China’s Nuclear Freeze to Last Until 2012

China’s freeze on new nuclear projects could last until the beginning of 2012, according to a senior industry official, underlining the gravity of China’s nuclear safety review.

Nuclear Power Plant
Nuclear Power Plant

China, which accounts for 40 percent of planned new reactors globally, halted approvals for new projects last month in a surprise move following the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

That decision, announced by the State Council in a vague statement, has kept the nuclear industry guessing about how long the freeze will last and whether Beijing could abandon its long-term nuclear strategy.

Beijing could restart approvals as soon as next year however, after new safety codes and a new Atomic Energy Law are completed.

“China’s nuclear development will slow down during the next two to three years,” said Feng Yi, deputy secretary-general of the China Nuclear Energy Association, which represents the nuclear industry and is involved in drafting the new regulations. “But in the medium and long term China’s nuclear strategy cannot be shaken.”

As the world’s largest user of energy, China’s actions will be key to shaping the global future of nuclear energy. The freeze in Beijing sent shivers through the industry at a time when countries around the world, including Germany and the U.S., have also been re-examining nuclear power plans.

Nuclear power has underpinned China’s transformation to clean energy, a high priority for the leadership in Beijing. The government’s target for 40GW of nuclear capacity by 2015 has remained unchanged throughout the crisis at Fukushima, underscoring the faith that leaders have in their atomic future.

The drafting of the Atomic Energy Law will be finished by October, and the new nuclear safety regulations will be completed by the end of the year, according to Mr Feng. The new law will cover everything from liabilities to safety and transparency standards, supplementing earlier regulations.

Some analysts say the freeze on nuclear projects this year is a correction that was overdue: China’s nuclear power sector was growing much faster than planned, forcing the government to double its 2020 nuclear target.

The slowdown would affect nine nuclear projects awaiting approval for this year, said Mr Feng. Meanwhile, other plants were undergoing inspection. “The possibility for China to shut down operating nuclear reactors during the present inspections is very small,” he said.