Beijing halts atomic energy programme

The Chinese government ordered a halt to its rapidly expanding nuclear power programme yesterday to allow safety checks on dozens of plants because of the crisis in Japan.

The expansion programme is the biggest in the world and the decision to stall, if not stop, rampant growth in this sector marks a major re-think on the safety of nuclear power.

China has more than 13 operational nuclear power reactors and is building about 28 others, or roughly 40 per cent of the total under construction in the world. The goal, ultimately, is to build 100 nuclear power plants. The State Council, China's cabinet, said after a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao that safety checks would be carried out at existing plants and those under construction.

"We will temporarily suspend approval of nuclear power projects, including those in the preliminary stages of development," a statement on the government website said. "Any hazards must be thoroughly dealt with, and those that do not conform to safety standards must immediately cease construction."

China's nuclear programme is seen as a way to cut its dependence on dirty coal plants and make cheap energy available. But the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after Friday's earthquake and tsunami have driven many countries around the globe to reassess safety and, in some cases, switch off ageing plants.

The statement from the cabinet was in stark contrast to an announcement by a top official earlier in the day that Japan's problems would not deter China from expanding nuclear power generation. The Beijing government has fast-tracked approvals in the past two years as it tries to provide a 10-fold increase in atomic capacity by 2020. Like many countries, it had latched on to nuclear power as a way of curbing carbon emissions. However, public support has dropped markedly since the Japan crisis.

There were panicky text messages doing the rounds yesterday saying that a cloud of radiation was drifting across the Pacific to China. The State Council reiterated that it had detected no abnormal levels of radiation.