China Pauses To Rethink Nuclear Power Program

Following Japan's nuclear crisis, China has suspended approvals for new nuclear power plants. China is currently building 25 plants. Now all projects will undergo a safety review, though most experts believe Beijing has invested too much in nuclear power to stop its program altogether.

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Japan's crisis is prompting the rest of the world to think again about nuclear power. That's true even in China, where breakneck nuclear expansion has driven the global industry. But China has put the brakes on expanding nuclear power in the past few days. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing.

LOUISA LIM: It's business as usual with China's initial response to Japan's nuclear crisis. For Beijing, that means adding two nuclear power plants a year. With 25 under construction right now, China's building almost as many nuclear plants as the rest of the world put together. But one week on and the mood has changed. Beijing's now suspended approvals for new plants, pending a safety review of all nuclear plants.

Shinyu Dong(ph), an energy expert at Shanghai Academy of Science and Technology, believes this is just a blip in the path.

Mr. SHINYU DONG (Shanghai Academy of Science and Technology): (Through translator) The roadmap we've drawn won't change, but it will take us longer to get there. Three or five years' delay would be very normal.

LIM: China currently have 13 operational reactors. Experts say they're much newer than the troubled Japanese ones, but there are red flags. One big one is that the head of China's nuclear company, Kang Rixin, was recently sentenced to life in prison for taking bribes and bid-rigging during the construction of plants. That raises fears of shoddy construction and potential safety lapses.

Location is also a big issue. China plans to build nuclear plants along major rivers in five provinces. Shinyu Dong believes this is risky.

Mr. DONG: (Through translator) Now we're adding power plants in the hinterland on the banks of the Yangtze. The Yangtze is like dead water. It cannot flush away pollution. So if there was any problem, the whole ecology would be destroyed.

LIM: Nonetheless, nuclear power plays a key role in Beijing's attempts to cut emissions, and local governments have been competing with each other to build new reactors, attracted by the investment and the employment they bring.

That leads Jeffrey Lewis, an East Asian nuclear expert at Middlebury College, to wonder whether China's review can achieve much.

Professor JEFFREY LEWIS (Middlebury College): No matter how bad of an idea nuclear power looks right now, there's a huge amount of effort that's been invested in it. And so if people feel the pressure right now to say that they're reconsidering it, I sometimes think that that may just be tactical.

LIM: As for public pressure, China's in a panic about all things nuclear, despite not registering any abnormal levels of radiation. That much is clear in this supermarket. Its shelves have been cleared of iodized salt - panic bought by shoppers mistakenly believing it would protect them from radiation. Among shoppers, there's a mood of incredulity with a tinge of hysteria, as shown first by Mr. Chen, then Jason Gong.

Mr. CHEN: I think there is nuclear pollution. That's why we - maybe we will choose some salt. But as you see, the supermarket now is no salt.

Mr. JASON GONG: I just want to make sure whether we are in a panic.

LIM: Are we in a panic?

Mr. GONG: I think so.

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LIM: That panic persists, despite attempts by the state-run media to calm fears. The public trust in the Chinese government is so low that such tactics may be backfiring. Now online campaigns are starting against some planned nuclear plants, especially in quake-prone places. China's ultimate decision will still depend on events at Fukushima. But as one Chinese commentator put it, this moment of powerlessness must be shared by all who have fallen in love with nuclear power, including Beijing.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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