China on Wednesday suspended approvals for new nuclear power plants to 'revise safety standards' as officials in the earthquake-prone nation studied the Japanese nuclear crisis.
Forty percent of the world's new nuclear reactors, the largest number under construction, are across China.
This decision of the state council, the Chinese cabinet, reverses announcements made last weekend that China's nuclear power plans remained unchanged.
Premier Wen Jiabao presided over the cabinet meeting even as Japanese workers were evacuated from the Fukushima plant.
"China has suspended the approval process for nuclear power stations so that safety standards can be revised after the explosion at a Japanese plant," said the cabinet statement.
It also ordered safety checks at existing plants, all of which were unaffected by the quake in Japan.In 2010, China approved 34 nuclear power projects; 26 are under construction. This month, China cleared a five-year plan that aims to increase nuclear power capacity by 40 million KW.
China says it will 'learn lessons' from the Japanese nuclear crisis.
China is an exporter of nuclear power technology to Pakistan, but short of experienced technicians to man its future reactors at home.
However, officials are confident that Chinese technology is superior to Japan's ageing reactors.
"The Japanese reactors were designed in the sixties and built in the seventies. China has updated nuclear power technology since the 1990s and 2000," Li Hong, secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told HT .
"This is a great opportunity to review plans with more emphasis on safety and manpower management."
Nationwide radiation monitoring began on March 12, while the vice-minister for environment expressed confidence in Chinese safety standards.
"China has 13 sets of nuclear power installations in operation and tests have shown all are safe," vice-minister Zhang Lijun told the state media last weekend.
"Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China's nuclear power plans," he said.
"But China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power."
As the largest energy producer and polluter, China sees nuclear power as an inevitable choice to achieve emission reductions without slowing development.
Like India, China secures 70% of its energy from polluting coal-fired plants.
China's 10.8 GW nuclear power capacity is more than twice that of India and expanding even faster. Chinese blueprints aim for an expansion of 86 GW in nuclear power capacity by 2020.
India's target - 20 GW by 2020 - is subject to greater public scrutiny and debate unlike the reactor building spree in China.
On Wednesday, a Chinese newspaper called for a 'public watch' on nuclear power expansion.
"It's certain that we cannot simply abandon our nuclear power program after Japan's nuclear crisis," said the Global Times editorial.
"Nevertheless, China has seen little debate over nuclear power safety as compared with other countries. It is questionable whether China will stick to a proper pace of nuclear power development, and maintain strictest safety standards."
Last year, a nuclear safety official told the China Daily that experienced safety technicians comprise under one-third of operating staff in nuclear power plants. Nuclear power accounts for just over 1% of electricity produced in China.
Local provinces are competing to grab ambitious new projects, said state media.
Southern Guangdong province has three projects underway and six planned; central Hunan province has four projects. Several provinces have planned at least two nuclear power plants each.
"The most important thing is for local governments and management to stress safety issues," emphasised Li.
An official told Xinhua that Chinese reactors under construction have a 'non-powered' cooling system different from Japanese reactors.
These AP1000 reactors will be designed with giant tanks storing tonnes of water that will be emptied by the force of gravity during an emergency.
Lu Qizhou, general manager of the China Power Investment Corporation told Xinhua: "It's just like a flush toilet."