Panic stations - China Dialogue

Panic stations

As China pushes ahead with its ambitious nuclear programme, public safety fears are growing. Education, open information and citizen engagement are all essential for improving trust, writes Meng Dengke.

In mid-June, Hong Kong media reported that the Daya Bay nuclear-power station in Shenzhen, south China, had suffered “its worst ever radiation leak, seriously threatening the lives of nearby residents”. With the plant located only 45 kilometres from the peninsula, the news created panic in Hong Kong as well as the mainland.

The Daya Bay plant was China’s first commercial nuclear-power station. Construction started in 1987 and the plant began operating in 1994. The electricity generated there is mainly piped to Hong Kong and Guangdong. 

Two days after the reports appeared, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, together with plant owner China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC), issued a statement on the incident: a tiny crack had appeared in the casing of a fuel rod in the Unit 2 reactor pile, but the effects had been restricted to the closed cooling system. No radioactive material was released and, therefore, there had been no impact on the environment.

Cai Jianping, deputy chair of the research and development committee at the Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute (SNERDI) repeatedly explained to journalists: “This supposed radiation leak at Daya Bay is a public misunderstanding. There hasn’t been a radiation leak at all.” Ultimately, the rumours only succeeded in causing public distress.

With China’s provinces all pushing forward with nuclear-power projects, anti-nuclear sentiment is on the rise. Although the authorities say that, to date, China has encountered no nuclear safety problems, the rumours about Daya Bay have caused panic not just in the immediate area, but also other regions where nuclear-power plants are planned or under construction.

In a group set up to oppose a nuclear plant in Xinyang, central China, on networking and news site QQ, the “Daya Bay leak” became the focus of discussion. Again, CGNPC is the project owner and existing local worries have been stirred by the Daya Bay news. The most common complaints are that the market for locally grown tea will disappear, and that nearby water sources will be subjected to high levels of radiation.

According to professor Wang Kan of the Nuclear Power Science and Engineering Institute at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, these fears are totally groundless. “The nuclear-power plant won’t have any impact at all on local tea or water,” he said. “The only possible effect is that water temperature might increase a degree or two as, in inland locations, there might not be enough water to disperse waste heat. Whether or not that will impact on the tea requires research, but there is absolutely no risk of harm from radioactivity.”

Reactors are protected at five different levels – the fuel, the casing, the reactor pile itself, the safety casing and the outermost shell, with each layer more secure than the last. The head of Xiamen University’s School of Energy Research, Li Ning, said: “There is little public awareness of this. People aren’t scared of coal or hydropower, as they understand it better.”

Li used a comparison with coal to demonstrate why there is nothing to fear: for each kilowatt of electricity generated, coal power releases more radiation into the environment than nuclear power – by a factor of 50. And workers in coal-fired power plants are subjected to 10 times as much radiation as their counterparts in nuclear-power plants.

Besides the technological safeguards at nuclear-power plants, there is also strict regulatory oversight. According to Li, China maintains tighter supervision and control of its nuclear-power plants than even the United States. “It’s much the same as plane crashes getting all the attention, in spite of air travel being safer than walking, cycling or driving,” he added.

Wang Kan believes that the reason the public gets worked up about nuclear power is the technology’s military origins; when people think of nuclear, the first association is the atomic bomb. Understanding of the true scope of nuclear power in China is still weak. In the past, power firms and the government have made efforts to educate the population. But a lack of public participation during the construction of nuclear-power plants has led to widespread mistrust.

France gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, and the plants are located close to populous areas. Director general of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) Alain Schmitt summed up the lessons of the country’s experience: “Transparency – and then more transparency.”

For more than a decade, the ASN has been producing a monthly report on nuclear safety, recording each and every problem – even mishaps as trivial as workers failing to wear the right uniform – and making this information available online. Schmitt explained: “We found that mutual trust between the firms and the public actually increased when information about accidents was made public. The facts show that greater availability of information helps to boost understanding of the nuclear sector and reduce fears about nuclear power.” The company behind Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear plant also held public meetings during construction, according to a spokesperson. Participants were able to freely express their views, keep up to date with the latest news and learn about possible environmental impacts.

Under the original plan for China’s nuclear industry announced in 2005, the country was aiming for 40 gigawatts of nuclear power generating capacity by 2020. But, in 2009, that figure was raised to 60 gigawatts (about the same as France currently has). And it has since gone up again – to more than 70 gigawatts.

Li Ganjie, vice minister at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and director of the National Nuclear Safety Administration once said: “If expansion is too rapid, problems will arise, thus threatening the quality and safety of nuclear construction.” With a new wave of nuclear development under way around the country, public fears are bound to increase.

An official at the Nuclear Safety Administration admitted that public participation was one of the weaknesses of the process. Clearly, openness and transparency are the only way to relieve public fears. But, just as in other fields, this will not be an easy path to take. One Xinyang resident said that the local reform and development committee’s report on the proposed nuclear-power plant was available on the committee’s website for just two days before disappearing. And, apart from one placard announcing that nuclear power will promote economic development, the local government has done nothing to inform the community about the project.


Meng Dengke is a reporter at Southern Weekend. This article first appeared in Southern Weekend on July 1, 2010. 

Homepage image from Greenpeace China