BEIJING — In a dramatic reversal, China’s State Council, or cabinet, announced Wednesday that it was suspending approval for all new nuclear power plants until the government could issue revised safety rules, in light of the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan.
The State Council, chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, also announced that the government would conduct safety checks at the country’s existing nuclear facilities and those under construction, according to a brief statement issued after the meeting and reported by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
“We will temporarily suspend approval of nuclear power projects, including those in the preliminary stages of development,” the statement said.
China’s decision came a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the seven nuclear power plants built before 1980 in her country would be shut down, at least for now, while safety checks are conducted. The German government had already suspended plans to extend the life of its aging plants.
Switzerland announced Monday that it would freeze plans to build or replace nuclear power plants, and Austria called for new stress tests on such facilities across Europe.
Still more countries, including Italy, where a Franco-Italian partnership is planning to start building a nuclear plant in 2013, have called for calm, with authorities saying the crisis should not derail the nuclear power industry’s recent renaissance as the clean-energy option of the future.
White House officials continue to defend the use of nuclear power in the United States, which President Obama has embraced throughout his administration. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a congressional committee Wednesday that Obama has not altered plans to build new nuclear plants in the country, part of his campaign to have the nation obtain 80 percent of its energy from “clean” sources by 2035.
China, with 13 nuclear reactors in operation, at least 26 under construction and more in the planning stage, has by far the world’s most ambitious nuclear power program.
But that program has attracted little or no public debate or scrutiny in this authoritarian country, where decisions are handed down by the ruling elite and most traditional news media are tightly controlled.
Last week, when the crisis in Japan began, Zhang Lijun, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, said there would be no change in the country’s nuclear plans. “Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered,” he said. “But China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power.”
But the disaster at Fukushima has riveted the Chinese public, prompting a debate for the first time over the country’s growing reliance on nuclear power for its energy needs and causing panic on China’s southeastern coast, closest to Japan across the East China Sea.
In Shanghai, residents were stocking up on iodine pills and face masks, fearing that the radioactive steam cloud above the Fukushima plant might drift across the sea toward China.
At Shanghai’s Lei Yun Shang pharmacy, a worker said the store sold out its entire stock of 300 boxes of iodine Tuesday — more than is sold in a typical month — and 600 more boxes Wednesday. The worker said the pharmacy also sold about 1,000 face masks, its entire supply.
Chinese authorities began radiation checks at airports and seaports of people, luggage and goods arriving from Japan. In the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, environmental officials began taking air samples and conducting round-the-clock monitoring for radiation.
So far, no abnormal levels of radiation have been reported.
A group of Chinese nuclear scientists and other experts called on the government Wednesday to quickly pass the country’s first atomic energy law to regulate more clearly the growing nuclear industry here, including safety supervision at nuclear power stations.
Also Wednesday, the Global Times newspaper, whose editorials often reflect the thinking of its owner, the ruling Communist Party, called for more public debate over China’s nuclear expansion.
“China has seen little debate over nuclear power safety as compared with other countries,” the paper’s lead editorial said. “It is questionable whether China will stick to a proper pace of nuclear power development, and maintain strictest safety standards in selecting its construction sites.”
It added, “It always takes more time when the public joins in debates and supervision. However, such costs are certainly worthwhile when we consider the importance of nuclear power.”
Researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai and staff writer David Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.