12 Jun 2014

Nuclear energy in China: the known unknowns

I taught a fourth-year class at Simon Fraser University where I allowed students to pick a "natural resource" topic that they would study, present and write on. I learned a lot from my students (who enjoyed the experience [pdf]) and asked each to write a blog post on an interesting dimension of the area they studied.

Here's a lightly edited post from SC:

Currently, China accounts for half of the world’s proposed nuclear power plant constructions, fueled not only by Chinese every expanding economy, but by the pursuit for her own moment in the sun. This demand for nuclear power far outstrips China’s ability to supply qualified technicians. No doubt the recent meltdown in Fukushima sounded the alarm among the Chinese government.

The problem is the standards. Forty-one reactors in China are either under construction or already operational, but with less than 1% of the nuclear power experts in the world, China finds herself in the perfect “nuclear” storm. These same reactors fall short of the internationally recognized standards for flood and earthquake resistance, and availability of domestic supplies for fuel. Substandard plants greatly increase the nuclear accident rate in China. With a further thirty new reactors slated for 2020, China’s own Research Council has recently warned of a growing shortage of technical experts that could compromise safety. It has been estimated that 5,000 nuclear experts will be required before this date, currently there is only four universities with nuclear programs producing the 200-300 experts annually; leaving a 3,800 to 3,200 deficit by 2020. This is to presume that none of the other already existing plants are not absorbing the new grads. As the nuclear power plant technology in China is imported from several countries like France, Russia, Canada and the US, there is a wide variety of power plant design and modules. For the Chinese inspectors and technical schools this poses a serious problem, since many of the local experts may have been trained on a specific reactor, and a new design is a world away.

The only thing more alarming than this has been the government’s lack of public transparency; when the Fukushima disaster struck the world’s attention only a few years ago, nuclear opponents in China sighed a breath of fresh air, but with the recent push for energy growth this proved short lived.

If China is not able to secure adequate regulation and oversight of their nuclear facilities a new disaster is ripe for the making. Enhancing transparency of nuclear power and establish a proper regulatory body can compel Chinese nuclear authorities to foster an environment of safety for the development of nuclear power.

Bottom Line: China's massive expansion in nuclear power will stretch overworked experts, risking disaster.