February 26, 2021

China’s Rail Safety Review Unlikely to Stop Existing Projects

HONG KONG — China’s response to a deadly high-speed rail accident on July 23 is closely mirroring its reaction to meltdowns at three Japanese nuclear reactors after a powerful earthquake and tsunami in March.

In each case, China’s leadership has promised safety reviews in response to a public outcry. But the reviews have been structured in a way that makes them unlikely to slow down high-priority infrastructure projects.

That was underlined on Wednesday and Thursday by separate, and possibly coincidental, announcements on safety for high-speed rail and for nuclear power plants.

The government announced a broad safety review of high-speed rail late on Wednesday, with nearly identical parameters to the nuclear safety review that it started in March. Hours later, a government-controlled nuclear trade group said that the nuclear safety review had been successfully completed, and it praised the safety of the existing plants and those under construction.

The Chinese cabinet, known as the State Council, said Wednesday that it was suspending the approval of new rail lines until the safety review could be completed. The state-controlled media covered that decision heavily. Less prominently reported, though, was another aspect of the cabinet announcement, saying that work could continue on previously approved projects while their safety was reviewed. Industry experts say that the Rail Ministry has a backlog of three to four years on rail lines previously approved and not yet built.

The council announced a very similar approach to nuclear plants five days after the Japanese tsunami, halting new approvals but not work on projects already under way. The state media treated the news the same way, emphasizing the halt, while the five-year backlog of approved projects meant that the halt would have little practical effect.

Unlike regulators in the West, Chinese regulators allow power companies to do a lot of construction at nuclear power plants while waiting for official approval of the project. At a nuclear power plant project in Shandong Province, Huaneng Group, China’s largest electric utility, built the foundations, administration buildings and other structures many months before receiving permission to build the reactor itself. That permission came, coincidentally, just two weeks before the Japanese earthquake.

The China Nuclear Energy Association, a trade group under tight government supervision, announced on Thursday that the government had “completed its national inspection of all nuclear plants in operation and those under construction.”

Michael Friedlander, a longtime nuclear power specialist based in Hong Kong, said the nuclear safety review had served its purpose by allaying public concerns at the time of the tsunami.

“You couldn’t say you weren’t going to do anything,” Mr. Friedlander said. “There’s such demand in China for energy, and nuclear power has such a central role in their plans that nothing is going to get in the way of it.”

In another example of the government’s efforts to appear active on safety issues, without necessarily making substantive changes, the State Council announced late Wednesday that it would reduce the top speed of high-speed trains to 300 kilometers per hour, or 186 miles per hour, from 350 kilometers per hour, or 217 miles per hour.

But the rail ministry had actually announced last spring that it was reducing the top speed to 300 kilometers per hour, in response to a corruption scandal then in which safety questions were raised.

In an e-mail response to questions on June 3, the rail ministry said that not only had the planned speed for the Beijing to Shanghai route been reduced to 300 kilometers per hour for its opening on July 1, but that trains on existing routes, such as Guangzhou to Wuhan, would also be slowed to 300 kilometers per hour as of July 1.

In a separate development, one of China’s bullet train manufacturers, the CNR Corporation, announced Friday that it was recalling 54 of its trains from the Beijing to Shanghai route to test sensors that may be causing the trains to stop unnecessarily, such as when a passenger lights a cigarette in a restroom. The rail ministry announced separately Thursday that the number of high-speed trains each day between Beijing and Shanghai would be reduced to 66 in each direction starting next Tuesday, from 88 in each direction now.

Slower speeds reduce the number of trains that can use the route, though the new schedule still allows for several departures each hour in each direction.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/world/asia/12train.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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