China tries to balance need for energy with environmental caution

China’s economy, as we report with obsessive regularity, is growing like gangbusters, and with it grows the country’s need for energy. One response to this need is an aggressive push to develop nuclear energy: Conservative estimates project the commissioning of two new reactors a year through 2020, quadrupling nuclear output to 16 billion kilowatt-hours by 2010 and doubling that figure again by 2015. Even if this massive growth takes place, in 2020 nuclear will still provide less than 4 percent of the country’s energy, leading some to question whether the investment is worth the risk. As David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “The cost of cleaning up after Chernobyl … is greater than all of the benefits of the entire Soviet nuclear power industry combined, and it could have been worse.” As if to reassure critics that it is taking environmental concerns seriously, this week the government ordered a work stoppage on some 30 large construction projects, 26 of them power plants, citing violation of environmental regulations.