In the nuclear power world, China is king. But as other countries collaborate, it remains secretive, raising safety concerns.
By Alan Neuhauser | Staff Writer April 26, 2016, at 12:01 a.m.
In the realm of nuclear power, there is China, and then there is the rest of the world.
By any count, the pace of construction is astronomical: Half the reactors built around the world in the past two decades were constructed in the People’s Republic of China. Aiming to expand the country’s electric grid and clean the air, another 22 are under construction. Still another 42 are proposed.
Yet 30 years after the catastrophe at Chernobyl in Ukraine – the worst nuclear disaster in world history, one triggered by a design flaw that had been known about in Moscow but hidden from the world by Soviet secrecy – discerning the safety risks at China’s nuclear plants is akin to trying to peer through a reactor’s concrete containment dome.
"China is totally nontransparent on these issues," says Albert Lai, founding chairman of the Professional Commons, a public policy think tank in Hong Kong.
"The only information we’ve gotten so far – strangely – is from France."
France generates three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear, and it’s long exported that technology. In 2007, French and Chinese companies partnered to build two of the newest reactor design in Taishan, a coastal city in Guangdong province. Another two would be built in Finland and a fifth in France.
Yet the project was soon mired by delays and cost overruns: Regulators discovered flaws in the reactors’ concrete foundations in Finland, and there were problems with the French reactor’s steel dome and base. Yet in China, the work pressed on – until French regulators pointed out the very same issues there last year.
"What if the French did not notify the Chinese authorities?" Lai says. "The nuclear fuel would have been put into the plant, the plant would have been up and running with the flaw."
China is hardly the only country where nuclear safety is under scrutiny. More than three-fourths of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. have leaked radiation and faced pointed questions about maintenance and security. The meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan in March 2011 was triggered by a tsunami, but a damning parliamentary investigation concluded "collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco" – the plant’s operator – created conditions that made it even worse.
Even the French nuclear powerhouse Areva, which sells nuclear fuel and builds power plants, went virtually bankrupt in January, inflaming concerns over whether it’s able to guarantee the safety and security of sensitive nuclear materials.
"If you let your guard down for a moment, you can have a billion-dollar investment become a billion-dollar liability in about an hour," says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.
Yet China, between its nuclear building boom and cloak of secrecy, stands alone. China’s first-ever white paper on its nuclear industry, released in January, found its ability to respond to an emergency is "inadequate." A visit by a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency in July 2010 uncovered dozens of safety problems, including a lack of resources for the agency in charge of regulating the country’s nuclear plants.
"The speed with which they’ve been building the nuclear power program is insane," says Mycle Schneider, an independent energy and nuclear policy analyst based in Paris, and convening lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
It’s stretched the country’s nuclear workforce, thinly spreading engineers and experts across dozens of different projects, rather than keeping that expertise concentrated at just a handful of plants, Schneider says. And that’s occurred just as the plants are in the riskiest stages of their lives.
The reactors at Chernobyl were not some aging, crumbling legacy of the Soviet Union; Unit 4 exploded just two years after it started commercial operation, as workers were still learning and kinks were being worked out. The same was true at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, where a partial meltdown of a new reactor released a plume of radiation in the worst nuclear accident in the U.S.
It’s what’s known in engineering as the bathtub curve: Danger is most pronounced at the beginning and at the end – before new knowledge becomes institutional experience – and later, when infrastructure begins to crumble.
"Where you want to be is one of the countries that has reactors in the flat part of the curve, where the risk is not zero, but lower," Lochbaum says. "China has a lot of plants on the break-in area of this curve."
There has been progress: Fukushima was a wake-up call, experts say, one that both reminded Chinese officials about the high price of an accident and galvanized residents, albeit briefly: Protests in July 2013 prevented the construction of a uranium processing facility in Heshan in Guangdong province. Construction on new nuclear plants was slowed, and even the safety report in January – while narrow – was unprecedented, marking perhaps limited improvement to transparency.
"The record has been pretty good," says Bo Kong, professor of Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of Oklahoma. But, he adds, "China still has a long way to go before it gets there to inspire the confidence of countries all around the world."
After learning about the flaws at the two new Taishan reactors, China’s nuclear regulator announced in January that work at the plant would halt completely. Just hours later, there was another press release: The reactors’ owner, the China General Nuclear Power Corp., announced it had begun testing – another step toward commissioning the plant.