By: Our Correspondent

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.