It had been about a month since chemical explosions blasted and burned through the port of Tianjin, killing 173. Pictures of rescue workers in hazmat suits became some of the signature images of the disaster. And despite incredible censorship, it was clear to most that unsafe chemical storage — thanks to bribery by local big shots — was to blame.
Still, on Sept. 15, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection announced post-Tianjin nuclear safety checks to "make sure nuclear facilities and equipment are safe and under control." Given the timing, it felt less like an assurance than an afterthought: "We definitely did not forget to check those nukes."
Now, almost four months after the Tianjin blasts, with world leaders gathered in Paris for climate talks, a top Chinese energy firm reminded us, again, of China's nuclear future—a future that a prominent Chinese physicist recently called "insane."
Power Construction Corp of China, a state-owned enterprise, on Thursday said that the draft of China's 13th five-year-plan, an important government blueprint, says the country will have 110 working nuclear reactors by 2030. The plan calls for about $78 billion to be set aside to build plants using "homegrown nuclear technologies," and would see the addition of six to eight reactors a year for five years.
The figures have circulated before and are roughly in line with the number of proposed plants — 150 — that the World Nuclear Association estimates are under consideration as part of the country's move away from coal. China currently has 30 plants that account for 2.4 percent of its electricity consumption; upping the number of reactors to 110 would help the country meet its goal of 10 percent nuclear power by 2030.
The country also hopes to export its new-found nuclear expertise, with officials telling state media they hope to sell six to eight China-made nuclear generators by 2020. Chinese companies recently inked nuclear deals with Romania, Argentina and Britain.
The emphasis on nuclear energy over coal will please many of those gathered in Paris this week. But the idea of nuclear power in China makes many people, including many in the country, quite nervous.
China opened its first reactor in the early 1990s. After some growth, development slowed following a nuclear sector corruption scandal in 2009 and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. After watching Japan struggle with the aftermath of that disaster many here wondered if China ought to pursue an industry that so roiled the relatively wealthy, rule-abiding and safety-conscious Japanese.
The blasts in Tianjin were another reminder that the country has a long way to go in terms of industrial and workplace safety. If local authorities regularly fail to keep mines, factories and warehouses safe, should they be trusted with overseeing nuclear plants?
One of the most compelling critics is He Zuoxiu, a physicist who worked on China's nuclear program and is a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences. In an interview with the Guardian last May, he called plans to rapidly increase the number of nuclear power plants in China "insane."
In an telephone interview on Friday, He was similarly pointed. After emphasizing that the draft five-year plan is just that — a draft — he went on to criticize, in the starkest terms, calls for 100+ nuclear reactors in China, comparing the idea to a "clumsy Great Leap Forward," Mao's disastrous and deadly social campaign.
"The speed of building nuclear power is already very fast, it is unparalleled in the world," he said. "There is already risk for major nuclear accidents."
"If China builds more than 50 nuclear reactors, the risk for a major accident would be very huge."
He's prescription: build, but slowly. "We need experience," he said.
Gu Jinglu reported from Beijing.