office (SCRO), a body tasked with making independent policy recommendations to the state council on strategic matters.

The report maturely advises the Chinese nuclear sector to maintain a realistic and safety oriented approach to the rapid nuclear expansion under way in the country. It recommends: ‘We should keep a clear head. Not only seeing the favourable factors, but paying attention also to a variety of constraints to ensure steady progress.’

With 13 reactors already operational, and with 32 more having been approved (of which 25 are at different stages of simultaneous construction), China is witnessing unprecedented growth in the nuclear power sector. Indeed, it’s growth on a scale never before seen in the history of nuclear power generation.

As a result, all eyes are trained on this growth trajectory, not only to see if the promise of nuclear power is actually realized by the most populous nation on earth as it tries to meet its burgeoning electricity demand, but to gauge the prospects for nuclear’s worldwide growth potential.

Any wrong moves—an accident of any kind on a nuclear site, or compromising on safety standards—would scar the nuclear industry not only in China or Asia, but around the globe.  This means that it’s critical that well-trained personnel are in place to run the nuclear power plants, something that is clearly just as important as the work of the regulatory agencies in ensuring the long-term safety of the plants.

The cautious note sounded by the SCRO report is extremely timely and relevant. In its enthusiasm to set new records, and in its haste to bridge its energy gap, China must not give short shrift to the precautions that are sacrosanct for the nuclear industry. As the most rapidly growing nuclear power nation, this is a special responsibility that the country has to shoulder.