The meltdown in 2011 at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility led to an extremely rare occurrence next door in China: the ruling Communist Party briefly bowed to public opinion.
Fear of radiation drifting from the crippled power station across the sea ran so high that in Shanghai, residents caused a run on pharmacies, stocking up on iodine tablets and face masks. Airport and seaport customs officials began radiation checks on goods and people arriving from Japan. In Heilongjiang province, authorities began testing radiation levels in the air.
When frenzied online public speculation shifted to concern about the safety of China’s own nuclear power plants – some built in earthquake-prone areas, others next to densely populated towns – the leadership took the dramatic step of suspending all new nuclear plant approvals until officials could carry out safety checks on the existing facilities.
It didn’t last long. By October 2012, China’s leaders gave the green light to resume the country’s ambitious nuclear power expansion, and China is once again the world leader in constructing nuclear reactors.
Coal accounts for the vast majority of China’s electricity, with nuclear power providing a scant 2 per cent. But with 28 reactors under construction, and 20 now operating, China plans to triple its nuclear capacity in the next five years. Longer-term expansion would see China producing 100 times its current nuclear power capacity by 2050.
The nuclear imperative is clear: coal is killing people. China’s notoriously noxious air is responsible for as many as a half million premature deaths each year, according to a study in the British medical journal The Lancet. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang last year declared a “war on pollution”. Building new nuclear plants is a key offensive.
There are other reasons, notably economic: as Chinese become increasingly affluent, they use more electricity than ever before. Nuclear power can help keep the economy growing and people consuming. Further, for provincial officials, building large nuclear reactors can prove a solid source of construction jobs, far more than any number of family workshops turning out solar panels.
Chinese nuclear companies have also found a relative lucrative side benefit: exporting the so-called “indigenous technology” and helping finance, construct and maintain nuclear facilities in other countries, such as Pakistan. The government has designated nuclear plant construction as an area where China can become a world leader.
In choosing to so tightly embrace nuclear power, China’s Communist Party rulers have some advantages. While some countries question the costs of new reactors, for example, China is awash with cash, and its state banks will underwrite the effort.
China’s nuclear builders also have little concern about the licensing and requirements that nuclear utilities complain about in other countries.
There is still the safety issue, and the rising awareness of Chinese citizens, as expressed on burgeoning social media sites such as Weibo.
One fear is that China, like Japan, is earthquake-prone. It sits between two major tectonic plates, the Pacific plate and the Indian plate, and regularly suffers from devastating earthquakes.
After the Fukushima disaster, Chinese officials tried to reassure citizens that China’s reactors were more modern, with greater safety features, than Japan’s ageing facilities. For example, Chinese reactor cooling systems did not rely on electrical power, they said, but instead used tanks of water and gravity.
During the Fukushima meltdown, many Chinese Netizens expressed awe at the orderly Japanese evacuation procedures from the affected areas, and wondered whether any Chinese evacuation would go as smoothly. Reporters found people living smack up against nuclear facilities often with no idea what to do in an emergency.
There were also public concerns about whether the rush to build reactors might mean shoddy, haphazard construction, or corners cut to save costs. Many recalled the 2011 collision of two high-speed trains at Wenzhou as an example.
But what has been remarkable in China is that the debate over nuclear power has been allowed to play out publicly, in a country where discussion of most sensitive topics is heavily censored and social media sites have come under increasing restrictions. There have even been public protests.
With nuclear power, it seems, China’s leaders are trying to be a little less opaque, a little more open.