In China, there have been a range of reactions to the crises in Japan: smug satisfaction, heartfelt sympathy and, also, soul-searching. “Faced with that type of danger, I doubt I’d be able to behave so well,” said one blogger quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “The casualties from an 8.9 event in China would be hundreds of times higher than in Japan,” said another, according to the Atlantic. That sentiment—that the disaster would have been worse in China—is not surprising . The devastation wrought by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the tainted milk scandal have shaken the people’s faith in their government’s ability to prevent and manage disaster. What is surprising, though, is that the Chinese government now appears to openly share these doubts.
On Wednesday, China’s State Council announced that Beijing will halt approvals for new nuclear plants so it can focus, for now, on safety checks. This alone is ambitious: As part of a state-led push to produce more energy while moving away from coal-powered plants, China has invested aggressively in nuclear power. The country already has 13 nuclear plants in operation and is building more. Twenty-seven of the 62 reactors under construction around the world are Chinese and they’ve got 110 additional plants proposed. The pace is remarkable, even by Chinese standards. The New Yorker christened it a “nuclear binge.”
Indeed, there are fears, even within the industry, that the country is building too much, too fast. In April 2009, China’s nuclear safety chief, Li Ganjie, warned the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy that environmental and safety risks would follow the “over-expansion” of the sector. Months later, the president of the China National Nuclear Corporation, Kang Rixin, was caught up in a $260-million corruption case involving project bids. Though the two are unrelated, they speak to themes like shoddy construction, corruption and regulatory weakness that resonate with ordinary Chinese and, it seems, frighten the state.
Given the country’s appetite for energy, it is unlikely that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi will convince China to abandon nuclear power. But, the State Council’s decision to (very publicly) proceed with caution suggests that the country was chastened by events in Japan. In light of the horror we’ve seen this week, that’s a glimmer of good news—for now.