Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

China Responds to Fukushima

| June 28, 2012

Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, China had a relatively small fleet of 14 nuclear reactor units with a relatively small capacity -- less than 12 gigawatts of electricity -- but the country had big nuclear plans. It led the world in new reactor construction, with 27 units under way, five units approved and awaiting construction, and another 16 units scheduled. If all current construction went forward as planned, the country would be ensured of reaching its original target of 40 gigawatts of nuclear-generated electric capacity by 2020.

The National Development and Reform Commission planned to update the country's medium- and long-term development plans after a National People's Congress meeting in March 2011. The earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan and gravely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant stopped the update cold.

In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the Chinese government claimed it would not change its nuclear power development policy. Even so, the government took actions summarized as the "four guidelines." Under those guidelines, the government would:

  • Conduct safety inspections at all nuclear facilities.
  • Strengthen the approval process for new nuclear plant projects.
  • Draft a new nuclear safety plan.
  • Adjust the medium- and long-term development plan for nuclear power, suspending new project approvals until a nuclear safety plan could be enacted.

Although the Chinese government reaffirmed nuclear energy as an indispensable resource, the suspension of new nuclear projects sent shock waves through the ranks of international nuclear vendors and investors. Since then, China's media have reported several scenarios for a potential restoration of nuclear construction. Finally, after 15 months of waiting, the State Council approved the nuclear facility safety inspection report and the new nuclear safety plan proposed by National Nuclear Safety Administration. The full text of the inspection report and safety plan was released to the public in June. The new medium- and long-term nuclear development plan proposed by National Development and Reform Commission is, however, still pending approval.

As China's new nuclear regulatory system goes forward, reactors that are already operating and under construction will be spared from major redesign, but future reactor projects will face re-engineering. Additionally, it appears that the Fukushima disaster may lead China to adopt newer, third-generation (or Gen III) reactor designs created by Chinese firms, allowing China to wean itself from purely foreign reactor technology much more quickly than was expected pre-Fukushima.

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For Academic Citation: Zhou, Yun.“China Responds to Fukushima.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 28, 2012.

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