5 Min Read
* China suspends approval for new, proposed nuclear plants
* Making comprehensive checks of reactors, redrawing plans
* No abnormal radiation from Japan detected in China
* Expert says suspension temporary, nuclear push to continue
* Japan crisis will give Chinese safety officials more sway (Adds details and additional expert comment in pars 8-11 and 16)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, March 16 (Reuters) - China's vast nuclear push is likely to slow after the government ordered a safety crackdown on Wednesday in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis.
The announcement by China's State Council, or cabinet, was the clearest sign yet that the crisis at a quake-ravaged nuclear complex in northeast Japan could drag on China's ambitious nuclear energy expansion, by far the world's largest.
A State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao told Chinese residents they had nothing to fear about radiation drifting from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
But China's own nuclear power plans would face tougher scrutiny and adjustment, said the account of the meeting on the government's website (www.gov.cn).
"We will temporarily suspend approval of nuclear power projects, including those in the preliminary stages of development, before nuclear safety regulations are approved," the statement said.
It urged using "the most advanced standards" for a safety assessment of all nuclear plants under construction.
"Any hazards must be thoroughly dealt with, and those that do not conform to safety standards must immediately cease construction," the statement said.
Japan's crisis would bolster Chinese nuclear safety officials' sway, said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear policy in China and other countries at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The regulators are playing catch-up with the Chinese industry," said Hibbs, who is based in Berlin.
"The Japanese accident is going to give the regulators a lot more political clout."
The government will also "adjust and improve the long and medium-term plan for nuclear power development," said the State Council. It did not say how long that step and setting the new safety rules would take.
The safety push is likely to slow, but not stop, China's expansion of nuclear power, which the government hopes will play a big role in plans to cut dependence on coal over the next decade, said one expert.
"The suspension (of new project approvals) is just a temporary one and will not influence China's long-term nuclear power construction plans," said Lin Boqiang, director of the Center for Chinese Energy Economics Research.
The State Council said it had detected no abnormal levels of radiation in China from Japan. Chinese experts had concluded that wind would scatter any radiation from the crippled Japanese plant over the Pacific Ocean, said the statement.
PUBLIC OPPOSITION TO PLANS
Local governments across China have been vying for the investment, jobs and kudos that the new reactors may bring.
"In some cases, the Chinese start digging on the reactor site before the project has even been approved," said Hibbs, the nuclear expert. "That puts a regulator under enormous pressure."
China is building about 28 reactors, or roughly 40 percent of the world's total under construction, and the central government has fast-tracked approvals in the past two years.
China now has only 10.8 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity in operation after over two decades of construction, so the plan to get almost four times as much underway in the next five years marks a dramatic acceleration.
China's official target, drawn up in 2007, was to increase capacity to 40 GW by 2020. But China's biggest reactor builders, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation, have both said that the country could easily boost capacity to more than 100 GW.
The main beneficiaries of the programme include France's Areva and U.S.-based Westinghouse, a unit of Japan's Toshiba . Both have launched competing third-generation reactors in China.
But there are already signs that Japan's crisis has ignited public opposition in parts of China vying for nuclear plants.
Plans for a plant in Nanchong in Sichuan, the southwest Chinese province devastated by an earthquake in 2008, have attracted a surge of online denunciations in recent days.
"This nuclear crisis in Japan has made me sense the dread of nuclear radiation," said one of many recent blog and Internet message-board comments about the planned plant. "I vehemently oppose building nuclear power in Sichuan." (Additional reporting by David Stanway, Tom Miles, and Langi Chiang; Editing by Don Durfee, Ron Popeski and Daniel Magnowski)