Tide of troubles [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]
Both China and Japan put their nuclear power plans on hold after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster that created a wasteland in eastern Japan – but now their paths seem to be diverging. Japan is having second thoughts about continuing with its nuclear development, whereas China has decided to resume its approval procedures for new projects later this year.
While the Japanese concern is understandable – especially when adding their experience of being the only nation so far to ever suffer an atomic bombing – one wonders whether there really is a feasible option at this point.
Only one of Japan's 54 reactors is still in use and the Tokyo government, while theoretically leaving the door open for resumption, has imposed strict standard safety regulations. One of the most stringent new rules is that, apart from local government approval for a restart of any kind, the reactor also needs the approval from the authorities in adjacent provinces. The possibilities of new projects getting entangled in bureaucratic red tape seem infinite.
The Japanese public, meanwhile, is focusing on another issue: how to save energy to avoid power blackouts as the demand for air conditioning during the coming summer is soaring. As someone who lived in Japan for 16 years – and was hospitalized twice for heat prostration, I can vouch for the huge demand imposed by air conditioning in the cities (with the vast acres of baking concrete making the nights as hot as the days).
There is no doubt about the downside or plain danger that comes with nuclear power, as disasters in the United States, Ukraine and the more recent one in Japan demonstrate. The renewed emphasis on developing the best possible safety regime therefore will come as no surprise. However, even with these regulations in place, not everyone will ever be fully convinced of nuclear power's safety. The question now is whether or not we can maintain a modern lifestyle without the atom.
China's insatiable demand for energy is a case in point. The nation is a relative latecomer to nuclear power, having only begun its first project in Zhejiang Province in 1985. Nowadays, a total of 14 power stations are operational and another 27 are under construction. With the completion of the latter, the goal is for electricity levels, generated by the atom, to be raised from the current 10mn to 40mn kW, according to calculations from the China Electricity Council (CEC).
In fact, China wants to see this latter figure doubled by 2020, which will mean that State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation is not only called upon to approve a good many new projects, but also to convince a rather nervous audience of this plan's safety. Personally, I doubt this target can be achieved if safety is not to be sacrificed in favor of speed.
Even if China achieves its target of 80mn kW, nuclear power will still only provide a small percentage of the country's demand for energy (some experts estimate a mere 6-7%). Clean energy sources are being tapped into, but for the foreseeable future, the solar, wind, wave and geothermal options seem too costly to be widely adopted.
Hence, we come back to the good old King Coal, with all its encompassing environmental problems associated.
China's reality can clearly be illustrated by looking at the Japanese case. Nuclear power was adopted early on (in the 1950's, using American technology) as there was really no other option for a country with very few natural resources of its own. Oil and gas have always had to be imported, making the Japanese economy highly vulnerable to external "shocks".
While nuclear power is now under a dark cloud after the Fukushima disaster, exacerbated it would seem, going by the government's inexperience and the lack of strict regulations, the prospect of a serious decline in the Japanese economy is very realistic.
Following the shutdown of virtually all nuclear plants, the country had to rely heavily on thermal power plants, which meant vast expenditure on imported oil and gas (an estimated US$35bn worth according to one calculation). This ended in the country's first trade deficit for three decades.
A Japan-based Chinese scholar writing in the Global Times, recently described Japan's dilemma in the following words: "If Japanese politicians can't find new and practical energy sources, losing the 30 percent of energy provided by nuclear sources will bring on more than just a sweltering summer. National industries will suffer from high electricity prices and chronic shortages. And an economy that was once the second largest in the world will continue to decline."
This is a situation China must face as well. Admittedly, it does have large reserves of its own oil and gas, but the continued growth in energy demand leaves no room for complacency.
The nuclear option seems irresistible. However, the Chinese public needs some convincing that the available technology is safe and safety regulations are leak-proof. That won't be easy.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/geoffreymurray.htm
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.