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.
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 Some Chinese officials are indicating that an unpublished ban on the import of commercial reactors may be extended for the foreseeable future.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.
He says that bolts, monitoring tubes and fuel rods had been damaged due to faulty construction of the reactor, and adds: "Qinshan opened Chinese eyes to the complexity of building these
things." An official at the China National Nuclear Corp., the country's top nuclear regulatory agency, says "there were no injuries or any leak of radiation during the incident at Qinshan."
The official, surnamed Jin, adds China National has since ordered stepped-up inspections of all nuclear power plants and fuel suppliers.
Although China's potential suppliers of nuclear technology in the West are alarmed at the ban on wholesale plant imports, they need not fear the rise of "No Nukes" protests.
"I've never seen any sign of an anti-nuclear movement here," says the diplomat.
Dai Qing, one of China's most ardent environmental activists, says there's a good reason for the lack of an anti-nuclear outcry following the Qinshan shutdown.
"Nuclear power stations and their operations are classified as top secret by the state," says Ms. Dai, who is also an investigative reporter. "Even China's leading nuclear scientists could find no outlet in the state-run media here to publish anti-nuclear articles," she adds.
Indeed, not until after Qinshan resumed operations last autumn did Chinese newspapers gave sketchy accounts of a "mechanical hitch" at the site.
The lack of an anti-nuclear movement here added to the halo surrounding the Chinese market for Western plant manufacturers.
In China, Mr. Marriotte says, "when the public knows nothing about nuclear technology or its dangers, there's not going to be any fear of broad-based opposition to new plants."
Westinghouse and other American power companies hope that China will revive plans for high-speed development of nuclear power, and they have many allies within the Chinese government.
"Many provinces would like to build nuclear power plants because they bring the central government's investment, new jobs, etc.," says the diplomat.
In Beijing, "the Chinese have competing government agencies in regulating nuclear power," he says. "All these entities have a different opinion and a different vested interest in promoting nuclear power or putting it on the back burner."
The Western diplomat and Chinese officials agree that the short-term future of nuclear power expansion will depend on the depth of Premier Zhu's determination to slow down the nuclear industry and his ability to withstand pressure from pro-nuclear forces in the Communist Party and government.
But after Zhu, who is slated to retire in 2002, steps down, the issue of rapid nuclear power growth could again become an open question.
"China still has the potential to become the largest market in the world for nuclear power stations," the diplomat said.
For the dwindling number of plant makers, "There's really nowhere else to go except Asia," Marriotte adds.
Peer de Rijk, a nuclear power expert at the Amsterdam-based World Information Service on Energy, says China's decision on whether to extend or end its ban on new plant orders could break or make the remaining nuclear energy firms in the US and Europe."China's decision on the moratorium will be one of the most important factors in the future of the nuclear power industry," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society