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China rethinks its nuclear future

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Wen Bo

The Fukushima nuclear crisis has had an enormous impact on China. Given its geographical proximity to Japan and with a large Chinese population living and working in Japan, the Chinese government and a great many Chinese citizens have been keeping a close watch on the unfolding events.

On March 16, the Chinese government held a high level State Council meeting to discuss the Japan nuclear crisis and to consider China's own nuclear planning.  At the meeting, the government made three major decisions on nuclear power. Firstly, the government decided to halt its plan to build new nuclear power plants. Secondly, it ordered a re-examination of the safety risks of nuclear power stations currently under construction. Any safety faults discovered will lead to construction being stopped. Thirdly a decision was made to enhance the management of safety aspects of nuclear power stations currently in operation in China.

In a rare stand, the Chinese government indicated that the utmost priority should be attached to nuclear safety. China will also step up its process of drafting nuclear safety planning and adjust its middle and long term nuclear development plan. Any new nuclear plan will be shelved, including preliminary work.

Chinese media nuclear frenzy
Due to the fact that this is a nuclear crisis in Japan, Chinese media were allowed to report freely. Such a rare media freedom for coverage of nuclear issues offers a rare opportunity for Chinese media to introduce concerns over nuclear power and its related hazards and risks. Though some nuclear specialists, indeed most of them, are supportive of nuclear power, were invited to give comments on television programs; as a result, mounting concerns amongst the general public have emerged, largely making clear that they would rather not have nuclear power at all. Other scholars indicated this is a golden opportunity to popularize the issue and to increase knowledge amongst the public on nuclear radiation and safety measures.

The Chinese language newspaper Southern Metropolitan Daily also published a map outlining names and locations of all proposed Chinese nuclear plants, plants under construction, and those in operation. This is the first publicly released information on China's nuclear industry and planning. For the first time the Chinese public is able to know about many of these new nuclear plants and their locations. These revelations will surely generate a huge outcry and opposition from the public.

China Dialogue, a bilingual website featuring China environmental and development issues, also published a special series on China's nuclear power, titled China's Nuclear Future.

Caijing magazine also published a special edition on China's nuclear development and reexamined China's nuclear policies and management challenges.

NGO Reactions.
Chinese environmental group Green Earth Volunteers organized a journalist salon which included a briefing from a nuclear safety official Zhao Yamin on China's nuclear development on March 16, 2011. The event drew a large audience. Many journalists and attendants raised sharp questions over China's nuclear power plan and safety measures.

On March 25, the Heinrich Böll Foundation organized a seminar in Beijing, aiming at briefing Chinese journalists on nuclear safety issues.

On April 26, upon the 25 year anniversary of Chernobyl disaster, a local NGO Blue Dalian organized nuclear awareness activities at different campuses in Dalian and an evening candle visual activity to commemorate the tragedy. The activities have drawn official attention from Liaoning provincial government and subsequently, a number of student activists have been interrogated by their respective university authorities on their motivation and social links.

Chinese netizens have also been active in highlighting potential risks of nuclear power plants under construction or planned. For example, netizens in Dalian discovered Hongyanhe nuclear power plant in Liaoning province is built on Tan-Lu fault line. Such facts have not been mentioned before in official documents or public media. (A Netizen -from internet and citizen- or cybercitizen is a person actively involved in online communities).

Internal politics.
While most power companies are state owned, debates on nuclear power exist within Chinese government. Hydropower lobbyist and the like have criticized China nuclear power sector as "falling into a trap of American nuclear sales". They are quick in using Fukushima crisis as new reasoning for more state investment and favorable policies on hydropower sector. 

While investments in nuclear construction are high, local governments in China are strong advocate for their nuclear power projects and often use tactics of hijacking -- that is to ask for more funds, either bank loans or governmental investments, by threatening the loss of initial investment; or to force government to approve their nuclear plans by claiming potential financial loss of preliminary investment.

Source and contact: Wen Bo.
Wen Bo is China advisor of Global Greengrants Fund