China, reports cast shadows over safety of nuclear program

Worries are spreading about China’s nuclear energy development strategies and plans. According to diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing, the technology chosen by the world’s most populated country is ‘cheap technology ‘ and will be 100 years old by the time dozens of its reactors reach the end of their lifespans. As a consequence, analysts in the cables express concerns about the risk of a nuclear accident, which they claim has been “vastly increased” by the nuclear politics chosen by Beijing.

China has recently resumed their nuclear energy development program after a short stop consequence of the Fukushima Daiichi accident earlier in March. Intelligence by Western countries in China are now sending warning signals about the program, which is reportedly haracterized by excessive secrecy of the bidding process for power plant contracts, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in the management and regulatory oversight of China’s fast-expanding nuclear sector.

Already three years ago, in August, 2008, the U.S. embassy in Beijing noted that China was in the process of building 50 to 60 new nuclear plants by 2020. The document actually called for urgent actions to be taken to counter French and Russian initiatives aimed at favoring their own businesses in China. The cable urged continuous high-level advocacy on behalf of the US company Westinghouse to push its AP-1000 reactor. A crucial move, according to the cable dated 29 August 2008 from the American Embassy in Beijing, because "all reactor purchases to date have been largely the result of internal high level political decisions absent any open process."

For the US embassy, a bigger concern was that China seemed more interested in building its own reactors – the CPR-1000, the most popular design in China for the pst ten years – based on old Westinghouse technology, at Daya Bay and Ling Ao. In 2009, the state news agency Xinhua reported that all but two of the 22 nuclear reactors under construction applied CPR-1000 technology.

The cable suggests this was a dangerous choice: "By bypassing the passive safety technology of the AP1000, which, according to Westinghouse, is 100 times safer than the CPR-1000, China is vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet. "

"Passive safety technology" ensures that a reactor will automatically shut down in the event of a disaster without human intervention. Plants without this feature are considered less safe as they rely on human intervention which can be difficult to provide in a crisis situation.

China claims updates and improvements hve been applied to the technology CPR-1000 is based on. Yet, even official sources do recognize it is not as safe as the newer models. China’s national nuclear safety administration and national energy administration are currently drafting new safety plans, which have to meet the higher standards of third-generation reactors like the AP-1000 or thorium technology.

The rush to build new plants may also create problems for effective management, operation and regulatory oversight. Lack of skilled human resources is seen, by anaysts, as the biggest potential bottleneck.

Such worries increased in July when another of China’s new industrial projects – a high-speed railway – led to a collision that killed 39 people. It too was built domestically, based on foreign designs and rolled out faster than its operators appear to have been capable of dealing with.


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