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China: pressure on nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Wen Bo, China Coordinator of Global Greengrants Fund

Nuclear energy is regarded by Chinese government as an important way to meet the country's growing appetite for energy and as a way to reduce emission of climate change gases. At local level, provincial government officials also believe nuclear energy projects would stimulate local economy.

Wen Bo - One important nuclear development in China is more and more inland nuclear power plants are being planned. Traditionally, the nuclear power plants are being constructed in coastal provinces where energy needs are greater. As Beijing government starts to focus more on economic growth of inland provinces, nuclear industry has been welcomed by local governments. Among these inland provinces with nuclear plant planned, Hunan and Jiangxi are two important uranium-producing provinces.

Nuclear Safety Concerns
Below are a few documented and reported nuclear-related accidents in China:

  • Factory No. 404 in Gansu, January 7th, 1969, China's first nuclear reactor, about 70 people exposed to excessive radiation.
  • The 300 megawatt Qinshan 1 plant in Zhejiang province was shut down in July, 1998 and left crippled for over 12 month, (source: BBC news report.) According to an interview with a nuclear official, the problem caused bolts holding guide pipes to the main body of the reactor to fall off under strong water pressure.
  • On April 6, 2002, Urunima mine No. 794 under China National Nuclear Corporation at Lantian County, Shaanxi province, 12 people died of poisonous gas.
  • 274 kg Depleted uranium waste material was illegally smuggled from Kyrgyzstan to Akesu of Xinjiang by three metal waste dealers who were not aware what it was.
  • Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station on May 23, 2010, occurred a small leakage at a fuel rod at Unit 2 reactor. A fuel rod leaked traces of radioactive iodine into the surrounding cooling fluid.

Though China has a self-claimed sound nuclear waste storage facility in Northwest Gansu province, nuclear waste transportation over vast Chinese territory still poses potential safety threats. Safety problems over nuclear waste transportation are still being overlooked and the public has no information on these nuclear waste transfers and potential hazardous leaks and impacts.

China Nuclear Safety Bureau Chief Li Ganjie pointed out that China nuclear power development still face problems with lack of qualified experts and technicians, lax operation management and equipment manufacturing. In the light of rapid nuclear power expansion, this would turn into a severe threat towards quality and safety of nuclear power plants.

In China's building construction sector, it was reported that many builders cheated and used less rebar. China nuclear power plant construction is not totally immune to such widespread cheating in building sector. It was reported by apparently individual staff that at Hongheyan Nuclear Power Plant in Liaoning province, after nuclear island foundation excavation, it was discovered in June, 2008, that lowest cemented layer was short of rebar. Local residents near Hongheyan Nuclear Power Plant also reported that some rebars and metals were stolen from the plant's construction site.

Anti-nuclear efforts in China
Victory over Rushan Nuclear Power Plant

Rushan Hongshiding Nuclear Power Plant in Shandong province was first proposed in 2003. At the time, the location for the plant was a remote and sparsely populated coastal region dotted by villages. The place is also adjacent to a beautiful coastal resort called Silver Beach. In the past few years, large number of housing compounds and villas have been constructed. They were mostly purchased by city dwellers around the North China in search of a cheap summer homes or retirement haven, with little or no knowledge of proposed Rushan nuclear power station.

Since 2006, many of these home owners became strong advocates against the proposed project and in 2007, they joined a Beijing-based environmental group Ocean Commune in submitting a petition to State Environmental Protection Agency (now known as Ministry of Environmental Protection) and State Oceanographic Administration. Their argument was to protect the famous Silver Beach from potential destruction and that the area was a more populated community. In addition, they argued the three planned nuclear power stations in Shandong province were too close to each other and investment would be wasted. Due to their persistent efforts, the State Environmental Protection Agency and National Development and Reform Commission did not approve the Rushan project.

While the nuclear power industry is booming, in all the regions where either a nuclear power plant is being built or proposed, local anti-nuclear voices have been raised on websites and internet bulletin boards. However, most of these concerned citizens lack organizations and concrete actions beyond cyberspace.

Corruption in nuclear sector
Kang Rixin, former head of China National Nuclear Corporation was sentenced for life imprisonment in late November. He was charged with accepting bribes of several million dollars from Areva, a French nuclear engineering company for winning bidding of two Guangdong Taishan nuclear reactors in 2007.

Chinese media has widely publicized the arrest of Kang Rixin and subsequent charges and final sentence. Many believe such high profile scandal rocked China's nuclear industry as Kang Rixin was also a member of top level anti-corruption department with Chinese Communist Party.

Though public concern over such high level corruption case has been high, it was viewed as a regular case of governmental anti-corruption drive. Due to the secrecy of the nuclear power plans and deals, the public has yet to relate this case with nuclear safety and potential quality problems.

Road Ahead
Anti-nuclear campaigns are getting momentum and increased media attention in China.

Anti-nuclear campaigns are more likely to succeed if the communities are not limited to nimbyism. There is need to establish a board support base, not limited to one region, against a proposed nuclear power project.

Anti-nuclear efforts need coordination and persistency. Outcries over Internet and media outlets would not generate continuous pressure for possible change of a nuclear power plan. Organized and coordinated actions would provide important opportunities for decision makers who might not be in favor of a nuclear power project and looking for an excuse at the right moment to veto or cancel a nuclear power project.

Though concerns over nuclear safety failure and radiation are legitimate, this concern alone can also easily be bullied aside by repeated assurance from nuclear industries and officials. There is a need to have arguments such as damage to natural and cultural heritage, maintenance of an ecosystem and agricultural production etc.

A nuclear power project would be more likely to be vetoed by decision makers, not due to safety concerns, but over financial security concern. More often, the financial burden and economic bankruptcy become decisive factors for cancellation of a nuclear power project. Thus, anti-nuclear activists need to present a sound and reasonable argument in economical and financial terms.

There is need for broad and basic education on potential nuclear crisis among general public. And a vocal and active campaign to promote renewable energy to replace nuclear power investment are also urgently needed.

Source and contact: Wen Bo, China Coordinator of Global Greengrants Fund