China mulls nuclear safety law as number of reactors set to rank 2nd in world

By Global Times - Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/30 19:08:39

China has been building nuclear facilities at a rapid pace, and pressure has been mounting in the country to create a specific nuclear safety law. Experts say that apart from technical safety, transparency and participation are equally important in making the public feel safer.

A view of the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant Phase One in Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: IC

A view of the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant Phase One in Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: IC

China's National Nuclear Safety Administration (CNNSA) in October made public 16 safety failures that occurred in China's nuclear plants in 2016, all involving mistakes made by staff members.

Eight nuclear plants were mentioned in the announcement, including the Ningde, Yangjiang, Fangchenggang and Tianwanhe nuclear plants. Among them, six involved staff members breaching operational guidelines, six involved staff members pressing the wrong buttons, and four were caused by a lack of internal communication.

While the risky incidents sparked discussion on China's nuclear safety, experts say none of these incidents actually resulted in leaks of radioactive material or posed a direct threat to public safety. They argue that making public these operational mistakes is a way to boost nuclear transparency, improve the safety of China's nuclear industry and to grow trust in the sector.

Tang Bo, deputy head of the nuclear safety supervision bureau at the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said most countries in which nuclear power plants operate have a mistake feedback system. "Learning lessons from mistakes and correcting them is an important factor in ensuring the safety of nuclear plants. Besides, we should also learn from mistakes made by other countries. If we think these incidents are meaningful, we would inform the nuclear plants," he told the Southern Weekly.

China is expected to overtake France to have the second-largest number of nuclear reactors in the world by 2020. With 35 nuclear generators in operation and 21 more currently under construction, the safety of China's nuclear plants has long been one of the concerns for the country's citizens.

Although experts assure the public that China's nuclear plants are technically safe, the general lack of information disclosure and limited public participation have resulted in a dearth of trust on the part of the public, who often take to the streets to protest when a new nuclear plant is being built nearby.

Low risks

Tang said all of the 16 cases are rated "0" according to the International Nuclear Event Scale, a tool to communicate to the public the risk level posed by nuclear safety events. The scale classifies nuclear safety incidents at seven levels. The lower levels 1-3 are termed "incidents," and the upper levels 4-7 are called "accidents." Events without safety significance are rated 0.

This is also not the first time that the CNNSA has made public safety failures. In 2015, the administration launched a website on which it posted safety incidents that were reported to the administration. 

Tang said that technically speaking the safety of China's nuclear projects have been proved by statistics. He said on average, each nuclear plant in the US reports 2.6 safety events to its nuclear authorities each year, while in China, that number is 1.6. "The World Association of Nuclear Operators evaluates nuclear plants worldwide every year, and all of the plants in China are in the middle to high level."

"So far, most of the safety events that have occurred in nuclear plants in China are rated 0. Not a single event at or above level 2 has ever occurred in China," Tang said.

Huang Xiaofei, spokesperson for the China General Nuclear Power Group, said the announcement is a meaningful step toward greater nuclear transparency. "This will boost the public's understanding of nuclear power, and the supervision also helps us to improve," he said in an interview with Xinhua.


Feeling safer

Making public these incidents is just a small step that China is taking to improve its nuclear safety. China is also working on a nuclear safety law, the draft of which is now under public review.

There has long been a consensus that a nuclear safety law is badly needed to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities in China.

"Though the country has the largest number of nuclear units under construction in the world, China has no law on nuclear safety. Our civil nuclear facilities have been running for decades without a law - this shouldn't have happened," Professor Zhang Zitai, Director of Center for Environmental, Natural Resource & Energy Law at Shanghai's Fudan University, told the Southern Weekly.

The draft law proposes safety standards for nuclear facilities, emergency planning and response systems, and rules regarding information disclosure.

In a written response to the Southern Weekly, the Ministry of Environmental Protection wrote that "the fast development of nuclear power has given rise to immense pressure on maintaining their safety … The lack of a nuclear safety law has affected the further growth of China's nuclear safety standards."

In September 2013, the National People's Congress included a nuclear safety law in its five-year legislation plan, with the CNNSA as its main drafting department. By June 2016, the initial draft by the CNNSA had been revised into at least 15 drafts.

For Zhao Chengkun, former director of the CNNSA and currently the vice director of the China Nuclear Energy Association, the current draft, now under public review, is different in many aspects from the draft he reviewed two years ago. For example, in the beginning, different interested parties debated whether the law should also apply to military nuclear facilities.

"The military industry said that they need confidentiality if they are also subject to the law… But nuclear safety is about transparency of information to the public," Wang Jing, vice director of the expert team of the legislation and director at the Nuclear Policy and Law Center, Peking University, told the Southern Weekly.

Legislators eventually decided to create separate civil and military legislation. According to the draft, military use of nuclear power will be regulated by an alternate regulation drafted by the State Council and the Central Military Commission, China's top military authority.

Wang, the main author of the initial draft, said he has been thinking about the purpose of the law from the beginning. He said that China's nuclear industry is a relatively closed sector that is often regarded by the public as mysterious and dangerous.

The building of nuclear plants often faces opposition from locals. This August, for example, thousands of residents of Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province protested against a nuclear fuel recycling project that was planned for their city, forcing the local government to suspend the project. Local residents told the Global Times at the time that there is already a nuclear waste plant in the city, and that it is "unsafe to see another nuclear project coming and besieging us."

Tang said enhancing public participation is the key to solve these misunderstandings. "There are lots of countries that have run nuclear reprocessing plants for years, with a very good safety record. However, probably because of bad publicity skills and public communication in China, many Chinese either don't understand nuclear plants or they still protest them out of their deeply held beliefs," he said.

Tang added that China is now selecting a location to process high-level radioactive waste, and the biggest obstacle they're facing is in public communication and how to gain public support and understanding.

Wang said that he has no objection to claims that China's nuclear safety is technically advanced. "However, what does the public want? From the public's, rather than the experts' perspective, will the law make the public feel safer?" he said.

Wang said the current draft, which clarifies the regulatory system and requires companies to set up a strict management and accountability system, "is better than no law," but that there is still room for improvement in terms of letting the public feel safer.

Vague rules

The section on information disclosure and public participation is regarded as a highlight of the law. According to the CNNSA, this shows that the public's right to know is reflected in the law.

But Wang says the section was based on the new Environmental Protection Law, which went into effect on January 1, 2015, that also has a section on information disclosure and public participation. The Environmental Protection Law, however, lacks enforceable measures or punishment on violations of information disclosure rules. "Will the nuclear safety law follow suit?" Wang said.

"In line with the law" is a common phrase in the section, but Wang said the law doesn't specify what kind of information should be disclosed.

"Even though the draft has a special section dedicated to information disclosure and public participation, the public's environmental rights can only be passively attained through the government's supervision and the nuclear industry's compliance. The questions about nuclear safety that the public is concerned about, such as the specifics of the nuclear facilities to be built by the government and nuclear companies, and how supervision can be carried out when officials in the nuclear safety department are lower in rank than officials in State-owned enterprises… if these questions are not answered, the range and extent of which the public participates in nuclear safety management and its result will be limited," Wang wrote in People's Daily on November 14.

Newspaper headline: Fission friction

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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