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China’s ‘insane’ gamble on nuclear power

by

BARRON'S ASIA

When I contemplate China’s plan to build as many as 135 nuclear reactors, I’m transported back to that harrowing March 2011 week when Fukushima No. 1 was melting down.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, a magnitude-9 earthquake struck 278 km northeast of Tokyo. Within hours, rumors of radiation-leakage began spreading. Word was that the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant had been hit hard by the trembler and resulting tsunami. Around 8:15 that evening, the government confirmed our worst fears, declaring an emergency 217 km north of the capital. Two hours later we learned the plant’s cooling system had failed; authorities admitting they, too, were “bracing for the worst.” The word “Chernobyl” quickly began trending in Japanese cyberspace.

And then, the spin machine kicked into action. Aside from the odd press report — and admission by Tokyo Electric Power Co. that radioactive substances “may” have leaked out — Japanese officialdom and its compliant media agreed on a script: our nuclear facilities are state-of-the-art and safe, and the public needn’t worry. NHK put on a parade of academics, armed with charts and scientific jargon, to say all’s well. Even though explosions at Fukushima No. 1 were aired live on television, the media message was don’t panic.

It was a stunningly disorienting moment. Even as Pentagon officials told reporters about radiation traces on reconnaissance planes returning to U.S. aircraft carriers, the local media stressed calm. The foreign media was often a different story. Gaijin TV celebrities standing in the rubble near Fukushima hyperventilating about impending apocalypse smacked more of disaster porn than journalism.

For us local scribes trying to keep up, it was a crash course in nuclear science. We sought out neighbors who owned Geiger counters, Googled words like “becquerel” and “sievert” and tracked wind-pattern websites. I was regretting not paying more attention in Mr. Payne’s high school physics class, while my family in New York called me daily demanding that I rush to the airport. Many fellow expats did, with Japan’s media deriding the fleeing crowd as “fly-jin” and “bye-jin.”

The truth, of course, was somewhere in between. But only in the months that followed did we learn how close the world actually came to losing Tokyo. Tepco was preparing to abandon the wrecked facility. Leaving the reactors to melt down unencumbered would have meant the immediate evacuation of 13 million-plus people. On March 15, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan literally stormed Tepco headquarters and demanded its technicians contain the crisis. Thanks to the government’s collusion with the media, it’s taken years for we in Tokyo to realize we probably owe Kan our lives.

I retrace Japan’s March 2011 because it is as clear and cautionary a tale as Beijing will find as it goes nuclear in a hurry. The number 100, China’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, tells the story. If a developed, tech-savvy, safety-obsessed nation like Japan — corruption ranking 15 — can avoid a nuclear disaster only by the skin of its teeth, what hope for a Communist China notorious for lax safety procedures, weak oversight and rampant graft? It’s a question officials meeting in Paris this week for the United Nations’ COP21 climate talks should ask early and often.

China operates 30 nuclear power plants, from which it derives about 2.5 percent of its electricity. Only by bringing at least six to eight new ones online per year, it’s widely thought, can President Xi Jinping make good on pledges to cap carbon emissions by 2030. Many new reactors will be constructed inland, away from coastal areas. China’s limited water supplies should be sufficient reason for concern. Beijing’s abysmal safety record is even more problematic.

Mega-projects are the hallmark of the Communist Party’s can-do reputation. But hyper-fast growth has its risks in a nation plagued by endemic corruption, rash planning, shoddy construction, murky regulations and opaque supervision. Time after time, this pattern plays out in the most-populous nation — just as it will again.

An August explosion 145 km from Beijing was just the latest reminder China isn’t ready for nuclear prime time. On the evening of Aug. 12, a series of thunderous blasts killed at least 173 people and made the port city of Tianjin global news. Two more explosions at hazardous-chemical plants close to residential areas followed over the next two months. Just as with deadly earthquakes, train crashes and ferry accidents in recent years, the world was shut out, government officials obfuscated, and Beijing learned nothing.

Here’s how Murong Xuecun, author of “Dancing Through Red Dust,” put it in a recent New York Times op-ed: “The only government competence on show is with information control: hiding facts, forbidding media reporting and rapidly closing social media accounts suspected of spreading rumors.”

Now apply this crisis-control playbook to a nuclear disaster, perhaps one near the Yangtze River, China’s biggest. The environmental fallout would be immense and exacerbated by Beijing’s efforts to — Fukushima-style — downplay the risks to avoid instability. Hundreds of millions of people eating contaminated fish and using irradiated water would make Chernobyl seem insignificant.

Not surprisingly, He Zuoxiu, a leading Chinese physicist, has called China’s plans for a bubble in nuclear reactors “insane.” As He told the Guardian in May: “Japan has better technology and better management, and yet it couldn’t avoid an accident despite the fact that it tried very hard to learn from the U.S. and U.S.S.R.”

China’s nuclear ambitions have the tacit approval of many COP21 participants amid calls for the biggest polluter to forsake coal. But this should be a moment of caution for global nuclear authorities who should be urging China to increase safety standards and emphasize more benign energy sources. Ditto for investors sensing a no-brainer profit opportunity. One reason China considers the nuclear option cheaper than solar, windmill and water sources, He says, is that staffing is sparser than in other nations and cost-cutting is de rigor. Just something for David Cameron to consider as the U.K. prime minister gloats over hosting a Chinese-designed reactor.

The sound science behind nuclear power is no match for the human factor. Japan had a mini reactor crisis in 1999, 13 years after Chernobyl, when technicians at the Tokai nuclear facility in Ibaraki Prefecture literally mixed radioactive materials in buckets.

Twelve years after that, the Einsteins at Tepco had all of Fukushima’s backup generators in the same place — a basement that was flooded by a tsunami (in the nation that coined the word). They also had 10,000-plus spent fuel rods sitting nearby. Four-plus years after March 2011, radiation is still leaking at Fukushima and the government has done little to punish Tepco’s negligence or raise its nuclear-safety game.

Nuclear power, industry cheerleaders claim, is cheap, safe and clean. In theory, perhaps, but ask the 100,000-plus Japanese in the Tohoku region who can’t return home. Or the Fukushima farmers and fishermen who can’t sell their wares. Just some food for thought for officials in Paris this week figuring a comparable scenario near the Yangtze is unthinkable. Think again.

William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com

  • The Nuclear Power Lobby has got us, good… As this writer puts it, “The sound science behind nuclear power is no match for the human factor.” It’s as though our Fukushima-warning didn’t happen.

    • Starviking

      What Fukushima-warning did you do?

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    Does Pesek read the paper he writes for? If he did, he would know all about Japan’s recent quality control scandals (airbags, failing brakes, unchecked components on reactors, falsified pilings data, falsified pharma data, substandard infrastructure construction, food mislabeling scandals, etc) that make it clear that Japan is as much as China has ‘lax safety and graft’. It’s just that Japan has been doing it’s best to cover it up and make it go away (i.e. hide it), whereas in China people are getting the death sentence for that kind of thing these days.
    Japan could do with some of that ‘zero tolerance’ to graft.

    • 99Pcent

      Perhaps they could start off by disposing sour grapes garbage like “someone” first.

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        Change sock-puppets for the weekend?

      • 99Pcent

        garbage as usual, no wonder it stinks like rotten sour grapes.

  • Richard Solomon

    I am heartened to see that even a Chinese physicist is calling the plan for more nuclear power there ‘insane.’ The events at Fukushima have proven for anyone with any commonsense that nuclear power is anything but safe and clean. The so called better safety regimen in Japan is hardly much more than a PR gambit to give Abe the justification he wants to ignore the will of the vast majority of his citizens. The latter don’t want to restart the nuclear power plants even if it means higher prices for electricity. After being in the middle of the harrowing first days and weeks of the ‘triple disaster’ former PM Kan very prudently called for the end of nuclear power. When Premier Xi or his successors have to confront similar circumstances, they’ll rue the day that this policy decision was made.

    • Jonathan Fields

      Good point. A historically huge earthquake and tsunami that kills thousands is all it takes to make one of these nuclear power stations completely unsafe. If that isn’t proof positive that nuclear energy is bad, I don’t know what is.

      /Sarcasm.

      • thedudeabidez

        An earthquake and tsunami that was in line with hisotrical precedents, and which TEPCO had been explicitly warned about, yet chose to ignore… Their safety manual for procedures in case of an accident, submitted to the govt., was a vague three-page outline.

      • Starviking

        The historical precedents were unclear and unproven, until March 11 2011.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    “Protective clothing? You don’t need it, just go in. When you die there are another 16,000 waiting for your job.”

  • thedudeabidez

    Bravo. Needed to be said. Hard to imagine what the UK is thinking allowing Chinese-built reactors on their soil.

    • Starviking

      The UK is not allowing Chinese-built reactors on their soil. They are building a Chinese modification of a French reactor.

    • Alan Smithee

      Yeah out of all the nuclear disasters none of them have been Chinese and the majority came from Western designs.

  • thedudeabidez

    Bravo. Needed to be said. Hard to imagine what the UK is thinking allowing Chinese-built reactors on their soil.

  • Starviking

    The truth, of course, was somewhere in between. But only in the months
    that followed did we learn how close the world actually came to losing
    Tokyo. Tepco was preparing to abandon the wrecked facility. Leaving the
    reactors to melt down unencumbered would have meant the immediate
    evacuation of 13 million-plus people.

    Rubbish. And you call yourself a journalist?

    Yoshida-san, the plant manager, wanted to evacuate non-essential workers. Ira-Kan got the wrong information from his subordinates, and instead of asking fro clarifications started ranting at TEPCO execs.

    The losing Tokyo story was another confabulation with the ranks of Kan’s crew. They imagined that all other nuclear plants would be abandoned, explode, and threaten the only place they cared about…Tokyo. It was literally bonkers.

    • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

      Between Tepco HQ first giving the order to stop cooling No.1 with seawater (the only water available), and then another order to start cooling with seawater again, was a period of 8 hours.

      As it happens, Plant Manager Yoshida had secretly disobeyed the order to stop cooling with seawater, so the reactor remained under cooling the whole time.

      It wasn’t until a few months later that Yoshida’s disobedience was discovered. Since it was also discovered that No. 1 had actually melted down, it is reasonable to presume that the results could have been far worse if Yoshida had not continued with the cooling. 8 hours of not cooling a melted down reactor – it’s never been done and hopefully never will.

      The only reason to stop the seawater was that the salt would make the reactor unusable in the future – just in case the emergency wasn’t really that bad and the reactor could have been used again.

      Tepco censured Yoshida once they found out about his disobedience.

      So we did learn in the following months that the disaster could have been much worse if not for the good luck that Yoshida disobeyed orders.

      • Starviking

        I recall reading that one of Kan’s advisors/experts feared that the natural uranium in the seawaters would cause the reactor to become critical again. Pretty crazy.

        The seawater ruining the reactor may or may not have had influence: all the media did was take an obvious comment at a meeting, along the lines of “The seawater will ruin the reactor” and ran with it. I have never come across any evidence that this was TEPCO’s reason for ordering seawater injection to be halted, only Kan’s bullying style and ravings influencing TEPCO to do anything to placate him.

      • “I recall reading that one of Kan’s advisors/experts feared that the natural uranium in the seawaters would cause the reactor to become critical again”

        If that was the fear, it was indeed insane, and that person was certainly no expert. Are you sure the concern wasn’t for introducing water (even seawater), thus providing a neutron moderator? That would be slightly more logical, but still not worthy of serious consideration – the effectiveness of a LWR moderator also requires a carefully engineered materials geometry, which the slag heap of melted corium (including neutron-eating control rods, burnable poisons, structural materials, and the non-volatile fission products) doesn’t provide.

        The whole bugaboo about re-criticality is meaningless – neutron & gamma flux and fission product production depend directly upon power level, and there are many inherent negative feedback characteristics of a LWR (even a melted one) that would limit any power increase, even if some recriticality were magically attained.

        Fermi’s 1942 CP-1 reactor, under the football stands at the University of Chicago, was critical, but required neither shielding nor containment – it operated first at 10 watts power, then 50.

  • Kenneth Ng Kwan Chung

    Well in everything there are risks and benefits. Bill Gates and China are experimenting with. New kind of nuclear reactor probably as mix of fusion and fission. May be much safer than the current ones. The current ones need water to cool the reactor and if that is not available, then everything goes haywire.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    The major problems with BWR are risk of meltdown and processing/storage of waste. At least for meltdown there exist designs which do not require throwing men into the fire hoping they will be able to put out a melting reactor. Molten Salt with a plug that melts so that the fuel can drain into a vault of of neutron absorbing material to quench the reaction. Really handy in case of a natural disaster, or even the age old disaster of man made war. Certainly not perfect, but still a serious attempt at improvement. Although it doesn’t address the problems of nuclear waste.

    It all boils down to not looking beyond a few decades profit horizon, ignoring anything longer term than that.

    Parts of the Ise Shrine are rebuilt every 20 years, and the wood comes from trees which were planted 200 years in advance just for that purpose. That’s a remarkable example of long term sustainability and planning. That principle needs to be applied to energy generation.

    I’m sorry, this was supposed to be about China, wasn’t it.

  • Alan Smithee

    Obama during the vast majority if his term has hampered green energy technology just because he didn’t want China to make all the money. Obama tried to stop the sale of a Canadian company to China that would’ve gave them advanced technical knowledge on fracking where China has one of the largest oil and gas shale reserves in the world. Obama also wants China to stop buying oil from countries it doesn’t like. Now anti-China Pesek wants China not to build nuclear power plants. Why don’t you all just say what this is really all about. You just want China eliminate themselves as a challenger to the Western world order.