Just over 6 years ago: Japan leery of China’s nuclear energy plans

Japan is dumping highly radioactive water into the sea. The Chinese and the Koreans are certainly unhappy for obvious reasons. Will the radioactivity fallout problems in Japan also cause problems to rest of Asia?  Perhaps, however one thing that can be certain is that, if China that is the source of the nuclear disaster, the criticisms and condemnations from Japan and much of the West (including Australia) would be much harsher.  

This Asia Times article is more than 6 years old.  I have read it back then, and felt even then (when China was much less economically developed) that the Japanese were being condescending with the Chinese. It was rather presumptuous to think that they could urge the Chinese to back down on the nuclear energy plans, when the Japanese themselves have many nuclear power plants.   

Much of the fears about China inability to built and run the nuclear power stations safely proved to be unfounded. In-fact many of the newer stations being built in China have additional safeguards  and have higher standards that make them much safer than those in Japan or US.

The nuclear disaster that is taking place in Japan today, is largely due to the inadequacy of safety safeguards in Japanese nuclear power stations to deal with earthquakes and tsunami risks .    Instead of the imagined China’s Chernobyl’s undermining the economy and social welfare of Japan, as being pointed out in the 6 year old article, the reality is that it is Japan’s Chernobyl that is undermining the economy and social welfare of whole of Asia.

Nov 11, 2004

Japan leery of China’s nuclear energy plans
By Phar Kim Beng

TOKYO – Japan knows about nuclear power – from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from its own nuclear accidents. And it’s worried that China’s voracious appetite for energy, its poor record of industrial safety and its plan to build more nuclear reactors could mean major accidents affecting North Asia.

Japan, which stands to gain financially from China’s desperate need for energy to fuel its high-powered economy, increasingly is worried that Beijing’s pledge to rely on nuclear power is potentially dangerous, posing serious safety issues for China and Japan. Japan has had its own safety problems with nuclear power and doesn’t want more business at the cost of human life.

More than half of China’s economy is driven by manufacturing, 54% according to a report by the Far Eastern Economic Review. Economists such as Andy Xie at JPMorganChase affirmed that more than one-third of Chinese consumption is already responsible for Japan’s pulsating yearly growth and its economic recovery.

According to British Petroleum (BP) statistics, in response to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 9.1%, China’s total energy demand surged 13.8% in 2003. Increase in electricity demand in China last year accounted for 50 gigawatts of total global growth of 70GW (a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, a megawatt is a million watts).

With oil being so expensive and prices so volatile and the reliance on coal environmentally hazardous, China plans to follow South Korea and Japan by developing its own nuclear industry to generate electricity.

Wealthier nations such as Japan and South Korea, which lack their own natural resources, have already developed large nuclear industries to buttress their economies. Some 39% of electricity, in both countries, is generated from 52 reactors in Japan and 19 in South Korea.

Both Japan and South Korea plan to build more nuclear plants, although the outcome in Japan remains unclear as a string of accidents and falsification reports have rattled the confidence of the Japanese public in nuclear energy.

In contrast, China currently has nine nuclear reactors, with two more Russian models under construction, expected to be operational by the end of next year.

According to the latest US government report, Beijing plans to buy 20 more reactors from the United States. Since China is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such sales, especially from Westinghouse Electric Co LLC, are expected to sail through in the next two months without opposition – on the condition that China does not sell the technology or parts to another country.

China’s existing nine reactors have a combined capacity of 6,500 megawatts, supplying just under 2% of the country’s electricity. There is therefore a great deal of room for the growth in Chinese nuclear energy. Indeed, before the end of this year, China has already proposed inviting international tenders for four more reactors, each capable of producing about 1,000MW and costing about US$1.5 billion apiece.

In terms of output, this would be similar to the two 1,000MW VVER-type Russian reactors under construction at Tianwan, on China’s east coast. (VVER is a Russian designation for a reactor type referred to in the West as PWR, for pressurized-water reactor.)

The power stations form part of a longer-term plan to raise China’s nuclear capacity to just under 40,000MW by 2020, according to Zhang Huazhu, vice minister in charge of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

The $30 billion development program earmarked for 2020 will require the construction of about two reactors a year, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), “similar in scale to the large French nuclear construction program undertaken in the 1980s”.

However, at China’s current rate of energy consumption and economic growth, even if its 2020 nuclear energy plans all come to fruition, they will by then only account for just over 4% of the country’s total installed power-generating capacity, according to WNA analysts.

Nor would China’s move to nuclear energy be able to alter its reliance on oil and hydrocarbon – after all, very little petroleum is used to generate electricity. In this sense, just as China builds more nuclear reactors, there is no guarantee that China would become environmentally cleaner, or energy self-sufficient.

China’s nuclear energy trajectory does not sit well with the Japanese government. But this official anxiety has not been translated yet into any tangible action to persuade China to seek other sources of energy. This is because Japanese society is not yet sufficiently aware of the China nuclear-reactor issue to put pressure on the Japanese bureaucracy in turn to put pressure on China.

Sachiko Takahashi, a security analyst at Waseda University, told Asia Times Online that while the government may be concerned, “the Japanese society remains oblivious to the risk posed by China’s increasing reliance on nuclear energy”.

Yet the concern over China’s nuclear-energy plans is palpable among Japanese watchers of China. Ryukichi Imai, a senior security expert at the Institute of International Policy Studies (IIPS), a think-tank close to former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, says that at the current rate, multiple “China Chernobyls” – a reference to the world’s worst nuclear disaster in Soviet Ukraine in April 1986 – will significantly undermine Japan’s economic and social welfare. (The radioactivity released at Chernobyl was 100 times as great as that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan; more than 30 were killed outright, more died later, 135,000 were evacuated, 10 years later babies were born with birth defects; the effects still are being felt.)

Japanese attuned to this line of analysis cannot help but agree, especially given Japan’s poor record of maintaining the safety of its own nuclear reactors.

Fears about the safety of the country’s 52 nuclear power plants soared in 1999, when a radiation leak northeast of Tokyo killed two workers and exposed hundreds to radiation. A 2002 investigation revealed that Tokyo Electric Power, the world’s largest private utility, systematically lied about the appearance of cracks in its reactors during the 1980s and 1990s.

The company later temporarily shut down all 17 of its reactors for inspections to reassure the public they were safe.

Yet this August, Japan suffered its deadliest nuclear power plant accident, in Mihama, a small city 320km west of Tokyo in Fukui prefecture, when a bursting steam pipe killed at least four workers and injured seven others.

However, while the safety concerns are only now emerging, Japanese companies have become starry-eyed about doing business with powerhouse China, eager to participate in its economic expansion and its energy industry. The three big players in Japan’s power-system-related businesses are Toshiba Corp, Hitachi Ltd and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI).

MHI won a bulk contract last year to supply 10 gas turbines to be installed at four thermal plants in China. The contract helped MHI become the world’s top supplier of gas turbines last year. According to the latest figures, MHI’s profits in 2003 improved by 42%, largely due to its trade in China.

MHI is Japan’s only builder of PWRs, the type of nuclear reactors that the Chinese government is planning to commission.

“We have learned that China is considering construction of eight or more nuclear reactors,” an MHI official said, adding that the company plans to tie up with Westinghouse Electric Co LLC of the United States in bidding for those projects.

Nevertheless, despite such enthusiastic embrace of China by the Japanese private sector, there clearly are some efforts to prevent China from going down the nuclear path too swiftly or recklessly.

Professor Nobuo Okawara of Kyushu University told Asia Times Online that being so close to China, “Japanese pressures to influence China’s internal and international developments can only grow in time, and issue.” As such, Tokyo in particular has tried to encourage China to meet its energy needs by building more pipelines and by relying on liquefied natural gas (LNG).

According to Michael Green, a leading Japan expert in the Council on Foreign Relations, “From Japan’s perspective, funding for pipelines inside China or [an] international co-development scheme for the Spratly or Senkaku islands increase interdependence and decrease the prospects that China will embark on a dangerous program of naval modernization to protect sea lanes of communication that are so vital to Japan.”

Still, Japan is clearly caught on the horns of a dilemma with this proposal. This is because if China were to take this advice fully to heart, the reach of Chinese pipelines would also extend all the way into Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Russia, thus reducing the strategic influence of Japan. The governing Liberal Democratic Party is aware of this paradox. Hence it has encouraged the establishment of an Asian Energy Community to coordinate this cooperation with China.

Phar Kim Beng is a regular contributor to Asia Times Online. He is currently on a Sumitomo Foundation fellowship, where he is studying the state of Japanese social sciences. He was trained in international relations and strategic studies, first at Cambridge University, later Fletcher School of Economics and Harvard University.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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