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2017-02-04 14:12:25

China looks to be ready to resume building new inland nuclear power plants, five years after a ban on such projects was implemented following the Fukushima accident in Japan.

In a policy document, the government of Henan, a landlocked province in central China, said it will “steadily push forward the preparation for nuclear plants.”

The notice, published in January but only recently reported on in Chinese media, sets out the province’s plans for the energy sector during the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which sets economic goals for 2016 to 2020. The document proposes to “push forward” nuclear power projects in four cities: Nanyang, Xinyang, Luoyang, and Pingdingshan.

The Nanyang nuclear plant project was included in central government planning in 2010, according to a local news report, while the proposed power plant in Luoyang was mentioned in a 2008 report by state news agency Xinhua. Although the Luoyang municipal government was in favor of the project, the provincial government did not support it due to safety concerns, the article said.

But the January document is apparently in full support of all four proposals. “We should protect these plant sites and endeavor to have them listed again in the National Nuclear Long-and-Medium Term Development Planning,” it said, referring to a central government document that was updated in 2012 to stop all inland nuclear power projects. The ban followed the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, where radioactive material leaked from a nuclear power plant that had been damaged by a tsunami.

The Fukushima accident was a turning point for China’s nuclear ambitions. Before then, a 2007 version of the nation’s nuclear planning document included approved projects in nine inland provinces, including Henan. But the 2012 revision only approved the construction of several power plants on the coast —  all inland nuclear projects were suspended indefinitely, putting tens of billions of yuan in investments on hold.

At the beginning of this year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the agency under China’s cabinet that manages the economy, published a new five-year plan for the energy sector in which it hinted that inland nuclear projects might be back on track. In the document, the commission said it would “actively demonstrate” the feasibility of such projects and “reinforce” the protection of designated power plant sites.

In late 2016, the central government also drafted a new safety law for its nuclear facilities.

The moves come as Chinese citizens are increasingly fed-up with heavy smog from coal-fired power plants, and as the government plans to invest more in renewable energy sources such as solarwind, and hydropower.

“There is no difference between the inland nuclear plants and the coastal ones when it comes to safety issues,” said Jiang Kejuan, a researcher at the NDRC’s Energy Research Institute. He told Sixth Tone the ban was a cautious move that was merely intended to assuage public fears.

Jiang said the ongoing and planned nuclear power plant projects in China are much safer than the Fukushima plant and use more advanced technology. “Even a plane would not be able to crush the shells of the plants,” he said, adding that China is planning to build plants safe enough to be categorized as “third-generation.” For comparison, the Fukushima plant was a second-generation power station.

In May 2016, Hong Kong news agency FactWire reported that subpar components had been used in the construction of a nuclear plant in Taishan, a city in southern China’s Guangdong province. The plant was expected to be the first third-generation plant put into use worldwide, but the discovery raised doubts about its safety. “In every way, China is making an unprecedented big move,” Hu Zhonghao, a former senior scientist at the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research in Canada, told FactWire regarding China’s ambitions to lead the world in next-generation power plants. “I think it should be very careful.”

Jiang said that there is not yet a renewed national plan for nuclear power plants, but that the nation should see building more nuclear power plants as a fundamental strategic move. “China is currently capable of building safe nuclear power plants,” he said.

(Header image: A view of the joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station under construction outside Taishan City, Guandong province, Dec. 8, 2013. AFP/VCG)