Energy

An unwelcome nuclear reprocessing plant

A Sino-French nuclear reprocessing project on China's east coast has been met with fierce local opposition

On August 6, in the coastal city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province, thousands of locals took to the streets in opposition to a proposed Sino-French nuclear reprocessing plant, prompted by environmental and health concerns. This is another of the large “not-in-my-backyard” protests that have influenced China’s environmental governance in recent years.

The project is a joint venture between French firm Areva and the China National Nuclear Corporation designed to reprocess spent fuel from Chinese reactors, extracting valuable uranium and plutonium. Back in 2013 chinadialogue looked at the pros and cons of the project. Lianyungang was decided to be the most eligible location for the plant, but the scale of the protests has created uncertainty over its future.

In August, the city government opted to remove its name from the list of possible sites. This decision was an echo of the way in which such protests develop in China; information escapes into the public domain, people protest, the government orders work to stop. In July 2013 a similar reprocessing project in the Guangdong city of Jiangmen was halted for the same reason.

Recent postings made on social media show how the Chinese public feel about projects that bring environmental and health risks. (See WeiXin or WeChat account Elephant News: Lianyungang “Terror Plot”)

The biggest challenge when choosing a site for the project on China’s developed southeastern coastal region was in avoiding densely populated areas. In 2006, the Bureau of Defence Technologies and Industries summing up examples of failed projects in other nations as thus: “Some countries fail to communicate with the public during decision-making processes, leaving the public with inadequate understanding and trust. The failure to win public trust and support has caused projects to bury highly radioactive waste, suffer setbacks or fail.”

Many people believe that opposition to these types of projects is a natural response. If nuclear waste is (often toxic) rubbish, who wants rubbish dumped on their doorstep? The dominant view is that, “if people in other cities have successfully protected their homes from the dangers of nearby nuclear development, why can’t we? (See WeiXin or WeChat account Nuclear Power Observer: The Lianyungang anti-nuclear waste protests)

The explanation [from China National Nuclear Corporation subsidiary, China Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing] is very disappointing, and a classic example of a PR failure. It’s a statement issued entirely from the point of view of the company, putting state and corporate interests before those of local residents, and failing to directly address their concerns.

Aside from that one, short statement, the state-owned enterprise involved has remained silent. In an age of mobile internet defined by interactive communication, when will these types of companies stop issuing lectures from on high?

Also, specialist publications for the nuclear industry have attempted to change people’s minds by offering explanations and lessons on how nuclear fuel reprocessing is “harmless”.

But, close to the plant, emotions are running high and such messages hold little weight. (See WeiXin or WeChat account “Old new commentary”: Liangangyun anti-nuclear protests: No information, no communication, and a need for dialogue.)

Looking back over the environmental protests of recent years, we can see that the Chinese public aren’t scared of particular technologies – they’re scared the technology won’t be managed properly.

Panic

Meanwhile, the secretive way in which the government approves projects often increases distrust. Thus, the majority of these protests are sparked by management failures. The government just goes on offering assurances that the technology is safe, which just increases public doubts and deepens divisions and the cycle continues.

In a society where a local electricity sub-station can create panic, the government will only scare an already nervous public by supporting nuclear projects without providing full explanations.

Society has a memory, as does social media. Yet it appears government does not – every time it is the same crude approach we have seen for a long time now, as it backs the developers of the project and makes the situation worse.