05/30/2011, 00.00
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China unable to guarantee the safety of its nuclear plants

China’s leading physicist He Zuoxiu questions the country’s nuclear future, fearful that safety issues are being swept under the rug. He urges the government to make public safety standards data as well as fuel and maintenance costs.
Beijing (AsiaNews/agencies) – China is “seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front,” said Prof He Zuoxiu, the mainland’s leading theoretical physicist. In fact, the degree to which Chinese nuclear power plants could withstand an earthquake has never been made public, he writes in Science Times. For this reason, China must rethink its approach to nuclear power.

He’s criticism on China’s nuclear safety record follows the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in March of this year, which exposed the serious flaws in existing safety standards.

“The quake resistance level, for instance, is still under fierce debate in the industry, because it will have a huge impact on the cost of future nuclear projects," a Chinese researcher said on condition of anonymity.

Japanese nuclear plants are designed to resist earthquakes of 7.0-magnitude; South Korea's official level is 6.5; but Beijing has never announced its nuclear plants' quake-resistance level. For He, the authorities should publish the figure.

The problem is that “building a nuclear plant that can withstand a magnitude-9.0 earthquake will increase the cost of nuclear power to an astronomical level,” and economics might trump over safety.

China has 14 reactors in operation, 26 under construction and 28 in the planning stage, according to March data from the World Nuclear Association.

Chinese authorities and experts say that nuclear power will provide clean and affordable energy for the country’s development.

In his article in Science Times, Prof He, who helped develop China's first nuclear bomb, describes the government's energy policy as another “Great Leap Forward” (in reference to Mao Zedong’s failed ‘Great Leap Forward’ that forced hundreds of millions of peasants into collective farms), a theoretical project that fails to consider all the aspects of the issue.

For him, the government has not taken into account the fuel shortfalls, high cost of maintenance and inadequate technology in relation to the needs of development.

According to the government, China has an estimated 2 million tonnes of natural uranium reserves. In his calculations based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, He shows instead that it has less than 300,000 tonnes. Importing uranium is also not a viable alternative to coal or oil.

At present, China has only about 9GW of nuclear capacity but plans to reach 200 GW by 2030 and 400GW by 2050. Even so, that would represent just over 15 per cent of its energy supply.

He’s article has sent shockwaves in China, and could spark an important debate. Chinese authorities have always said they favoured nuclear power to meet the country’s energy needs given the financial and environmental cost of coal (which now meets two thirds of the country’s energy needs) and oil.

However, after the Fukushima disaster, He wants the government to review the issue carefully, including from a safety point of view, especially since China has many earthquake-prone regions and has suffered major quakes in the past.

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