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July 12, 2017

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Nuclear power development: safety is priority

ON a train to Shanghai, I casually asked about 10 fellow passengers what would they do if a nuclear reactor were proposed to be built close to their homes.

To a person, they replied that they would never live near a nuclear facility.

That’s the kind of public skepticism China faces as it plans to increase its nuclear power facilities to meet growing electricity demand without expanding the use of air-polluting fossil fuels.

As of June, China had 36 nuclear reactors in operation and 21 under construction. The National Development and Reform Commission has said it wants nuclear power to account for 6 percent of the nation’s electricity generation by 2020, up from about 3 percent in 2015. That compares with 10 percent in the US and 74 percent in France.

By 2026, China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest generator of nuclear power, according to UK-based BMI Research.

China’s ambitions are in direct contrast to policies in other countries. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 has changed minds about risk versus power sources. As of last year, Italy closed all its nuclear power stations, and Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden are phasing out plans.

China begs to differ. Nuclear power, according to Zheng Mingguang, president of the Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute, “is a way to enhance energy safety and meet growing electricity demand.”

China’s nuclear power capacity is concentrated along its coastline, where large urban cities have had to rely on electricity transported from inland areas of the west and north.

In 2014, China set a target of generating 20 percent of its energy needs from non-fossil fuels. The nation has been developing hydropower, and wind and solar energy technologies to ease dependence on coal and oil.

Hydro, solar and wind power, to one degree or another, rely on the vagaries of nature to provide peak generation. Nuclear power provides a predictable and more constant supply of electricity.

Zhejiang Province, which abuts Shanghai, is a hub of nuclear power generation, with nine operating reactors and another two under construction.

One of the Zhejiang plants, due to begin operation in the fourth quarter, is named AP1000. It represents “third-generation” nuclear technology. The name refers to the “advanced passive system,” which contains automated water cooling loops to avoid explosions.

Still, public anxiety about nuclear power remains high, six years after the Fukushima disaster shocked the world.

Last week, at the 25th International Conference on Nuclear Engineering in Shanghai, the emphasis was on safety in the development of nuclear technology.

Gu Shenjie, deputy chief engineer at the nuclear institute, said the nation is keen to use and upgrade nuclear technology, “especially in the improvement of safety and quality.”

Unlike the second-generation of technology, as exemplified in the Fukushima reactors, the third-generation includes advancements like strengthening containment vessels to avoid nuclear leaks and adding automated cooling systems to avert explosions.

“It means living close to nuclear plant is far safer than taking an airline flight,” said Francois Morin, director for China at the World Nuclear Association.

Fear of nuclear power, he said, is overly magnified in people’s minds.

More than 200 institutes and companies have been deployed in China to help localize and improve the third-generation nuclear technology since China bought it from US-based Westinghouse in 2007. Nuclear power development involves more than 20,000 researchers.

“The operation of AP1000 reactors in Sanmen in Zhejiang Province, and Haiyang in Shandong Province was delayed four years due to problems found in key components,” the nuclear institute’s Zheng said.

“Only with reliable technologies can we run the reactors and reassure the public,” he said.

France, where nuclear power accounts for the bulk of energy-generating capacity, has launched massive public education campaigns to convince people that nuclear reactors can be good neighbors and sources of local employment.

China has yet to go that route, but as the nation expands nuclear reactors, the day is coming when authorities will have to pay more attention to getting the public onside with its plans, said Liu Shuai, an analyst for energy and public utilities at UBS.

“That would require the government taking measures to persuade residents to accept reactors in their neck of the woods,” he said

Zheng said he is confident that public information campaigns can assuage public concerns. But Fred Xia, an independent industrial consultant, disagrees.

“No one wants an untimed bomb embedded in their community,” he said.

Even if the reactor never has any accidents over time, the value of properties near a nuclear facility will drop, he added.

Indeed, people may well understand the reasons for developing nuclear energy, but that doesn’t mean they will ever be happy about it in their backyard.

Eric Chen, one passenger next to me on the train, said he would move if a nuclear plant were built near his home.

“The government had better start thinking about how to help people move and find new jobs if they plan to expand nuclear power,” he said. “Of course, technology is important, but it will be the public that needs to be convinced in order to put plans into action.”


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