China Embraces Nuclear Future

China has nine operating nuclear power plants, including the Daya Bay facility in Shenzhen.
China has nine operating nuclear power plants, including the Daya Bay facility in Shenzhen. (Color China)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

YUMEN, China

Not far from the old Silk Road, Chinese government scientists have begun boring holes deep into granite in the first steps toward building what could become the world's largest tomb for nuclear waste.

As governments worldwide look at nuclear power as a possible answer to global warming, China has embarked on a nuclear-plant construction binge that eventually could exceed the one the United States undertook during the technology's heyday in the 1960s.

Under plans already announced, China intends to spend $50 billion to build 32 nuclear plants by 2020. Some analysts say the country will build 300 more by the middle of the century. That's not much less than the generating power of all the nuclear plants in the world today.

By that point, the Chinese economy is expected to be the world's largest, and the idea that it may get most of its electricity from nuclear fission is being met with both optimism and concern. Nuclear power plants, unlike those that run on fossil fuels, release few greenhouse gases. But they produce waste that can be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.

China's plans already have been felt in world markets. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been traveling the world to secure contracts for the uranium needed to power nuclear reactors, striking deals recently with Australia and Niger. Higher worldwide demand and a fear of future shortages have driven the price of processed uranium ore from $10 a pound in 2003 to $120 this month.

A big reason Toshiba of Japan spent $5.4 billion last year to acquire Westinghouse Electric of Pennsylvania is expectations that China will buy into the company's nuclear technology in a big way over the next 20 to 30 years.

Even by the standards of China, where economic growth has been running at blistering double-digit-percentage rates for four years, the nuclear plans are ambitious. The country derives only 2.3 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, compared with about 20 percent in the United States and nearly 80 percent in France. Nine countries get 40 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear power, but worldwide, it supplies only 17 percent of the total.

To satisfy exploding demand for electricity, Chinese local governments and entrepreneurs have for years been throwing up rattletrap coal-fired power plants. They are so inefficient and dirty -- spewing greenhouse gases, soot and toxins including mercury into the air -- that the central government has been trying to limit construction of new ones, with limited success.

"Our irrational energy structure is causing serious pollution and greenhouse problems," said Gu Zhongmao, a professor at the China Institute of Atomic Energy, a government-affiliated research center. The situation provoked years of internal debate about nuclear power as an answer, he said, before the country's leaders finally came to a consensus.

In the Chinese context, he said, "nuclear power is regarded as a clean energy."

Yet environmental advocacy groups and outside safety experts are less than sanguine about the idea of hundreds of new nuclear plants being constructed by a secretive Communist government. The Chinese government has a poor public-safety record on issues far simpler than nuclear power, such as food and drug purity.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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