China's nuclear plans to slow but not shrink: researchers

CHENGDU, China - China might be forced to slow the pace of nuclear construction in coming years as it absorbs the lessons of Japan's Fukushima crisis, but nuclear power remains a crucial part of its energy plans, government researchers said on Wednesday.

"The main impact (of the Japan crisis) is to tell us once again that we should put safety first, but it won't affect our overall strategy," said Xue Xinmin, a senior researcher with the energy research institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, addressing a conference.

Before Japan's biggest earthquake and tsunami devastated the country's northeastern coast and left an aging nuclear complex on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown, China was planning to double its original 40-gigawatt capacity target for 2020, which was set four years ago.

It has since promised to "adjust and improve" its nuclear development strategy, and will not approve any new projects until it has completed a nationwide safety check into existing plants and construction sites.

Li Guanxing, the president of the China Nuclear Society, told Reuters that a moratorium on new project approvals was likely to last for the rest of the year, and that would certainly slow down the country's construction programme.

"I think it is likely that no new projects will be approved this year, though there is no specific timeframe. They are now making thorough safety checks, and they are expected to last until the end of the year."

He said the abandonment of nuclear power was not an option for China, which is committed to raising non-fossil fuels to 15 percent of its total energy mix by 2020 and to cutting emissions of greenhouse gases as well as pollutants including sulphur dioxide, adding that intermittent energy sources such as wind or solar power would not be reliable enough to fill the supply gap.

But he said China was likely to wait and consider the situation carefully before issuing revised capacity targets, noting that the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Association later this year could be a crucial factor in setting the agenda for the industry.

China's cabinet, the State Council, has already decided to push through a comprehensive atomic energy law this year, more than 20 years after legislation was first drafted, which will cover safety standards and monitoring.

Before the Japanese earthquake, China's revised capacity target was expected to reach 85 gigawatts, and bullish reactor builders such as the China National Nuclear Corp and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp were saying China could easily top 100 GW by the end of this decade.

Xue said a target of 70-80 gigawatts would now be a more realistic figure as China reassesses its priorities for the industry, which faces considerable challenges in equipment supplies and finding skilled personnel.

"We need to conscientiously absorb the lessons of Fukushima ... and slow down the pace of construction in order to allow the industry to go further in the long run," he said.