Chinese nuclear parts raise safety questions

Toxic drywall driving owners from their homes, poisoned pet food killing Fluffy and Spot and defective tires causing injury and death - all sent to America by the People's Republic of China.

Following on the heels of that safety record, now China could seek to supply us with sensitive components for nuclear power plants - with American taxpayers footing the bill.

As America invests in new energy sources, nuclear-generated power is a safe and economical choice. China's energy consumption is nearly at U.S. levels, but its energy-seeking and resource application is very different and likely to remain so as it turns to alternatives to petroleum and coal.

Because its quest for energy is agnostic to providing financial resources to global despots, China partners with regimes in Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and North Korea to maintain energy sources. Its infrastructure investment in these countries could pose a threat to the U.S., particularly in Iran, where Chinese capital has allowed the mullahs to militarily "harden" the Straits of Hormuz, through which two-fifths of the world's oil supply travels.

China's 70 percent energy-to-industry ratio is the highest in the world. Its residential consumption is comparatively low, and millions of its citizens still live without refrigerators in a country that is factory to the world.

China generates 75 percent of its energy from coal and, as the world's leading producer of sulfur dioxide, is under constant global pressure for ignoring clean-coal technology. This, combined with high petroleum transportation costs, has China looking to renewable resources, particularly nuclear.

In 1984, China established the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) to oversee safety and compliance for nuclear projects. Last year, China revealed plans to add 24 new reactors in 10 years - quadrupling its nuclear power capacity. At that time, the head of its NNSA noted that containing nuclear waste under such rapid growth could present serious safety hazards in production and waste containment.

Despite a communication strategy designed to telegraph compliance, China historically has ignored industrial safety standards. As failures in nuclear power generation could be catastrophic, China should follow strict guidelines in producing nuclear components, including any made for export.

However, China has made an art form of creating a product-specific industry aimed at export and then becoming its global master. Will nuclear components be any different?

In February, the Obama administration announced an $8.33 billion program for the construction of two nuclear facilities in Burke, Ga., the first in the U.S. in nearly 30 years. These funds will be distributed under the George W. Bush administration's Energy Act of 2005, providing tax incentives and loan guarantees for new energy projects. President Obama has added another $36 billion for nuclear power to his 2011 budget.

The consortium that will build the Georgia nuclear power plants is led by Southern Co., a prestigious Atlanta-based energy firm. Last fall, Southern announced that China was the first client for its newest low-emission coal technology. That is great news.

It is likely China will look to sell nuclear components on the global market to finance its own nuclear growth. Any agreements between American companies and China that would import Chinese products for America's new nuclear plants could be unwelcome news.

America needs skill-based, sustainable jobs. Manufacturing unemployment remains at 13 percent, and our high-tech industry shed nearly 175,000 jobs in 2009. Both sectors are critical to future nuclear-power growth in the United States.

Taxpayers are funding the Georgia projects on the front end - and potentially on the back if contractors fail to repay government loans. Component parts required to build these plants, including waste-containment systems, could come from the U.S., Japan, France - or China, with its reputation for substandard manufacturing.

Today, nuclear power provides about 20 percent of our electricity, but technological advances make it a better choice than ever. Even with limited growth in the U.S., nuclear power has exceeded all other renewable energy sources for more than 20 years.

In industry, safety is never a 100 percent guarantee. But unlike China, America has well-trained workers, and U.S. companies overwhelmingly adhere to strict safety standards. On the rare occasion when they do not, swift and severe consequences ensue.

As we move forward to create long-term energy infrastructure, taxpayers must be clear from the beginning that they trust most what is made best - American hands making products that set the highest standards for safety and performance in the world. Anything less would be an invitation to unacceptable risk.

Kerri (Houston) Toloczko, a senior analyst with the Alliance for American Manufacturing. She was appointed in 2006 by House Speaker Dennis Hastert to serve on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission.