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China's nuclear energy ambitions prompt worry over safeguards

| Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

It had been about a month since chemical explosions blasted and burned through the port of Tianjin, killing 173.

Pictures of rescue workers in hazmat suits became some of the signature images of the disaster. And despite incredible censorship, it was clear to most that unsafe chemical storage — thanks to bribery by local big shots — was to blame.

On Sept. 15, China's ministry of environmental protection announced post-Tianjin nuclear safety checks to “make sure nuclear facilities and equipment are safe and under control.”

Now, almost four months after the Tianjin blasts, with world leaders gathered in Paris for climate talks, a top Chinese energy firm reminded us, again, of China's nuclear future — a future that a prominent Chinese physicist recently called “insane.”

Four AP-1000 nuclear reactors designed and built by Cranberry-based Westinghouse Electric Co. are under construction in China, and the company has said it hopes to have eight more of its reactors built there soon.

Power Construction Corp. of China, a state-owned enterprise, on Thursday said that the draft of China's 13th five-year plan, an important government blueprint, says the country will have 110 working nuclear reactors by 2030.

The country expects to export its newfound nuclear expertise, with officials telling state media they hope to sell six to eight China-made nuclear generators by 2020.

The emphasis on nuclear energy over coal will please many of those gathered in Paris this week. But the idea of nuclear power in China makes many people, including many in the country, quite nervous.

The blasts in Tianjin were a reminder that the country has a long way to go in terms of industrial and workplace safety. If local authorities regularly fail to keep mines, factories and warehouses safe, should they be trusted with overseeing nuclear plants?

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