Three policy documents concerning China’s nuclear power program surfaced last week: an energy white paper; the long-awaited new nuclear safety rules that come out of the review following the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster in Japan in March last year; and the mid-to-long-term development plan for nuclear power. The State Council discussed the latter two, having approved the new safety rules in principle in late May, and approved the final versions of both documents.
Yet for all that we haven’t learnt much if anything that is new about China’s ambitious nuclear power program. Officials have been flagging since early this year that work was resuming on reactors under construction before the moratorium on building and new approvals imposed in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima Dai-Ichi pending the safety review. That would cover 25 sites plus eight approved by not started, four of which were due to break ground last year. It is unclear how much of the construction undertaken this year was safety or remedial work as opposed to new building. The line in the white paper that a ‘few’ plants would be built between now and 2015, likely covers some or all of the eight already approved, and two or three penciled in for 2013, even if some might be delayed for reasons we’ll mention later.
It has also been clear for some months that China plans to moderate in the short term the pace of its ambitious plans for adding nuclear power generation capacity. The pre-Fukushima Dai-Ichi plan had called for the current 12GW of installed capacity to be expanded to 70GW by 2020. The white paper said the target was now 40GW by 2015, a number that we have heard before. After 2015, the white paper said, China would return to what it called a normal pace of construction.
This Bystander’s thumb-in-the-air estimate on the basis of that would be that installed capacity will get to 60GW by 2020, with half as much capacity again under construction. A slowing of the program, to be sure, but not a drastic one. (At no point has there been any suggestion that China would step back from nuclear power as Japan is doing.)
Moving to more advanced third generation reactors from the second-generation ones that account for the bulk of China’s installed reactors, was highlighted in the white paper as a safety measure. Yet this was already a policy priority before Fukushima Dai-Ichi, along with the foreign technology transfers that goes along with it. Nor is there any escaping the fact that the installed base of second-generation plants is going to be around for decades, even if their flood and earthquake defences are shored up. However, unstarted projects planned with second-generation reactors will likely be put on ice until they can be upgraded to third-generation plants. Germany and Japanese nuclear companies will, no doubt, be falling over themselves to bid for work to replace their disappearing domestic order books.
Nor is the continuation of the moratorium on building plants inland new. Most of China’s nuclear plants are along its coasts, where the the population and power demand is, and the coal fields that feed the coal-fired power stations that generate 70% of China’s electricity are far away. There were plans to build reactors in Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi during the 2011-15 five year plan. All three were pushed back several years ago until after 2015, as has been a plant planned for Anhui. Other provinces such as Sichuan also want nuclear power plants, but haven’t got Beijing’s approval. Finance is an issue, but the main reason for the delays for all the inland reactors is concerns about the river pollution they could cause.
There is a another reason for slowing the pace of building new reactors. There aren’t enough trained nuclear workers and safety supervisors. China takes nuclear safety seriously, more so than, say, in the construction of its high-speed rail network, though the nuclear industry has had its corruption problems, too. Beijing has also taken note of what happens to political leaders to whom nuclear disasters befall.
While a nuclear workforce could be trained in relatively short order, developing a culture of safety in a country where industrial safety is only starting to take hold as a concept, will take time. It also takes at least four years to train nuclear regulators by world standards. The arithmetic says to meet even scaled-back goals China will need to quadruple the number it has by 2020. Financial capital is the easy part. Human capital is harder.