By Yun Zhou
It has been one year since the disastrous nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. Experts now view Fukushima as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
In the aftermath, the Chinese government promptly reaffirmed that nation’s nuclear energy policy. Yet China also became the only nation among all major nuclear energy states that suspended its new nuclear plant project approvals. Before it would restart approvals, China said it would:
1) Conduct safety inspections at all nuclear facilities
2) Strengthen the approval process of new nuclear plant projects
3) Enact a new national nuclear safety plan
4) Adjust the medium and long-term development plan for nuclear power
Where is China on this path, and what is the future of its nuclear power industry?
By August 2011, China completed safety inspections of its nuclear facilities, including all commercial reactors under construction. The National Nuclear Safety Administration was at work on the new national nuclear safety plan. The National Development Reform Commission was at work on goals for China’s medium and long-term nuclear power. Each effort was key to resuming development of China’s nuclear projects.
By the end of 2011, the Nuclear Safety Administration had finished and submitted both the nuclear safety inspection report and the nuclear safety plan to the State Council for review. Neither has been officially released yet. But inspectors reported they found no major safety compliances issues. All reactor units in operation and under construction followed the current domestic nuclear safety rules and regulations.
The State Council took up the report and the plan at its executive meetings on February 8, 2012. Surprisingly, the Council approved neither, and requested further modifications. Those are now pending.
Implications of Fukushima for China’s Nuclear Industry
It is important to know when China will resume its nuclear project approval. It is crucial to understand how the Fukushima accident may affect and shape the industry in the long-term future.
Without any doubt, in its new national plan China will seek to bring China’s regulatory system into line with post-Fukushima international standards and requirements for future plants, and increase its nuclear safety standards accordingly.
What kinds of changes might be in store?
First, recall that all units under construction passed their safety inspections and were considered to comply with current regulations and requirements. That signals that units under construction will very likely move forward without major delay.
However, it is expected that minor design changes and upgrades to emergency systems and procedures will be adopted once the new nuclear safety plan is enacted. Those changes will likely be similar to measures aimed at existing, operating plants in the U.S. by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Second, the Fukushima accident revealed safety concerns and issues with second-generation (“Gen II”) reactor designs. The threat of low-likelihood, high-consequence and beyond-design-basis events like Fukushima may therefore make Chinese policy-makers rethink and redefine the level of protection required for any new Gen II reactors.
As they have in the past, China will likely adopt the recommendations of major international nuclear agencies and authorities’ such as NRC. That will mean stricter safety standards and requirements on new Gen II units – and likely require major design changes to comply.
Third, in Fukushima’s aftermath, the Chinese nuclear industry appears to feel real urgency in developing the next generation of domestic designs, known as “Gen III.” A race to develop indigenous Gen III technology is in fact emerging. In November 2011, for example, China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation announced its own Gen III reactor using ACPR1000 technology. The company is scheduled to complete the engineering design development by 2013. China National Nuclear Corporation’s advanced 1,000-megawatt pressurized water nuclear power reactor technology, dubbed ACP-1000, debuted at the 3rd Asia Nuclear Power Summit in January 2012.
While the post-Fukushima standstill in new reactor deployment may slow the expansion pace of nuclear energy in China and, coupled with required design changes and new regulations, slow its march to a high capacity of 70 GWe by 2020, the standstill has focused main industry stakeholders on the critical safety issues associated with reactor designs. Many Chinese nuclear experts and scholars reckon that the unexpected results from the recent State Council meeting are a loud echo of China’s commitment to nuclear safety. With safety as the paramount premise for the entire nuclear industry, the future of China’s nuclear energy program at post-Fukushima era could be less uncertain and more sustainable.
Yun Zhou is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program. Her current research interests include international security implications under a global nuclear expansion scenario and alternative nuclear technologies such as small reactor designs without on-site refueling for developing countries. Prior to this appointment, she was a MacArthur science and technology fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, where she examined China’s nuclear energy policy and industry and analyzed security implications of China’s nuclear energy growth. She received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2006.