China to restart nuclear power program

Chinese students learn about radiation awareness during a class at a school in Hanshan, east China's Anhui province on March 17, 2011.

Story highlights

  • Beijing has indicated that it will lift its year-long moratorium on new nuclear projects
  • Will breathe life into an industry plagued since the disaster at Fukushima

Beijing has indicated that it will lift its year-long moratorium on new nuclear projects in a move that will breathe life into an industry plagued by uncertainty since the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactor last year.

China's cabinet announced it had approved the 2020 nuclear strategy, finalised new safety standards and finished inspecting the country's existing nuclear plants. After the Japanese nuclear crisis China suspended approvals of new reactors while it conducted safety inspections and drafted new regulations.

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As the world's largest energy user China is key to setting the direction of future global nuclear expansion. Beijing's latest announcement marks a major step towards the full resumption of its nuclear building programme, which accounts for 40 per cent of global reactors under construction today.

"This is the main hurdle," said Guo Shou, energy analyst at Barclays. "Approvals for new nuclear reactors are around the corner, they are going to come very, very soon."

Restarting nuclear approvals will help boost growth and create jobs in China's nuclear sector at a time when Beijing is weighing options on how to prevent a further slowdown in the economy, although the plans are not formally part of any stimulus programme.

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China draws most of its energy from burning coal but Beijing is building up wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear power as it seeks to shift toward non-fossil fuel sources. The country is targeting 60GW of nuclear capacity in 2020, according to comments by Chinese officials, which would put China's reactor fleet on par with that of France.

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In the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear crisis in March 2011, several European countries abandoned or postponed plans for nuclear expansion. However many emerging economies, including China, remained committed to nuclear power and are setting the pace of global nuclear growth.

China's new safety regulations are expected to provide a boost worldwide for the latest nuclear technologies, especially for "third-generation" reactors being built in China by Westinghouse of the US and Areva of France.

Chinese nuclear companies are also trying to expand their presence overseas and have bid for reactor contracts around the world.

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"The combination of technical experience, operational experience and support that can come out of China will make China a leader in the global nuclear industry," said George Borovas, head of the nuclear practice at global law firm Pillsbury. "We are starting to see it already. Chinese companies are in the international marketplace much more aggressively than they were one or two years ago."

China's cabinet said that some Chinese reactors will need to be upgraded under the new standards, citing the need for flood-safety and seismic-related improvements.

The announcement, which was posted online and dated May 31, clears the way for China's energy administration to roll out a set of more detailed policies, although the cabinet stopped short of saying exactly when new approvals would restart.

The 2020 plan and the new safety standards have not yet been released but the State Council said they would be published for public comment, without indicating when.