Guest post by Wang Yichao
The most painful lesson of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima is the following one: critical situations that yesterday you would have never expected to happen, could be the reality that tomorrow you are forced to face.
On March 13, three days after the earthquake hit Japan, the safety of the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s three reactors is still causing serious concern worldwide.
An similar episode happened in Miyagi prefecture, where the radioactivity levels inside the Onagawa nuclear power plant started to increase exponentially. But they fortunately returned to normal very quickly.
According to the current situation, the radiation leaks of Fukushima Units 1 and 3 reactors are still under control, and catastrophic consequences are thus unlikely to happen in the immediate future. However, in order to ward off the radiation danger and begin the follow-up process, there is still a long way to go.
Regardless of its conclusions, the Fukushima nuclear accident constitutes a very important lesson for China.
Even if the situation gets out of control and favorable winds carry contamination out to the Pacific, the consequences are unlikely to pose any threat to other nations. That is, the psychological effect of Fukushima nuclear accident could be more serious than its actual damage.
However, we should not assume an indifferent attitude, especially regarding China’s nuclear power industry and its potential effects - which can’t be underestimated. As the New York Times recently pointed out, the Fukushima nuclear accident could once again change the whole picture of nuclear power.
China embraced nuclear power rather late: the first domestic nuclear power reactor was officially connected to the grid only in 1991, less than 20 years ago.
Therefore, the two worst nuclear power plant accidents in history – Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979 – happened before China started to set up its nuclear power plants.
The Fukushima accident undoubtedly provides us with a window of opportunity for better understanding the complexity of nuclear-power technology, as well as its potential effects.
China is now actively developing nuclear power. In this delicate phase, a more comprehensive frame of reference would be helpful.
Today, China has 11 nuclear-power plants connected to the grid. According to the statistics of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the 20 nuclear power plants that China plans to build in the future account for about 40% of the total amount of the reactors under construction in the whole world. However, besides China, India and Russia are also highly committed to developing their nuclear power sectors.
Compared to other energy sources, nuclear power has certain objective advantages. Hydroelectric power generation is easily influenced by seasonal conditions. Thermal-power plants not only pollute heavily, but transportation of the coal they require to generate electricity can cause bottlenecks. As for wind and solar power, they typically depend on weather conditions and thus lack reliability. Therefore, nuclear power seems to be the only certain energy source, as it is not influenced by external elements.
Only 2% of China’s electricity generation comes from nuclear power. In the past, Japan unsuccessfully planned to decrease its reliance on nuclear power, which is still the primary source of almost one quarter of its domestic electricity production. China’s electricity generation from nuclear power is thus far below the world average level, which is around 14%.
We must admit that China’s nuclear-power development is starting from an advanced level in terms of technology and oversight. Whether it is the achievement of China’s independent research, or the contribution of France, Russia or the United States, from a safety perspective, China’s nuclear reactors are no doubt better-equipped than those in Fukushima.
Moreover, China’s safety standards, which are implemented by the National Nuclear Security Bureau, completely adhere to the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Over the past 20 years, no nuclear disasters leading to radiation leaks have occurred in China.
However, China has also received warnings. For example, Wang Yuqing, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and former vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection), has always stressed the importance of proper supervision during China’s nuclear-power development. And the training of supervision staff members cannot be completed in a short time.
This is not an unwarranted concern. In my opinion, although China has achieved success in the development of its nuclear-power sector, it must not underestimate its potential dangers. Nuclear-power stations do not always follow the national standards during the safeguard maintenance process, and technical cooperation with foreign partners does not seem to be very helpful within this field.
From an economic perspective, it is easy to understand local governments’ enthusiasm for nuclear power. In fact, nuclear-power projects attract enormous investments. Besides, boosting electricity production undoubtedly enhances investment in many fields, including the development of high-energy consuming industries.
However, in the process of its nuclear development, China should consider unforeseen circumstances. It cannot constantly put supervisors, managers or constructors under pressure. This is not a constructive approach to the problem, but rather leads to an underestimation of the potential dangers.
It is essential that nuclear power plants are not built in seismic zones. However, monitoring activities are always vital for the safety of nuclear power stations, as we can hardly claim to have a complete understanding of geological phenomena.
Nuclear power plants built inland generally use river water for cooling. In these instances, nuclear accidents may lead to the pollution of water supplies. We must develop a contingency plans for these kinds of events. We cannot carelessly disregard safety procedures simply because we rely heavily on technology.
Publicising the importance of nuclear-power safety, as well as making accessible information on the topic is essential. If we increase the level of transparency, we will also succeed in reducing needless panic among the public. Ignoring safety problems help the implementation of nuclear-power projects in the short term, but in the long run it will only make the nuclear industry pay a higher price.
The spread of information is crucial, especially among communities in the periphery of nuclear-power stations. It is important to create a proper channel of communication and to guarantee a regular exchange of information between both agents. Occasionally inviting villagers to visit the plants in order to understand their operating state, is not a sustainable and systematic approach to the problem.
Contingency plans only become effective with constant communication. We must frequently ask ourselves: if tomorrow morning a disaster occurs, are we prepared to face it? The most painful lesson of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima is this: critical situations that yesterday you would have never expected to happen, could be the reality that tomorrow you are forced to face.
The decommissioning of nuclear-power plants is also serious issue and must be addressed from the very beginning. In the past, due to a lack of money, China hasn’t always decommissioned its radioactive facilities. The difficulty of raising funds is still a real concern, which could lead to dangerous consequences. We must not allow this to happen.