Trust crisis threatens China nuclear power

2013-07-19 12:15
Nuclear plant.

Nuclear plant. (AP)

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Hong Kong - As China pushes an aggressive expansion of nuclear power it is running into a major stumbling block - a breakdown of trust, post-Fukushima, in official assurances of public safety.

A plan to build a $6bn uranium processing plant in the southern province of Guangdong was cancelled this week after about a thousand people took to the streets demanding the project was scrapped over public health and environmental fears.

Beijing plans to plough tens of billions of dollars into the construction of dozens of nuclear power projects across the country by 2020, as part of efforts to reduce its reliance on dirty coal-fired power and cut air pollution.

Industry insiders blamed the cancellation of the project on poor communication and a lack of public education. They say if things do not improve more protests could spring up elsewhere, threatening those plans to build new reactors.

"The public consultation last only 10 days, which is way too short," said a top industry executive with knowledge of the matter. "The materials it provided about the project are also woefully inadequate." He declined to be identified as he was not authorised to publicly comment on the project.

Communication

The outcry highlighted growing scepticism in China over official assurances about safety following a series of food and pollution scandals.

In the internet age, in which the Chinese public is becoming increasingly vocal about their rights and mobilising on social networks, popular protests like the demonstrations in the city of Jiangmen against the processing plant suggest a wider backlash against nuclear power.

"If public communication is not done properly, it would have a major negative impact on China's future nuclear power development," said Lin Boqiang, professor and director of the China Centre for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

"Other people could learn from Jiangmen. The government should learn how to do effective communication with the public over major nuclear projects."

China has 15 nuclear reactors currently in service.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, Beijing cut its 2020 nuclear power capacity target to 58 gigawatts (GW) from 80GW - 90GW. But the new goal still represents a nearly four-fold increase from the current capacity and makes China the world's largest nuclear market.

Foreign nuclear groups such as Toshiba Corp's Westinghouse and Areva have won multi-billion dollar contracts to build nuclear power plants in the world's second largest economy.

The uranium processing project in Jiangmen, near Hong Kong, was supposed to supply fuel to existing and future power plants in Guangdong, a major Chinese industrial powerhouse and a centre of nuclear energy expansion.

Protests

China has been buying stakes in uranium mines in Asia and Africa, but without the capacity to enrich and process the ore it will still be dependent on foreign firms to turn it into useable fuel.

Already, anti-nuclear activists in Hong Kong, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have launched a petition this week to oppose further expansion of nuclear capacity in Guangdong, according to Frances Yeung, senior environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth's Hong Kong office.

Massive protests broke out in Hong Kong in the 1980s when China announced its plan to build the Daya Bay nuclear plant just across the border from the city, then under British rule. Fuelled by fears of nuclear accidents following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, more than one million signatures were collected to register public objections to the construction.

The Chinese government eventually built the plant, but the French-designed project suffered delays.

Power industry executives say that the Chinese state-run nuclear power companies and local governments lack the communication skills to reassure the public at a time of heightened fears about safety.

"I suspect that the Chinese have got a long way to go in developing public consultation before they site new facilities - and not just in nuclear," said Steve Kidd, former head of World Nuclear Association, now an industry consultant.

Read more on:    environment  |  nuclear
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