China's nuclear-power program loses steam
Sources say the next five-year plan may pull the plug on building more atomic plants.
China has long vowed to become one of the biggest nuclear-energy powers on the planet. Less than three years ago, it was touting plans to spend as much as $100 billion on new nuclear plants.Skip to next paragraph
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But today, there is a battle going on in Beijing's corridors of power over the future of atomic energy in China. Some Chinese officials are indicating that an unpublished ban on the import of commercial reactors may be extended for the foreseeable future.
"China has declared a moratorium on new [nuclear power] plant orders for the next three to four years," says Michael Marriotte, who monitors China's energy plans for the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
Indeed, a Western diplomat says there are growing reports that China, which now has three commercial nuclear power units operating and eight more under construction, may impose a ban on any new facilities for the duration of the next five-year plan, which covers the period 2001-2005.
If the ban is extended indefinitely, it could mark the beginning of the end for US and other Western nuclear-plant builders whose markets have dried up at home. If lifted, the Chinese market could spark a major renaissance for the nuclear industry, say American and European experts in the field.
Just a few years ago, China looked like the nuclear industry's salvation. American plant designers had state-of-the art technology but "faced dying demand in the US," says Wu Yong, an executive at Westinghouse Electric China.
And China saw the rapid development of nuclear plants "as an important status symbol of a major world power," says a Western diplomat based in Beijing. It wanted to build as many as 50 new plants to meet the energy needs of its fast-growing economy.
The government-run China Daily reported in November 1997 that "China is spending $60 to $100 billion in constructing nuclear power stations in the next 25 years." It added that "US companies will take a big slice of the Chinese market."
With so much money at stake, Westinghouse and other major energy companies lobbied long and hard for Washington to lift a standing ban on nuclear-technology transfers to Beijing. The ban was imposed in the mid-1980s after US intelligence reports that China was supplying nuclear technology to Pakistan, North Korea, and other countries believed to be focused on developing atomic weapons.
It was lifted in early 1998, after President Clinton certified that Beijing was no longer engaged in nuclear proliferation.
But just as the signing of the US-China nuclear-cooperation pact seemed to be opening Beijing's doors to sales of American plants, China's first major nuclear facility malfunction caused its first environmentally conscious premier to order a slowdown in new plant construction.
After a July 1998 incident at the Qinshan nuclear power plant in eastern Zhejiang province, Premier "Zhu Rongji said, 'Let's put nuclear power on hold right now and put our emphasis on other power sources,' " says the Western diplomat.
Daniel Lipman, an executive at Westinghouse's headquarters in Beijing, says the freeze on new orders applies to all foreign plant builders, and is not aimed specifically at the US.
Qinshan, China's first domestically built plant, was shut down for more than a year after mechanical defects were found in its reactor, the diplomat says.