Wednesday, December 16, 2009

China and Nuclear Power:

Too Much of a Good Thing?

We all applaud the ambitious Chinese nuclear power development program, which is breathing new life and new energy into the prospects for nuclear power worldwide.

But amidst the rejoicing, we have to worry just a little. In the safety arena, we are fond of asking, "How much is enough?" For rapidly escalating new-build programs, an appropriate question might be, "How much is too much?"

A recent New York Times article spelled out some of these concerns. China has acknowledged it doesn't have a sufficient inspection force and has asked for help. China has a recent history of scandals in the food, drug and toy manufacturing industries. There is an ongoing corruption scandal in the China National Nuclear Corporation, and an apparent attempt to hush it up.

I don't think all is lost. I participated in one of the early trips to China after it began to open up to the West. In 1983, I went to China with an American Nuclear Society delegation to discuss with them their plans--at the time--to start their first nuclear power plant. I recall being worried when I discovered the poor maintenance in some of the hotels in which we stayed. I was particularly concerned that the plumbing in my hotel rooms didn't always work. What was a reactor, I thought, if not a lot of plumbing?

As it turns out, the performance of Chinese reactors has so far met world standards. I can probably conclude that the Chinese put their best efforts in the most critical areas. I can also attest to the fact that the hotel plumbing worked a lot better on my second trip to China.

Yet, the idea of a rapid ramp-up remains worrisome. What will happen if the inspection ranks are spread too thin? Will they really slow progress, or will they do a cursory inspection and cross their fingers? Will the culture that seems to pervade other industries take hold in the nuclear power area?

As much as we might applaud the ambitious aims of the Chinese, it behooves us all to make sure that the goals don't obscure the need for careful attention to detail in the construction and operation of these plants. I'd rather see the Chinese program move forward more slowly if that would help avoid the kind of misstep that could stop the progress of nuclear power elsewhere in the world.

It seems that one of the big hangups at the Copenhagen conference which is now in its final days is the demand by the developing countries for financial support from the developed countries. I have been watching this debate with growing concern. Without getting into the arguments for and against this demand, it does seem to me that there are some areas in which support from the developed countries can be a win-win. This might be one of them. Selected assistance to China to help it increase its regulatory force would be a small price to pay if it helps assure that the Chinese plants are built and operated to the highest standards. Active involvement by developed nations might also help assure that the safety culture that seems to be operative in the Chinese nuclear industry so far is retained and strengthened.


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