Report: Chinese Nuclear Plants Have ‘Systemic Safety Concerns’

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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China’s nuclear power program has “systemic safety concerns,” according to a report published Monday by Radio Free Asia.

Regulators for China’s nuclear power plants report 16 safety failures last year, all of which were caused by human error, according to official state-run media. Disturbingly, six of these safety failures were caused by staff members “pressing the wrong buttons,” according to the report. None of the errors seem to have resulted in leakage of radioactive material.

Chinese officials think the problems are being caused by a poor political culture and a lack of transparency.

“The system that operates in China at the moment … has created a whole layer of trained technical staff who are under huge amounts of pressure,” Liang Taiping, a former Chinese nuclear power plant engineer, told Radio Free Asia. “[This means that] not many people want to train in the technical professions; they all want to be party officials, so accidents and malfunctions are more likely.”

China treats any information about its nuclear power stations as highly confidential, making it very hard to identify problems before they occur.

“Also, the people who really get the work done are paid much less than the officials and managers who don’t get things done,” Liang explained. “I worked in that industry for seven years, and the front-line technicians worked incredibly hard, and they’re very dissatisfied.”

China scaled back its nuclear power ambitions in recent years, but still plans to double the amount of nuclear power it generates by 2050 while building extremely advanced molten-salt reactors, a concept America developed, but abandoned in the 1970s.

By 2050, China intends to have more than 350 gigawatts of nuclear power, having spent over a trillion dollars in nuclear investment. A gigawatt of power provides enough energy for roughly 700,000 homes.

China intends to bring 58 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity into operation by 2020, up from the current capacity of roughly 27 gigawatts, according to World Nuclear News. China plans to follow this up with 150 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2030, says the World Nuclear Association.

America, in contrast, currently plans to have 100 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2030.

China currently operates 30 nuclear reactors, from which it derives 2.5 percent of its electricity. The country plans to build another 24 reactors and will accelerate construction of a large commercial-scale reprocessing plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Installed nuclear capacity globally is expected to grow 60 percent by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, while American capacity will likely only grow by 16 percent over the same time period.

Of the 59 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide to help meet increasing demand for electricity, only four of them are being built in the America — just enough to compensate for shutting down aging nuclear reactors.

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