China set to OK new nuke plants, ending moratorium

BEIJING -- China said Wednesday that it is ready to approve new nuclear power plants as part of ambitious plans to reduce reliance on oil and coal, ending a moratorium imposed after Japan's Fukushima disaster last year.

The government said it hopes to generate 30 percent of China's power from solar, wind and other renewable sources as well as from nuclear energy by the end of 2015. That's up from an earlier target of 15 percent from renewables plus 5 percent from nuclear by 2020.

The Communist government is aggressively promoting wind, solar, hydro and other alternative energy sources to reduce pollution from coal plants and curb surging reliance on imported oil, which it sees as a national security risk.

The Cabinet on Wednesday passed plans on nuclear power safety and development that said construction of nuclear power plants would resume "steadily."

Only a small number of plants will be built, and only in coastal areas, according to a Cabinet announcement about the plans. The plants will meet the most stringent safety standards, it said.

No date was given for resuming construction of nuclear plants. Despite widespread public concern over possible radiation contamination from the Fukushima disaster and calls for improved safety precautions and emergency preparedness, China remains committed to building up nuclear power to help reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and curb its reliance on costly oil imports.

China suspended approvals of new nuclear plants in March last year after a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake crippled the Fukushima plant's cooling and backup power systems, causing partial meltdowns in the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

China's leaders ordered safety checks for existing nuclear facilities, a review of projects under construction and improved safety standards.

"The inspection results show that nuclear security is guaranteed in China," according to a government report on its energy policy also released Wednesday. "China implements the principle of `safety first' in the whole process of nuclear power station planning."

China currently has 15 nuclear reactors that provide about 12.5 gigawatts of generating capacity, and another 26 reactors are under construction that will add 30 gigawatts, the report said.

Nuclear power accounts for only 1.8 percent of power in China, it said.

The government report also said that China is now 90 percent energy self-sufficient, but acknowledged high demand will continue to put a strain on resources.

It also warned of "grave challenges" to its energy security in its growing dependence on imported petroleum. Imports accounted for a third of total petroleum consumption in the early 2000s and have jumped to nearly 60 percent now, the report said.

China will also encourage private companies to participate in exploration and development of energy resources, it said.