China can’t afford to abandon nuclear power

By Wei Gu
March 15, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

By Wei Gu

Fears of a nuclear disaster after Japan’s earthquake will harden minds against nuclear power. That could affect China most. The country, already the world’s biggest energy consumer, plans to expand nuclear capacity by seven-fold by 2020. Whatever the risks, it has little choice, if it hopes to cut emissions without sacrificing growth.

China badly needs to cut its reliance on fossil fuels. Coal and oil each supplied 71 percent and 19 percent of its total energy consumption in 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At current levels of production, China’s proven reserves of coal will be depleted in 50 years, according to BP.

China has promised to reduce carbon emission per unit of GDP by at least 40 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, which looks impossible if the country remains hooked on carbon fuels. Wind and solar aren’t stable and scalable enough to fill the gap. Renewables will only make up 15 percent of total energy by 2020. A lack of transmission infrastructure means much capacity sits idle.

While rare nuclear accidents can involve large loss of life, China’s reliance on coal brings unacceptable fatalities too, and with more regularity. Officially, mines claimed 2,400 lives in 2010. Even hydropower has its own problems. The Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydropower project in the world, has been linked with increased risk of landslides, and major ecological damage.

China has two defenses against Japan’s kind of problem. First, geography. While China too has had earthquakes — including the 1976 quake which killed 225,000 people — the country is big enough to place plants outside danger zones. That’s not necessarily true for other disaster-prone nations like Indonesia and the Philippines.

Second, China’s latecomer status means it has a chance to focus on safer technology. Japan uses second-generation nuclear technology; the affected plant is 30 years old. China’s third-generation plants are built to withstand higher internal pressure and can cool more easily. Japan’s catastrophe will no doubt lead to further technological advances.

With Japan’s reactors still unstable, it may be difficult to be rational about nuclear energy. But China’s addiction to coal could have no less serious consequences over the coming decades. Japan’s problems shouldn’t turn China off its course.

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I entirely agree.

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