China's nuclear power plans: safety and security challenges
China is pushing ahead with ambitious plans to expand nuclear power, but the risks are daunting.
China's State Council published the 'Energy Development Strategy Action Plan, 2014-2020' in November. The plan envisages an expansion of nuclear power from 19.1 gigawatts (GW) of currently installed capacity to 58 GW by 2020, with another 30 GW under construction by then. It says that efforts should be focused on promoting the use of large pressurised water reactors (including the AP1000 and CAP1400 designs), high temperature gas-cooled reactors, and fast reactors.1
Ambitious targets for renewables have also been set: 350 GW of hydro capacity by 2020, 200 GW of wind power capacity, and 100 GW of solar capacity. 1 Thus the renewable target of 650 GW greatly exceeds the 58 GW nuclear target. In 2013, for the first time, China added more new renewable capacity than new fossil and nuclear capacity.2
Chinese authorities have a history of failing to meet nuclear power forecasts:
- In 1985, authorities forecast 20 GW in 2000 but the true figure was 2.2 GW (11% of the forecast).3
- In 1996, authorities forecast 20 GW in 2010 but the true figure was 8.4 GW (42% of the forecast). 3
- In late 2012, China revised its plan to have 50 GW of nuclear capacity installed by 2015 down to 40 GW − and the true figure will be around half that.4
The Economist noted in a December 6 article that plans for a massive nuclear expansion should be taken with "a big pinch of salt" and added: "It is true that China is the brightest spot in the global nuclear industry, but that is mostly because prospects in other places are bleak."5
Claims by industry bodies − such as the World Nuclear Association's forecast of 150 GW of nuclear capacity in China by 20306 − should also be taken with a pinch of salt.
In 2010, Chinese officials forecast 130 GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2020 − more than double the current forecast. And the State Council Research Office's 2011 forecast of 70 GW by 2020 has been reduced to 58 GW.2
It is unlikely that the 58 GW target can be reached by 2020. It assumes no closures of the 22 operating reactors, completion of all 27 reactors (29 GW) under construction, and completion of 10 GW that has yet to begin construction − all in the space of six years.
The South China Morning Post noted in a September 2014 article that "China will have to overcome some big hurdles, including conflicts of interest among large state-owned companies, technological uncertainties in new-generation power plants and public concerns about nuclear safety." The newspaper quotes a China Institute of Atomic Energy expert who argues that a shortage of scientists and engineers poses a "major challenge".7
Plans for inland nuclear plants have been delayed by public opposition (especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster), water shortages and other problems. Even the latest plan calls for nothing more than feasibility studies regarding inland plants.
A 2011 report from the State Council Research Office stated that nuclear development would require new investment of around US$150 billion (€121b) by 2020, on top of the costs of plants already under construction. The Office noted that new nuclear projects rely mainly on debt, funds are tight, and "investment risks cannot be discounted". Supply chain problems and bottlenecks could result in delays and further cost increases, the report noted.8
Numerous insiders have warned about inadequate nuclear safety and regulatory standards in China. He Zuoxiu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said last year that "to reduce costs, Chinese designs often cut back on safety".9
Li Yulun, a former vice-president of China National Nuclear Corporation, said last year that Chinese "state leaders have put a high priority on [nuclear safety] but companies executing projects do not seem to have the same level of understanding."10
Cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011 highlighted the secrecy of the bidding process for nuclear power plant contracts in China, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in management and regulatory oversight. Westinghouse representative Gavin Liu was quoted in a cable as saying: "The biggest potential bottleneck is human resources – coming up with enough trained personnel to build and operate all of these new plants, as well as regulate the industry."11
In August 2009, the Chinese government dismissed and arrested China National Nuclear Corporation president Kang Rixin in a US$260 million (€209m) corruption case involving allegations of bid-rigging in nuclear power plant construction.12
In 2011, Chinese physicist He Zuoxiu warned that "we're seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front" for a rapid expansion of nuclear power. Qiang Wang and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences noted in 2011 that China "still lacks a fully independent nuclear safety regulatory agency"13, and they noted that China's nuclear administrative systems are fragmented among multiple agencies; and China lags behind the US, France, and Japan when it comes to staff and budget to oversee operational reactors.14
The 2011 report by the State Council Research Office recommended that the National Nuclear Safety Administration "should be an entity directly under the State Council Bureau, making it an independent regulatory body with authority."8
China's nuclear safety agency is still not independent. And there are other problems: salaries for regulatory staff are lower than in industry, and workforce numbers remain relatively low. The State Council Research Office report said that most countries employ 30−40 regulatory staff per reactor, but China's nuclear regulator had only 1000 staff.8
In 2010, an International Atomic Energy Agency team carried out an Integrated Regulatory Review Service mission and said the review provided "confidence in the effectiveness of the Chinese safety regulatory system."8 Which just goes to prove that the IAEA sometimes says the silliest things − and in the process implicitly endorses and encourages sub-standard practices.
The Economist argued on December 6: "[T]he headlong rush to nuclear power is more dangerous and less necessary than China's government admits. One of the main lessons of Fukushima was that politicised, opaque regulation is dangerous. China's rule-setting apparatus is also unaccountable and murky, and ambitious targets for a risky technology should ring warning bells."15
Nuclear technology options
The Economist points to risks arising from China's approach to nuclear technology options:
"China's approach to building capacity has added to the risk of an accident. Rather than picking a single proven design for new reactors from an experienced vendor and replicating it widely, the government has decided to "indigenise" Western designs. The advantage of this approach is that China can then patent its innovations and make money out of selling them to the world; the downside is that there are now several competing designs promoted by rival state-owned enterprises, none of which is well tested.
"China should slow its nuclear ambitions to a pace its regulators can keep up with, and build its reactors using the best existing technology − which happens to be Western. That need not condemn it to more sooty, coal-fired years. The cost of renewable energy is dropping quickly and its efficiency is rising sharply. Last year, over half of all new power-generation capacity installed in China was hydro, wind or solar. If China wants to accelerate its move away from coal, ramping up those alternatives yet more would be a lot safer."15
Liu Baohua, the head of the nuclear office at the National Energy Administration, recently said that key technology and equipment being deployed in China's nuclear program is "still not completely up to standard". Liu said: "The third-generation reactors now under construction still have problems with the pumps and valves, and with the inflexibility of the design. ... We are working to resolve these problems and the overall situation is still under control." He said more needed to be done to improve the regulatory framework and to train nuclear personnel.16
The '12th 5-year Plan for Nuclear Safety and Radioactive Pollution Prevention and Vision for 2020', produced by the Ministry of Environment and endorsed by the State Council, said that China needed to spend US$13 billion (€10.4b) to improve nuclear safety at over the three years to 2015. The document states that "China has multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies and multiple standards of safety, which makes them hard to manage."8
China continues to build large numbers of 'Generation II' reactors which lack the safety features of more modern designs. The State Council Research Office report said that reactors built today should operate for 50 or 60 years, meaning a large fleet of Generation II reactors will still be in operation into the 2070s, when even Generation III reactors may have been superceded.8
The EPR reactors under construction at Taishan illustrate some of the problems and risks associated with China's nuclear program. "It's not always easy to know what is happening at the Taishan site," Stephane Pailler from France's Autorite de Surete Nucleaire (ASN) said in an interview this year. "We don't have a regular relationship with the Chinese on EPR control like we have with the Finnish," she said, referring to Finland's troubled EPR reactor project.
Philippe Jamet, one of ASN's five governing commissioners, testified before the French Parliament in February. "Unfortunately, collaboration isn't at a level we would wish it to be," he said. "One of the explanations for the difficulties in our relations is that the Chinese safety authorities lack means. They are overwhelmed."17
In March, EDF's internal safety inspector Jean Tandonnet noted problems evident during a mid-2013 visit to Taishan, including inadequacies with large components like pumps and steam generators which were "far" from the standards of the EPR plants in Finland and France.17
Tandonnet urged corrective measures and wrote that studies "are under way on tsunami and flooding risks."17 Oilprice.com has assessed nuclear plants most at risks from a tsunami. Globally, it found that 23 nuclear power plants with 74 reactors are in high-risk areas. The riskiest country is China − of the 27 reactors under construction, 17 are located in areas considered at risk of tsunamis.18
Little information has been published about the Taishan reactor project − and the same could be said about many others. Albert Lai, chairman of The Professional Commons, a Hong Kong think tank, said this year that the workings of China's nuclear safety authority are a ''total black box'' and ''China has no transparency whatsoever.''17
Insurance and liability arrangements
The Economist recently noted that Communist leaders are "keenly aware that a big nuclear accident would prompt an ugly − and, in the age of viral social media, nerve-wrackingly unpredictable − public backlash against the ruling party."5
The backlash would be all the more virulent because of grossly inadequate insurance and liability arrangements. Chinese authorities are slowly developing legislation which may improve the situation. Currently, liability caps are the lowest in the world. Nuclear plant operators must have insurance that covers financial losses and injuries up to 300 million yuan (US$48.5m; €39m). If a legitimate claim exceeds that amount, the central government may provide up to 800 million yuan (US$129m; €104m) extra.19
Closing the fuel cycle, increasing the risks
China's attempt to develop a closed fuel cycle will increase safety and security risks as discussed in an October 2014 paper by Hui Zhang, a physicist and a research associate at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.20
In 2010, China conducted a 10-day hot test at its pilot reprocessing plant, where it is also building a pilot MOX fuel fabrication facility. The China National Nuclear Corporation plans to build a medium-scale demonstration reprocessing plant by 2020, followed by a larger commercial reprocessing plant.
Hui Zhang notes that the pilot reprocessing plant lacks an integrated security system. He notes that the 2010 hot test revealed problems: "Although reprocessing operations stopped after only ten days, many problems, including safety and security issues, were encountered or identified. These included both a very high amount of waste produced and a very high measure of material unaccounted for or MUF."
If the closed fuel cycle plans proceed, the long-distance shipment of MOX fuels and metal plutonium fuels will pose major security concerns.
Hui Zhang argues that "China has no convincing rationale for rushing to build commercial-scale reprocessing facilities or plutonium breeder reactors in the next couple of decades, and a move toward breeders and reprocessing would be a move away from more secure consolidation of nuclear materials."
China ranks poorly in the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index − it is in the bottom fifth of the countries ranked. The NTI summarises: "China's nuclear materials security conditions could be improved by strengthening its laws and regulations for the physical security of materials in transport to reflect the latest IAEA nuclear security guidelines, and for mitigating the insider threat, particularly by requiring personnel to undergo more stringent and more frequent vetting and by requiring personnel to report suspicious behavior to an official authority. China's nuclear materials security conditions also remain adversely affected by its high quantities of weapons-usable nuclear materials, political instability, governance challenges, and very high levels of corruption among public officials."21
1. WNN, 20 Nov 2014, 'China plans for nuclear growth', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-China-plans-for-nuclear-growth-2011144.html
2. World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2014, www.worldnuclearreport.org/WNISR2014.html#_Toc268768720
3. ACF, 2012, 'Yellowcake Fever: Exposing the Uranium Industry's Economic Myths', www.acfonline.org.au/resources/yellowcake-fever-exposing-uranium-industr...
4. Keith Bradsher, 24 Oct 2012, 'China Slows Development of Nuclear Power Plants', www.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/business/global/china-reduces-target-for-cons...
5. 6 Dec 2014, 'Promethean perils', www.economist.com/news/business/21635498-after-hiatus-nuclear-power-set-...
6. World Nuclear Association, 9 December 2014, 'Nuclear Power in China', www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China--Nuclear...
7. Stephen Chen, 14 Sept 2014, 'China plans to be world leader in nuclear power by 2020', South China Morning Post, www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1591984/china-plans-be-world-leader-nucl...
8. World Nuclear Association, 9 December 2014, 'Nuclear Power in China', www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China--Nuclear...
9. He Zuoxiu, 19 March 2013, 'Chinese nuclear disaster "highly probable" by 2030', www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5808-Chinese-nuclear-di
10. South China Morning Post, 7 Oct 2013, 'China nuclear plant delay raises safety concern', www.scmp.com/business/china-business/article/1325973/china-nuclear-plant...
11. Jonathan Watts, 25 Aug 2011, 'WikiLeaks cables reveal fears over China's nuclear safety', www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/25/wikileaks-fears-china-nuclear...
12. Keith Bradsher, 15 Dec 2009, 'Nuclear Power Expansion in China Stirs Concerns', www.nytimes.com/2009/12/16/business/global/16chinanuke.html?_r=2&
13. David Biello, 16 Aug 2011, 'China's nuclear ambition powers on', www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2011/08/16/3293802.htm
14. 22 June 2011, 'China needs improved administrative system for nuclear power safety', www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-06/acs-cni062211.php
15. 6 Dec 2014, 'China's rush to build nuclear power plants is dangerous', www.economist.com/news/leaders/21635487-chinas-rush-build-nuclear-power-...
16. Reuters, 5 Dec 2014, 'China's new nuclear technology not yet fully up to standard, energy official says', www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1655799/new-nuclear-tech-not-yet-fully-s...
17. Tara Patel and Benjamin Haas, 20 June 2014, 'Nuclear Regulators 'Overwhelmed' as China Races to Launch World's Most Powerful Reactor', www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-18/french-nuclear-regulator-says-china-co...
18. Oil Price, 4 Nov 2014, http://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Nuclear-Power/8-Countries-With-Nu...
19. 26 April 2014, 'What if China has a Fukushima?', www.globaltimes.cn/content/856971.shtml
See also WNN, 16 Sept 2014, 'Insurers can help improve the image of nuclear', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Insurers-can-help-improve-the-image-of-nuc...
20. Hui Zhang, 8 Oct 2014, 'The Security Risks of China's Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities', http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/blog/security-risks-china...
21. NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, 2014, http://ntiindex.org/countries/china/