China suspends all new nuclear plants, orders safety review

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

By Keith B. Richburg and
Washington Post researcher Wang Juan in
Shanghai contributed to this report
Washington Post

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 nuclear facility in Japan.

The State Council, chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, also announced 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.

With 13 nuclear reactors in operation, at least 26 others under construction, and more in the planning stage, China 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 media is tightly controlled.

Last week, when the crisis in Japan first began, Zhang Lijun, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, told reporters that there would be no change in China’s nuclear plans. "Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China’s nuclear power plans," he said. "But China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power."

But the disaster at Fukushima across the East China Sea 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.

In Shanghai, residents were stocking up on iodine pills and face masks, fearing that the radioactive steam cloud above the Fukushima plant may 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 then another 600 boxes Wednesday. The worker said the pharmacy also sold about 1,000 face masks, its entire supply.

Chinese authorities began radiation checks of people, luggage and goods arriving at airports and seaports from Japan. In Heilongjiang province in northeast China, environmental officials began taking air samples and conducting around-the-clock monitoring for radiation.

So far, no abnormal levels of radiation have been detected.

A group of Chinese nuclear scientists and other experts publicly called on the government 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 Global Times’ 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."


Washington Post researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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