China recommits to nuclear energy, 10 years after Fukushima

Echo Xie
·5-min read

When Kazue Suzuki went to Namie, a town about 20km north of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, eight years after the 2011 accident, she saw wild boar roaming freely in the abandoned homes.

Shrubs had taken over the surrounding paddy fields and there was a strange sense of beauty to the place. “It’s nature. It’s beautiful, but sometimes it’s sad to see this, because people worked those paddy fields for years but then, in just a few years, they turned into this,” she said.

As a veteran climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, Suzuki has conducted continuous radiation surveys with her colleagues in Fukushima prefecture since the accident. She has also campaigned for the evacuation of children and pregnant women from high-risk areas, when people needed help to move.

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While Suzuki had spent years warning people about the risks of nuclear power, she was still shocked when the disaster struck. “I had told people a thousand times a disaster would happen if there was an accident, but I still couldn’t imagine it actually happening,” she said.

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the accident, caused by a magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, in which around 20,000 people died. The waves crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s cooling system and caused a meltdown of the reactor fuel rods, making it the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

“If people don’t learn from Fukushima, then there will be another Chernobyl accident or Fukushima accident in the future, so we really have to see and listen to what happened,” Suzuki said.

The Fukushima disaster also broke Japan’s long-standing commitment to nuclear power and changed the energy development path of many countries, including industrial powerhouse Germany, which decided to completely phase out the energy by 2022.

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China suspended new nuclear power approvals immediately after the accident, resulting in a failure to meet the nuclear energy targets stipulated in its 13th five-year plan which ended last year.

But, under its latest five-year plan, nuclear power has been reinstated in China’s energy plans, with Beijing aiming to raise nuclear generation capacity to 70 gigawatts by 2025.

In delivering his government work report last Friday to the country’s legislators, Premier Li Keqiang said China would again embrace nuclear power, while promising that new projects would be safe and employ advanced third-generation technology.

The China Nuclear Energy Association has predicted that China’s nuclear power capacity will reach 130GW by 2030, and 340GW by 2050. Atomic fuel is expected to generate about one-fifth of the country’s electricity by mid-century.

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Similar ambitious forecasts were made in research by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development last October. Guided by China’s special climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, the research projected a rise in China’s nuclear power capacity to 327GW by 2050, a seven-fold increase from the current level.

For some Chinese industry insiders and energy experts, nuclear power is an inevitable choice if China wants to meet its 2060 carbon neutrality targets, announced by President Xi Jinping last September.

“If we want to tackle carbon emissions and pollution, among the current energy technologies that we have, nuclear power is our best choice,” said Wang Yingsu, secretary general of the nuclear power branch of the China Electric Power Promotion Council.

Wang said China was the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, with little room to further increase its capacity, while wind and solar power could affect the stability and reliability of the grid. “If we aim at phasing out coal, the only replacement to ensure grid stability would be nuclear power.”

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But he added that the country’s nuclear power development would be restricted by energy demand and people’s safety concerns. “China’s nuclear safety level is very high, but the public is still concerned about the safety issues and they are afraid of accidents,” he said.

Others argue that China could choose to meet its carbon neutrality goal without developing nuclear power. Among them is Paris-based nuclear energy consultant Mycle Schneider, who says the country still has huge potential to increase energy efficiency and optimise the grid’s flexibility.

“Forget about baseload. It doesn’t have any sense any more in a system where you have a high share of renewables and many different technologies,” said Schneider, a coordinator of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

One of the drivers for China’s renewed commitment to nuclear power was the large infrastructure investments it had already made, with third-generation EPR and AP1000 pressurised water reactors already up and running, Schneider said.

“You can build an EPR or an AP1000 in China from A to Z, but you can’t build an AP1000 in the US and you can’t build an EPR in Europe because the qualified facilities simply don’t exist,” he said.

“China has invested enormously but that also means industry captains are now interested in using those facilities. It’s very hard to say, ‘we built up all this industrial infrastructure, sorry, it was not the right choice, so let’s do something else’.”

Suzuki said China should explore the potential of renewables and energy conservation and not limit itself to nuclear power as the only way to achieve carbon neutrality.

“Japan is a small place but still it has potential with solar and wind,” she said. “Likewise, China will also have great potential [with solar and wind],” she said. “You can get electricity from many sources that are safer and cheaper than nuclear.”

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