The recent nuclear scare in Japan has reinforced pressure in China to raise its awareness of the risks of new technologies. Li Jiao reports.
[BEIJING] Like many other countries, China is currently reviewing the safety of its nuclear power programme following the damage caused by Japan's tsunami to the Fukushima nuclear plant in March, promising that 'full safety checks' of existing reactors would be carried out.
Although the government has also suspended approval of future nuclear projects until a new nuclear safety plan is published — currently expected before the end of the year — it is widely anticipated that its construction programme for nuclear power plants will resume at that point.
At the same time, however, the potential dangers highlighted by the Fukushima accident have reinforced growing demands for the country to strengthen its approach to risk management for all types of technological emergencies.
Critics believe that despite some recent signs of progress, there are still serious gaps in the government's preparedness plans for such situations. They argue that risk evaluation needs to be increased across the board, from areas such as genetically modified (GM) crops to the impact of human-induced global warming on food production.
Their argument is that, too often, safety concerns have fallen victim to cost-cutting and even corruption in the country's headlong pursuit of economic growth.
As Li Daguang, director of the Science Communication Centre at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), says: "Generally, China doesn't consider the potential risks of technology because economic benefit is the top consideration."
Nuclear power safety
China already has four operating nuclear power plants, with 13 projects involving 27 separate reactors currently under construction. While several are along the coast, others are due to be located near large cities.
The country's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, told a climate change policy forum in Canberra, Australia, in March that the Fukushima disaster is expected to lead to new safety measures in the country's nuclear programme,.
Reflecting this commitment, China will spend about 150 million yuan (US$23 million) this year to carry out the review of the safety of both existing power plants and new ones (in contrast, last year's budget did not even explicitly mention nuclear safety.)
"Operating plants and plants that are under construction will soon be inspected and reviewed by a group of experts," Lin Chengge, a senior expert at the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation Ltd and former deputy director of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, told China Daily.
"The results of the inspection will be provided to the government so it can decide if safety improvements are needed."
Some improvements have already been seen …
The response is becoming a familiar one. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, for example, the government set up an emergency working group under the State Council, the country's highest administrative body, indicating that it considered the risks associated with the outbreak to be a high political priority.
Further evidence that the government has begun to take technological risks seriously was the creation in 2004 of a risk analysis committee — the first government organisation specialising in evaluating risk — under the Academy of Disaster Reduction and Emergency Management of the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Education.
Risk assessment has certainly improved in the last ten years. Modern attitudes towards risk reduction and the concept of risk management have surfaced, and the government has introduced a number of laws and policies, such as emergency measures for nuclear accidents at power plants, and the regulation of emergency public health situations.
… but more is to be done
But not everyone is convinced that this action is sufficient.
China should also look into the risk of droughts
Safety expert Bao Ou, of the Institute of Science, Technology and Society at Tsinghua University, Beijing, told SciDev.Net that, until recently, economic benefits had been given precedence over safety issues, adding that defects in technology have only been exposed after accidents have happened.
There are still serious limitations, such as a lack of centralised management for risk as well as a lack of civil participation, Bao adds. She points out that there is still "no special ministry dealing with national risk reduction and management on the Chinese mainland," and that there are few researchers and institutions specialising in risk.
To rectify this situation, some of the country's scientists and engineers, for example, have suggested setting up an institute for nuclear safety.
Another area in which concern exists about the lack of research into risks is in the field of GM crops. At the International Biosafety Forum in Beijing in April, for example, researchers urged China to strengthen risk research and evaluation on such crops.
In 2008, the government provided US$3.5 billion in funding for research into GM crops. Out of this sum, however, it has allocated a mere US$1.5 million over the five years for GM risk evaluation and public engagement.
"Although GM risk funding is increasing, it's far from being enough," says Wei Wei, an ecologist at CAS's Institute of Botany, in Beijing. "In particular, ecological risks should not be underestimated."
Natural risks are also an issue
Other concerns focus on the lack of adequate research into the risks of climate change, despite the fact that water scarcity is affecting 184,000 square kilometres of farmland as the worst drought in half a century grips the country.
It has put the risk of food insecurity back on the agenda, and revealed a lack of investment in agricultural land, says Jiang Gaoming of CAS's Institute of Botany.
China "should be concerned about the risk in many areas, such as nuclear power, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and droughts," adds Chen I-wan, advisor to the state-run China Disaster Prevention Association led by the China Earthquake Administration.
Bao told SciDev.Net that China should study the experiences of other countries, set up institutions to research risk management, devise appropriate legislation and adopt effective counter-measures.