BEIJING Japan's nuclear disaster will make the new generation of reactors safer, according to China's energy chief and to a leading builder, but neither suggested there would be any change to the timetable for building new plants.
China is relying on nuclear power as a major part of its plans to cut dependence on coal over the next decade, with a target to start building 40 gigawatts of new capacity by 2015 -- almost as much as Japan's entire nuclear power sector.
But Japan, which turned to nuclear because of a paucity of other energy options, is reeling from an explosion and radiation leak at its Fukushima nuclear complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, after Friday's earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which killed more than 10,000 people.
A new explosion hit Fukushima's No.3 reactor building on Monday, but the International Atomic Energy Agency said the plant's primary containment vessel remained intact and the control room remained operational.
The Shaw Group Inc, which is leading a consortium to build four reactors in China, said the new generation AP1000 technology was safer and would have coped better with the Japanese quake and tsunami and that lessons would be learned.
"At this time, we do not believe there will be an impact on Shaw's nuclear projects currently under construction in the United States and China. Our customers have indicated they intend to move forward, and we believe the construction timelines will continue as planned," Shaw Group's chairman, J.M. Bernhard Jr, said in a statement.
"While it is premature to speculate on any impact the events in Japan may have on the U.S. nuclear industry, we continue to believe in the importance of nuclear energy and the role it will play in the future of our country, as well as the rest of the world."
Shaw is working with Westinghouse, a unit of Japan's Toshiba, to build new plants in China and the United States and is also pursuing projects in Saudi Arabia and Britain.
China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp (CGNPC), the country's two nuclear power plant operators, have said their plants were unaffected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
China's energy chief Liu Tienan, head of the National Energy Administration, said relevant Chinese parties must carefully analyze the Japanese accidents.
Nuclear safety is critical and developing a nuclear power sector safely must be guaranteed, he said in a report posted on the website of the National Development and Reform Commission (www.ndrc.gov.cn).
Liu made the comment on Sunday during a visit to the China Institute of Atomic Energy, where China is building its first experimental fast reactor.
China has long set a three-stage nuclear strategy: first developing thermal reactors, then fast reactors and finally fusion reactors, the statement said, without giving a timeframe.
Zhang Lijun, a vice environment minister, said on Saturday China would not change its plans to develop nuclear power even though some lessons learned from Japan would be considered in the construction of China's nuclear power plants.
China is building about 28 reactors or roughly 40 percent of the world's total, part of a massive drive to reduce its heavy dependence on dirty coal and cut carbon emissions.
Coal is the source of around 80 percent of China's power output.
China has only 10.8 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity in operation after more than two decades of construction, so the plan to get almost four times as much underway in the next five years represents a dramatic acceleration.
The country's rapidly expanding nuclear power industry is demanding more professionals than the country can produce, a potential threat to safety, a senior government official has warned.
The official Chinese target had been delayed for some months already due to conflicts between those who favor an aggressive expansion and those who want a more cautious approach, due primarily to concerns over safety and a lack of experienced personnel to run so many plants, a senior official with the China Nuclear Society told Reuters on Monday.
It will probably take some time before China can fully assess what the Japanese case might mean for future Chinese plans, said the official, who declined to be named.
China's nuclear power plants are safe because the reactors in service adopted mostly improved technologies and nuclear sites were far away from geological rift zones, CNNC said in a report on its website (www.cnnc.com.cn), citing its chief fast reactor expert Xu Mi.
(Reporting by Jim Bai and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Jane Baird)