April 4, 2011

After Fukushima, Difficult Choices for China

From the Carnegie Endowment
While China’s installed nuclear power plant capacity reached only 10.8 Gigawatt (GW) by the end of last year, Beijing plans to increase its capacity to 40 GW by 2020, according to the Medium- to Long-term Development Plan for Nuclear Power issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in 2007. Some widespread reports say the Chinese government may revise the 2020 target upward to 70 to 86 GW, while several experts in the Chinese nuclear industry claim that a 100 GW level is achievable by that time.
In the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis, on March 16 Beijing halted approvals of new nuclear power plants pending changes to safety standards. This move signaled a shift toward caution from a country that is embarking on the world’s biggest nuclear expansion program but where public fears of nuclear contamination are growing. Such concern was best illustrated by a recent panicked nationwide buying spree of iodized salt—even though a few kilograms of iodized salt per day is necessary to prevent the possible thyroid cancer caused by ingesting a hypothetically high level of iodine emissions that do not yet exist in China. In addition, the State Council has ordered safety checks at existing plants. . . .

Considering energy demand increases due to economic growth, burgeoning air pollution, increasingly vulnerable energy security, and mounting political pressure to mitigate climate change, the Chinese government has no easy solution to meet these simultaneous challenges. Not surprisingly, decision makers are used to making difficult tradeoffs among various energy sources: coal, which is carbon-intensive and dirty; oil, which poses national security concerns and pollutes the environment; gas, which is scarce and costly to develop; large-scale hydro power, which is ecologically devastating; nuclear, which is technologically risky; and renewables, which are often not only expensive but also intermittently available.

During China’s twelfth Five Year Plan period, which covers 2011 to 2015, the government plans to slow air-quality deterioration and coal-consumption increases while reducing carbon emissions intensity by 17 percent. Without further increasing its domestic nuclear power capacity, China will have a much more difficult time meeting its vitally important environmental targets under this plan. . . .

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