Can China resist the allure of nuclear power?

TO GO WITH AFP STORY Japan-quake-nuclear-China,FOCUS BY ROBERT SAIGETThis photo taken on June 2, 2010 shows the Qinshan nuclear power plant in Haiyan, in eastern China's Zhejiang province. The atomic crisis sparked by Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami is throwing a spotlight on energy-hungry China's own plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants despite questions over safety. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Qinshan nuclear power plant in Haiyan, China
This photo taken on June 2, 2010 shows the Qinshan nuclear power plant in Haiyan, in eastern China's Zhejiang province.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

China finds itself at a crossroads in choosing the fuel that will propel its economy's backbreaking growth amid Japan's nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

The State Council, China's cabinet, called a special meeting last Wednesday to suspend the approval for new nuclear plants until it revises safety standards, the state-backed Xinhua News Agency said. The government also said that it would move forward with safety checks at existing plants.

The State Council's decision has wide implications; initial land surveys and research for future nuclear plants have been shelved until a framework for safety requirements is put in to place, according to Li Yan, Campaign Manager of Climate Energy at Greenpeace in China.

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China now only has 13 nuclear reactors all dotted along its most developed and heavily populated region along the eastern sea border, with 28 more under construction. The sum is paltry in comparison to the U.S., which houses 104 reactors. France has 59. But for a country notorious for safety issues, from melamine-laced milk to the highest fatalities in coal mining accidents in the world, a nuclear meltdown could be catastrophic, according to Li.

"If you picture China having 40 plants by 2020 it might be a completely different scenario. If anything happens, whether it's natural disasters or man-made mistakes, it would have a huge impact," Li said.

In China, about 80 percent of electricity is generated from coal versus only 3 to 4 percent from nuclear power. However, in absolute terms, this means that China must build three plants every year for the next 16 years to meet energy demand.

The allure of nuclear energy remains irresistible for a country that needs to sustain growing urbanization, with nearly half of its 1.3 billion population now living in inner cities.

China is already trying to kick its addiction to coal by cutting emissions by 17 percent in five years time. This means the government will have to turn to alternative sources for energy including nuclear power, which provides more stable and concentrated energy versus other alternatives such as wind and solar.

The country leads the world with the highest death rate from coal mining accidents. Last year alone coal mining accidents accounted for 2,433 deaths, the spokesman of the State Administration of Work Safety said last month. While it is still 198 fewer deaths than 2009, it still averages out to more than six deaths per day. Choosing nuclear then becomes the lesser of the two evils.

The government faces a tough balancing act between safety, environmental issues and its thirst for economic growth.