China must increase oversight of its nuclear power plants after Japan's disaster, a senior Chinese official said Friday, as the country advances an ambitious program to build more reactors.
The ongoing crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan laid bare a "host of problems" with how nuclear power is handled, Vice Environment Minister Li Ganjie said.
"Some of them are technical, some are at a managerial level, some are unavoidable caused by natural disasters, while some are caused by manmade factors and can be prevented," Li said at a news conference.
China needs to raise industry safety standards, make information more accessible and put in place a strong team of independent regulators to supervise nuclear safety, he said.
Li's Ministry of Environmental Protection oversees China's nuclear power industry with the more powerful National Development Reform Commission, which promotes nuclear power as important to the country's energy security.
Even before the Japanese crisis, Li's ministry had urged the government for more funds to monitor the rapidly growing nuclear power industry.
China has 13 operating commercial nuclear reactors, 26 under construction and another 52 planned, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. While the government ordered safety checks soon after the Japanese plant began leaking radiation, China hasn't significantly altered its growth plans for nuclear power.
China says the expansion in nuclear power plants is necessary to fuel an energy-hungry economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on coal.
During the wide-ranging news conference, Li also touched on other environmental issues, including heavy-metal pollution, which has affected thousands of Chinese children living near metal smelters or battery factories in recent years.
China faces great challenges in preventing heavy-metal pollution, but would "investigate all lead battery industries and try to curb this trend of frequent accidents," Li said.
Combined with scandals over contaminated foods and milk, heavy-metal pollution has taken on urgency for government leaders who have promised to deliver more sustainable, people-oriented economic growth.
Li also spoke about the recent protests in the resource-rich Inner Mongolia region, which were triggered in part by anger over the destruction of grasslands by mining companies.
The demonstrations erupted last month after two Mongol herders were killed while trying to block coal-mining and coal-hauling operations.
Li said: "If it's confirmed that relevant companies have broken laws and regulations that led to these incidents, I believe the local governments and environmental protection agencies will hold these companies accountable."
Also Friday, authorities in Inner Mongolia ordered the restructuring of the region's rare earth industry to make it more sustainable, state media said.
The state-owned Baogang Group will become the sole rare earth producer in the region after four rare earth producers are merged into it and 31 others are closed, the regional economy and information technology bureau said, according to Xinhua News Agency.
China has been limiting exports of rare earths, ostensibly to clean up the environment. But trading partners speculate it is to favor domestic industries and drive up global prices.