BEIJING (Reuters) - China is facing increasing safety risks from its nuclear power plants as existing facilities age and a large number of new reactors go into operation, the country's environmental minister said in comments published on Wednesday.
"The safety standards of China's early-phase nuclear facilities are relatively low, operation times are long, some facilities are obsolete and the safety risks are increasing," said Zhou Shengxian in a speech published on the website of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (www.npc.gov.cn).
Zhou told legislators that the scale and pace of nuclear construction had accelerated, a larger range of technologies had been introduced, and potential sources of radiation had become more widespread, making it harder to monitor safety.
China has 13 nuclear reactors in operation and another 28 under construction, but it has suspended all new project approvals in the wake of the tsunami in northeast Japan, which left the Fukushima Daiichi reactor on the brink of meltdown.
After the suspension, Beijing launched a nationwide inspection of all nuclear sites, including reactors already operating and those under construction, and is drawing up comprehensive new industry guidelines.
The government originally planned to increase capacity to more than 80 gigawatts by 2020, up from 10.9 gigawatts at the end of last year, but disquiet about safety in the wake of Fukushima disaster has forced it to revise its plans.
Experts have expressed concern about the use of old second-generation reactor designs, a lack of qualified safety and operational staff, and construction of nuclear plants in earthquake and flood-prone regions in the country's interior.
Zhou said the country was steadily improving its nuclear safety monitoring system and its ability to decommission and control pollution at aging nuclear facilities.
The government had already built 31 sites for radioactive waste storage and had gradually brought "high-risk" radioactive sources under control, but large amounts of material were still in urgent need of treatment and disposal, he said.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Chris Lewis)