Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The China Syndrome? Nuclear Power Growth and Safety after Fukushima

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The China Syndrome? Nuclear Power Growth and Safety after Fukushima

Article excerpt

FIVE DAYS AFTER THE MARCH 2011 FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR disaster started, China's State Council declared, "We will temporarily suspend approval for nuclear power projects, including those that have already begun preliminary work, before nuclear safety regulations are approved. . . . Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants" (Bristow 2011). Since then, the Chinese government has verbally committed to ensuring nuclear safety and has introduced a number of measures aimed at lowering the risk of accidents. At the same time, however, Chinese policymakers have also committed to a rapid expansion of nuclear power, with the goal of increasing nuclear capacity from the 23 gigawatts in operation (as of April 2015) to 58 gigawatts by 2020.1 The question that these twin commitments raise is whether such a fast rate of expansion is conducive to the pursuit of nuclear safety, or if there are potential or real conflicts between the simultaneous pursuit of these two goals.

The literature has by and large portrayed nuclear safety as the highest priority for Chinese policymakers and as a goal that is essentially achievable.2 The typical formulation is that the achievement of nuclear safety requires overcoming primarily one or two challenges, such as regulatory independence and increased transparency (Wang 2013; Xu 2014). In this article, however, we take a different approach. First, whereas much of the literature focuses primarily on the Chinese government's policy assertions, we look at the record of implementation of China's nuclear safety commitments in the four years since Fukushima. By implementation, we mean not just measures implemented at existing nuclear power plants but also decisions concerning proposed ones. Our examination shows that, in certain areas, Chinese nuclear authorities appear to have undertaken steps that could help reduce the risk of nuclear accidents.

However, these decisions and deliverables tell us only part of the story. In the second half of this article, we question Chinese leaders' verbal assurances that safety is the main or overriding priority by exploring two sets of decisions currently facing China's nuclear planners: restriction or expansion in the construction of nuclear reactors in inland areas, and the choice of reactor designs for construction. In these two areas, we find that safety is just one of a number of competing priorities shaping decisionmaking. Decisions about nuclear power in China are also being shaped by atmospheric pollution reduction plans, corporate economic interests, local government bureaucratic pressure, and national energy and science and technology goals. These priorities compete with the goal of nuclear safety when it comes to construction of inland nuclear power stations and decisions about reactor design. Ultimately, we argue that while China has implemented some safety measures, they are not the overriding priority in the nuclear power sector.

Understanding how China views nuclear safety is vitally important. China is planning the most rapid construction of nuclear reactors anywhere in the world. The sheer scale and pace of this construction mean that what takes place in China will affect the future of nuclear power more than any other country. Examining China's choices on nuclear power also is a test case of how "fragmented authoritarianism"-and particularly the interaction between the central government, local governments, and state-owned enterprises (SOEs)-shapes decisionmaking on vital issues that could potentially have significant environmental and public health impacts. China's system of governance affords a relatively high degree of political power to local authorities, and its nuclear power sector is dominated by large SOEs that compete with one another to exert influence on policy (Xu 2008, 2014; Ramana and Saikawa 2011). Whether or not China will enhance nuclear safety will depend on the interactions between, and priorities of, these multiple actors. …

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