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Asia

Sieren's China: What nuclear power 'Made in China' means for Germany

Beijing’s approval of plans for two new nuclear power stations so soon after the Fukushima disaster has significant repercussions for Germany, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

It's been obvious for some time that China has plans for new nuclear power plants. It nonetheless seems a little shocking to Westerners that the first permit for a new reactor, to be built in the northeastern province of Liaoning, was issued so close to the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. But to the Chinese, it attests to self-confidence and the fact that the government has its finger on the pulse of public opinion.

The Chinese are keen to move away from coal power, which for the time being supplies 70 percent of the country's energy needs and keeps the cities blanketed in smog. So they are a lot keener on nuclear power than, say, Germans are. Then again, who isn't? So the fact that China is restarting a nuclear power build-up is simply evidence of business as usual – much like in Poland, where 11 new reactors are slated to be built by 2030, in France, set to build 2 new reactors and Britain, set to build 10. Even Japan is moving towards a nuclear comeback.

China's State Council last month approved plans to construct two one-gigawatt reactors at the Hongyanhe Nuclear Power Plant in Liaoning. Nuclear power currently accounts for just 2 percent of energy generated in China. The international average is 15 percent. It would seem that China's ambitious plans for the nuclear energy sector are getting off to a slow start, but in fact, the reactors for Liaoning are brand new buldings. A further 27 power plants are already once again under construction after a lull in the wake of Fukushima, while all existing reactors underwent safety checks. But the moratorium was lifted in 2012 and building is in full swing.

Nuclear power in China is seen as 'green' energy

Unlike in Germany, the government in China doesn't need to reckon with massive anti-nuclear demonstrations. Last year, Beijing laid out plans to increase the number of power plants from 15 to 71 and boost nuclear capacity to 58 gigawatts by 2020. If all goes to plan, China would be producing 150 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2030 at the latest, thereby overtaking the Americans, who currently produce just over 100 gigawatts. This would mean that within one generation, China would become a world leader in nuclear power. The environment is a hot-button issue in Beijing right now, and in China. Nuclear energy is seen as clean energy.

The recent decision affects Germany, too. Elsewhere in Europe, the Chinese are busy building nuclear power plants based on US and German technology. Several 1.6 gigawatt plants may be built in England. Last October, London and Beijing signed a deal allowing Chinese companies to own and operate nuclear power stations in the UK. China is also playing a role in the building of the first ever nuclear power plant in Romania, set to start operating in 2017, and is furthermore in talks with Turkey about another new nuclear power plant.

More nuclear power plants 'Made in China'

And this is just the beginning. The less Europe has in its coffers and the more the competitively-priced nuclear power stations prove themselves, the more the Chinese can sell. It is already apparent that in light of China's decision in favor of nuclear power, Merkel's tactic may still work on the level of domestic politics, but from an energy policy perspective this was an own goal. On the home front, Merkel robbed the Greens of one of their most potent topics, with the result that they lost votes and a red-green coalition was prevented. And this was an important - perhaps the most important - factor that made a grand coalition under Merkel's leadership possible. Anti-nuclear power voters, however, will soon start to realize that Germany will not be safer when there are no German nuclear power stations left: they are, after all, considered the safest in the world.

Instead, Germany will be surrounded by Chinese power stations, which will surely not be safer than German ones. Moreover, these are power stations over which Germany will have hardly any control. Germany will also have to push through standards in Brussels, a hard task for a country that has opted out. Anti-nuclear power voters will be disturbed. But perhaps Merkel will get lucky: Who among her opponents will want to rub salt in the wound? The Greens and the Left Party definitely won't. They want the same thing as Merkel. So China can be assured that not even in Germany will there be any major fuss about Chinese power stations in Europe. Should any finger-pointing start, the German nuclear industry will be quick to point out that Germany only has itself to blame as it didn't want the safest reactors in the world. Now, it will have to live with "Made in China."

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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