The Japanese tsunami and Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident provide an opportunity for China to show its maturity. The quality of response to such a disaster in a neighboring country is a test of Beijing’s ability to make rational decisions about the future of power provision.
With the contribution from solar and wind systems marginal to total demand and unlikely to change, the issue is how China balances its nuclear ambitions with the options presented by coal, oil, gas and hydroelectric sources.
The general reaction to the events in Fukushima has been a media-driven hysteria which creates an obsession with radiation far exceeding that ever given to other forms of pollution affecting public health. Maps showing the location of nuclear reactors along major geological fault lines seem to make an ipso facto case against nuclear power not only in earthquake-prone Japan, but also in those parts of China with histories of major quakes.
But focus on earthquake zones misses the main point of Fukushima. It seems that reactors there and elsewhere in Japan shut down automatically in response to the earthquake, and Japan and Taiwan have experienced many earthquakes that have not troubled their nuclear plants. The Fukushima disaster was caused by the subsequent tsunami overwhelming sea defenses. Not only was the tsunami of almost unprecedented power, the fact is that few nuclear stations in other countries are at risk of similar tsunamis.
Echoes of Chernobyl
At the time of writing, it seems that at most a few dozen people will be killed directly by radiation exposure from the Fukushima accident and perhaps a few hundred will have their long-term health seriously impaired. Even Chernobyl, by far the worst nuclear accident, is now estimated to have caused a few hundred direct deaths and up to 4,000 subsequent cases of death from radiation-linked cancers. Chernobyl was caused by design, response and Soviet political structure failings, not by natural phenomenon.
The human consequences of the Chernobyl tragedy must be set not just against earthquake disasters and tsunami but, more significantly, against the destruction caused by other forms of electricity generation. In 2007, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 600,000 people a year were dying prematurely in China as a result of air pollution, and many more from water pollution. While some of the air pollution can be attributed to household burning of coal and charcoal, some to heavy industries and some to vehicles, the key contributor is emissions from coal-fired power stations.
The coal conundrum
For sure, China is doing much to replace old, highly polluting stations with relatively clean state-of-the-art ones, but there is no such thing as a totally clean coal-fired plant. If Beijing were to cut back its large nuclear program in response to Fukushima, it would probably have little choice but to increase coal usage and hence delay the promised improvements in air quality.
Natural gas and oil are in relatively short supply and must be imported. As for hydroelectricity, the upstream damming of major rivers in southwestern China, the location of most hydro potential, risks major long-term environmental damage for the tens of millions living downstream in Vietnam, Myanmar and elsewhere.
Earthquakes are a very real threat for several parts of China. But the main danger for the population is not from nuclear plants but from poor standards of construction of housing, schools and other buildings put up hastily and often using sub-standard designs and materials. Indeed, the relatively few deaths in Japan resulting from the earthquake itself show what can be done to make most buildings survive even the most powerful quakes. China’s earthquake challenge lies in moving toward Japanese standards of construction rather than nuclear safety.
A mature China will now focus not on scare stories about radiation dangers, real though these can be, but on relative risks.
In the short term, there will of course be re-examinations of nuclear safety systems and fault lines, which could lead to delays in new plant construction. But the government would do well to lay all its cards on the table, take the public into its confidence, and place the risks of nuclear power against the continuous health damage caused bypollution from familiar, “safe” coal. That way it could get more nuclear power, not less.