China's nuclear power plant review: 'problems in 14 areas' found

Should we be concerned? A nuclear official said in passing this weekend that problems in 14 areas need to be resolved. In the wake of Fukushima, a shade more transparency would be welcome.

Carlos Barria/REUTERS
A Chinese flag is seen near a nuclear power plant in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, February 15.

The Chinese government often trumpets the efforts it says it is making to encourage officials to be more open with the public, relaxing the notorious secrecy that surrounds most official business here.

But sometimes that openness raises more questions – alarming ones, too – than it answers.

Take a press conference held on Saturday on the sidelines of the annual National People's Congress meeting, at which a top nuclear-industry insider spoke:

Referring to a safety review of China’s nuclear power plants conducted in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan last year, he mentioned, in passing, that “problems in 14 areas have been found and need to be resolved.”

Some of them will take up to three years to fix, he added.

That was all that Wang Binghua, chairman of the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp., said on the subject, and none of the journalists present pressed him further, according to an official transcript of his remarks.

So all we, and the Chinese public, know is that among China’s 14 working nuclear reactors there are 14 “problems.” What they might be, where, how serious they are, and what can be done to rectify them remains secret.

China’s nuclear safety record is comparatively good. None of its reactors has suffered more than a Level 2 “incident” on a seven-level international scale (Fukushima was Level 7.) But the mysterious 14 problems are a concern because Beijing has gone on a nuclear splurge, with more than 25 reactors under construction and more about to start.

Mr. Wang said he expected that the current freeze on the examination and approval of new nuclear plants – in effect since Fukushima – would end this year.

He promised that “the Chinese government will not approve any new nuclear project that does not contain necessary emergency measures before the problems identified in the review have been solved.”

But since nobody outside China’s nuclear industry knows what the problems are, nobody can know whether they have been solved or not.
Suddenly, even Japan’s dangerously shadowy nuclear industry begins to look almost transparent....

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