Nuke Plant Plans Spark Fears in Southern China

2013-07-11
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A crew constructs a containment structure at a power plant in Guangdong's Taishan city, Sept. 12, 2012.
AFP

Residents of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have hit out at plans to build a nuclear fuel processing plant near Jiangmen city, which have sparked fears of nuclear pollution in the densely populated area.

The local government announced last week it had signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation for the 40 billion yuan (U.S. $6.5 billion) uranium processing plant project some 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Macau.

The Jiangmen government launched a public consultation last week to gauge public reaction, ending on Saturday, officials said.

"We are in the middle of testing public opinion," an official who answered the phone at the municipal government's development and reform bureau in Heshan, a smaller city in Jiangmen's jurisdiction, told RFA's Mandarin service.

"We haven't got to the environmental impact assessment or reassuring the public yet. We will only report to the national government when this is finished," he said.

"Then ... they will make an assessment, and decide whether or not to approve the project."

He said such approval was unlikely to be given before 2015.

However, local media reports said the local government was aiming to begin construction on the plant late this year.

Lack of trust

Local sources said there was a widespread lack of trust in the government's ability to prevent radiation leaking from the plant, however.

"Before [they announced it] there was absolutely nothing about this in the media," said a Jiangmen resident who declined to be named. "They completed the land acquisition for this project at the end of March or beginning of April; it has already been done."

"Ordinary people never get to see what is really going on behind the scenes ... We are being kept in the dark," he said.

He said he doubted the consultation process would be genuine.

"Judging from the government's usual way of doing things, the fact that they've announced means that this project will go ahead."

He said residents were planning to "take a walk" on the city's streets in a flash mob protest against the plans on Friday.

Tweets on popular social media sites about the "take a walk" protests were deleted soon after being posted on Thursday, however.

Pollution hazard

Former Hong Kong legislator and anti-nuclear campaigner Fung Chi-wood said the planned uranium processing plant at Heshan represents a potentially huge pollution hazard.

"If they don't handle the spent fuel rods properly, then it could be very dangerous," Fung said. "To take Fukushima in Japan as an example, some of the biggest radiation leaks came from fuel rods."

"The spent fuel rods are in a superheated state, and it's much safer to handle those that haven't been used yet," Fung said.

He said the plant would serve a number of nuclear power stations in the vicinity of Jiangmen, including Daya Bay and Yangchun.

"I don't know if they will be sending spent fuel rods from these nuclear power plants to Heshan for processing," Fung said. "If so, there will be a huge increase in environmental contamination."

Both the Heshan government and China National Nuclear Corporation have sought to reassure the public that the nuclear plant is absolutely safe, and won't cause radioactive pollution, even in extreme conditions like earthquakes.

'Fait accompli'

Jiangmen lawyer Wang Quanping said he, too, had the impression that the authorities were confident the plant would go ahead.

"They have pretty much done all the necessary work before they announced it," Wang said. "Isn't this just a fait accompli?"

He said support for the project was by no means unanimous, even among local politicians, however.

"Our Jiangmen district People's Congress delegates are doubtful about this project, and about why the People's Congress wasn't informed about a project of this size," Wang said.

"At a lawyers' conference here last week, there were more than 20 lawyers who signed to say they opposed the project."

Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.

China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.

Reported by Wei Ling for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.