09/02/2004, 00.00
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Beijing opts for nuclear energy, 27 new plants planned

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – China's government has decided to develop nuclear energy sources to offset energy shortages caused by the country's rapid economic growth. According to Zhang Huazhu, chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority, 27 plants will be built over the next 15 years, each the size of Guangdong's Daya Bay nuclear plant, bringing the total number to 36. The new facilities are expected to generate a combined 36 million kW of electricity per year, or 4 to 5 per cent of the projected national power output.

China's first nuclear plant came on line in 1991, but it took years of indecision before the central government decided to make nuclear power an "important component" of the country's energy sector. The new plan is expected to ease the burden on the transportation system and reduce the country's reliance on polluting fossil fuels. This will mean, Mr Zhang said, that by 2020 China will use 120 million tonnes less coal.

Approving nuclear plants is a long process, with the State Council reviewing all proposals. The current policy gives priority to coastal provinces where energy consumption is high and resources scarce, Mr Zhang said. In Zhejiang and Guangdong, for example, nuclear power plants already supply 13 per cent of electricity.

Whilst south-eastern coastal provinces are the most developed part of the country –the hub of commerce and industry–, they have also been the most vulnerable to summertime blackouts this year. Shortages are so bad that the government has had to resort to stop-gap measures such as night-only production shifts in some factories, three day per week or one week per month suspension in others.

Xu Yuming, a nuclear power expert, said China's nuclear industry has a good safety record. No mishaps above grade two –on a scale of zero to seven– had occurred since 1991.

The greatest challenge facing the government is financing all these power plants at a time when it is trying to cool the economy to avoid inflation. According to Mr Zhang Beijing has proven it can raise funds from both domestic and international sources. In the past, both France and Russia helped China's energy programme as did Iran.

Although he thinks that every country has the right to use nuclear energy peacefully, he also said China never cooperated with North Korea on developing nuclear power plants.

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