More Nukes for China?

China's response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster should be to have more nuclear power, not less. If that sounds a paradox, think not of the risks involved in nuclear power but of the risks involved in other forms of power generation. China should focus on relative risk.

The Fukushima problem was caused by the tsunami, not the initial earthquake. Nuclear stations in Japan and Taiwan have survived many an earthquake and Japans' shut down as designed in this case – evidence enough that earthquakes themselves are not the major risk. Fukushima was undone by a giant tsunami which killed probably 30,000 people. For sure, in future either do not build stations on low lying land off tsunami-prone seas without putting up some high defenses first. But few nuclear stations, actual or planned, in China or elsewhere, are in such locations. Most are well inland.

Remember too that neither of the preceding major nuclear power disasters, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island had anything to do with earthquakes or any other natural phenomenon. Design and management issues matter most.

Then consider death tolls. Even Chernobyl, by far the world's worst nuclear disaster, is thought to have killed fewer than 1,000 in the immediate aftermath and another 4,000 from subsequent cancers – a number which admittedly will probably rise. In addition land remains unusable and animals have had to be culled. As for Fukushima, immediate deaths seem likely to be few and, judging from the latest information, subsequent radiation ones more likely to run into hundreds rather than thousands.

Of course these are tragic and one hopes they will not be repeated. But consider meanwhile how many people are dying in China from other energy-generation related causes. In 2007 the World Health Organization estimated that more than 600,000 Chinese annually (yes, annually) were dying prematurely because of air pollution. Some of this was caused by households burning coal and charcoal, some by vehicle exhaust, some by heavy and chemical industries. But a large part was attributable to coal-burning power stations.

China may be improving its power stations, replacing polluting ones with state-of-the-art ones. But coal always pollutes to some degree. The gap between potential deaths from a nuclear accident and actual deaths being experienced daily is so enormous as to be worthy of much more attention. The problem for the government is that to be more open about why it must have nuclear power it would have to be more open about the current impact of pollution – of water as well as air.

Pollution kills quietly and is clearly less newsworthy than a nuclear accident even if deaths are not numerous. What kills instantly and violently is the process of extraction of the coal. China's coal mining deaths run into thousands a year but media take these in their stride in the same way as road accidents. It is just nuclear and radiation which incite hysteria. Even were Chinese coal mines to be all well run with modern equipment, significant mining deaths would continue. Underground coal mining is always potentially at risk of gas explosions.

What about other alternatives to nuclear? Wind and solar are increasing but remain relatively small and expensive. Hydro potential exists, mostly in the southwest. But damming upstream rivers will cause huge losses to downstream communities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, etc., which rely on these waters for their livelihoods. While China itself might benefit economically, it would risk the wrath of its neighbors. The goodwill cost will be high. Oil and gas may pollute much less but China needs to import them from far away.

The Chinese people may need to be worried about earthquakes, but not because of their impact on nuclear stations which have many safety systems. Tangshan – which is only 150 kilometers from Beijing – in 1976 killed some 300,000, Sichuan in 2008 killed about 80,000. Most of those deaths were due to poor standards of building construction. Despite its magnitude, few died from building collapses in the recent Japan quake. Most deaths were from the tsunami. The Chinese shudder at the thought of what an earthquake of similar magnitude hitting a big city like Beijing, a city chockablock with high rises often, as in Sichuan, hastily built with substandard materials.

For sure China must ensure that its nuclear program follows the highest possible safety standards, something that its experience in other areas of construction leaves questionable. But Japan's recent experience relative to China's energy death toll demonstrates why China needs more nuclear power, not less, and why nuclear stations are the least of China's earthquake problems.