China's growing appetite for energy in order to sustain its robust economic growth will surely make it hard to diversify rapidly from its commitment to nuclear energy. However, the ongoing international efforts to re-examine the safety of nuclear plants should serve as a much-needed chance to further strengthen the country's nuclear security.
What happened at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant has acted as a watershed for nuclear power utilization as many other countries are seriously reconsidering their nuclear energy plans.
With 13 commercial reactors in operation and 28 under construction, which is equivalent to about 40 percent of the reactors under construction worldwide, China has a huge stake in such international cooperation.
As one of the world's largest energy consumers, China faces huge challenges to meet its surging demand for electricity. While the shortage of electricity is likely to be a long-term trend, the country is striving to reduce its dependence on coal and other fossil fuels.
So the country is understandably ambitious about expanding its use of nuclear energy: the government expects the number of reactors will exceed 100 by 2020.
China has targeted a 15 percent nonfossil energy capacity for 2020. Yet, since electricity generated from wind and solar power cannot satisfy the increasing demand for energy due to technical and environmental constraints, the nation will have to expand its nuclear power projects to achieve that target.
Under such circumstances, safety must be the top priority. Hence, it's high time for the nation to reassess its ambitious plan for nuclear energy and shift to a slower pace in expanding its nuclear power capacity, which must be accompanied by stringent scientific tests and safety verification.
China has suspended its approval of nuclear plants until it has strengthened its safety standards and it has started a six-month safety check on both the nuclear facilities already in operation and plants under construction. Those that do not conform to safety standards must immediately cease operation or construction.
At the ongoing meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the Chinese delegation called for closer international cooperation and a full review of all safety aspects ranging from technical risks to emergency responses under the IAEA's supervision, as well as strengthening the global nuclear safety standards.
For China, the most pressing task is probably to impose more stringent security requirements and a stricter assessment of plant locations, especially for projects close to urban areas and earthquake zones.
The public should also be provided with more transparent information about the nuclear projects under construction.
But more importantly, China needs to accelerate efforts to diversify its energy structure and increase energy efficiency to ensure its long-term energy security.
(China Daily 06/24/2011 page8)