By Oliver Tickell
China’s plans for 400 nuclear reactors threaten global catastrophe, writes Oliver Tickell. In the normal way of things we could expect major accidents every few years, but with 300 reactors along China’s seismically active coast, a major tsunami would be a Fukushima on steroids – wiping out much of China and contaminating the whole planet.
“China shows the way to build nuclear reactors fast and cheap.” That was the bullish headline in a Forbes magazine article last week.
It went on to praise the scale of the planned nuclear investment in China’s new Five-Year Plan that runs from 2016 to 2020. Under the plan the government is to invest over US$100 billion to build seven new reactors a year until 2030.
“By 2050”, James Conca wrote for Forbes, “nuclear power should exceed 350 GW in that country, include about 400 new nuclear reactors, and have resulted in over a trillion dollars in nuclear investment.”
Now Conca is pretty enthusiastic about this. But the reality is a potential nuclear nightmare in the making. Experience to date shows that we should, on average, expect a major nuclear accident to take place for every 3,000 to 4,000 years of reactor operation. And with over 400 reactors running at once, it doesn’t take long to clock up those 3,000 years.
In fact, you could reasonably expect a major Chernobyl or Fukushima level accident every seven to ten years – in China alone, if it pursues nuclear build on that scale.
The world’s first truly global nuclear catastrophe
I have done no study of the tsunami vulnerability of all the 300 nuclear reactors that could end up being built along China’s east and south coasts. But at least one – the CANDU reactor shown in the photo (above right) at Qinshan, where seven reactors are currently operational, looks vulnerable in the extreme.
And the consequences of a really big earthquake and tsunami hitting China’s coastal array of 300 nuclear reactors would be truly catastrophic. Many dozens of reactors could be struck down, each doing their own ‘Fukushima’.
This would not just bring massive radioactive contamination to China’s most developed, prosperous, productive and populated regions, but spread around the world in air and sea currents to make the world’s first truly global nuclear catastrophe.
The only good news in all this is that nuclear construction in China is not proceeding anything like as fast as Forbes magazine claims. Most of the more modern ‘Generation III’ reactors are well behind in their completion times, echoing the European experience with the failed EPR design.
We can only hope that construction difficulties persist and abound – and that China’s rulers realise that investments in solar, wind and other renewables are a quicker, surer, safer way to bring power to the masses – and one that poses no existential threat to their country, and the world.