A man who just returned from Sendai gets checked for radiation levels at a research laboratory of Fudan University in Shanghai
A man who just returned from Sendai gets checked for radiation levels at a research laboratory of Fudan University in Shanghai Reuters

In response to the deepening crisis at Japan’s troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, China has decided to suspend its atomic energy program for the time being by postponing approvals for new power stations.

The decision came at a meeting of China's State Council, which is chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao.

We will temporarily suspend approval for nuclear power projects, including those that have already begun preliminary work, before nuclear safety regulations are approved, read a statement from the State Council.

Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants. Before the revised safety standards are approved, all new nuclear power plants, including pre-construction works, should be suspended.

The Chinese government will also institute safety checks at existing reactors and at the 27 already under construction (which account for 40 percent of reactors being built around the world).

The State Council also indicated that China’s longer-term nuclear ambitions would be adjusted and improved.

Yang Fuqiang, an energy and climate change expert, told the media: There are many nuclear power stations under construction at the moment - that's risky. We have to go back and check each one. If there is an accident it will be worse than in Japan because many of the new plants are near high-population areas so we need to be careful.

China currently has thirteen operating nuclear power plants, which generate only about 2 percent of its electricity needs. However, prior to the Japan crisis, China has laid out plans to construct 110 nuclear reactors over the next few years. According to the World Nuclear association, China currently generates 83 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, including 80 percent from coal alone.

Adding to concern is that some of China’s new reactors are being constructed near geologically unstable areas, including Dalian, in northeastern Liaoning Province, which is only 300 kilometers from Tangshan, where a massive earthquake in the 1970s killed more than 250,000 people.

Another reactor might be built in Chongqing, which is near to the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where 90,000 people died.

While the Chinese government has assured that Japan’s nuclear plant problems currently poses no radiation risks to China’s population, reports are abounding of panic-stricken Chinese people buying up products, including iodide and other medicines, that protect against radiation.

Meanwhile, the future of global nuclear energy policy has been put into disarray by the escalating Japanese crisis.

The International Energy Commission earlier predicted that nuclear energy would increase from providing 6 percent of the world's energy needs now to 11 percent in 2035.