Protests Win Written Pledge of Uranium Plant’s Cancellation

After three successive days of demonstrations (see pictures at Tea Leaf Nation and Global Voices), protesters in Jiangmen, Guangdong won a written guarantee on Monday that a planned uranium processing plant nearby would not go ahead. Officials had previously offered to extend the project’s consultation period, and then to cancel it out of respect for public opinion, but wary of past disappointments, the protesters held out for a written promise. From Minnie Chan at South China Morning Post:

“I am here to promise all the Jiangmen people that the government has formally scrapped the project, with an official document being released very soon,” Liu [Hai, the municipal party secretary] told the crowd at about 11am, urging them to return home.

But the crowd stood its ground, leaving only after Jiangmen Vice-Mayor Huang Yue-sheng arrived and read the document out loud. It was also posted on the government’s website and a bulletin board outside the government building.

[…] “We just can’t believe how our government could suddenly become so efficient,” one protester said. “It’s impossible for the officials to make such an important decision in one day. It’s well known that all government departments have to spend at least one week to resolve just a very small issue.” [Source]

The speed of the decision in the face of a relatively small number of protesters—ranging from hundreds to low thousands at various points over the three days—aroused suspicion over the cancellation, particularly as the project might have eventually have supplied half the country’s nuclear fuel. From Josh Chin at The Wall Street Journal on Saturday:

The government’s willingness to shut such a high-profile project so quickly dovetails with the demands of a new “mass line” campaign being pushed by Communist Party leaders that aims to put the concerns of regular people at the center of policy-making. Yet in a reflection of the cynicism that campaign is meant to counter, many appeared skeptical that the project would be truly shut down.

[…] If the decision holds, it could set a problematic precedent in a country that has committed to a massive expansion of nuclear power, even after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. China has 17 nuclear power reactors in operation, 28 being built and more nearing the start of construction, according to figures from the World Nuclear Association.

A number of experts, including some environmentalists, say China has little choice but to develop nuclear power, which is more efficient and much cleaner than coal. China currently uses coal to generate roughly 80% of its electricity, according to the International Energy Agency, while only around 2% comes from nuclear. [Source]

Many of the 160 villagers living on the site itself may still be rooting for the project’s resurrection: its apparent demise has derailed relocation compensation payments of 50,000 to 220,000 yuan. Disappointed villagers and urban protesters have each accused the others of ignorance about the scheme, as Minnie Chan previously reported at South China Morning Post:

“I can’t believe that we have had nothing again,” one elderly villager told the Sunday Morning Post yesterday. “I almost got all the [relocation] money, but now we have to hand all of it back.”

[…] Many villagers said they could not understand the opposition from protesters in Jiangmen, about 30 kilometres away. Some thought the protesters were exaggerating the risks.

“[They] do not understand the details of the uranium-processing plant very well,” one villager said.

[…] In Jiangmen, however, protesters said the villagers were too focused on the compensation to see the downside. “They are just farmers; they do not have enough knowledge and awareness about nuclear crises,” said Wu Bocheng, who took part in Friday’s protest rallies.

“The villagers just care about how much compensation they will receive. They don’t have any long-term planning and social responsibilities, but we do.” [Source]

Experts’ comments last week suggest that in fact, no one outside the local government and China National Nuclear Corporation really had enough information about the scheme. From Olga Wong and Minnie Chan at South China Morning Post:

An announcement by the Jiangmen City Development and Reform Bureau said the 230-hectare plant would carry out uranium conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication.

But the three-page statement, issued last Thursday, did not make it clear whether the plant, in the Longwan industrial district of Zhishanzhen, would perform spent fuel reprocessing – recycling of old fuel rods that could emit high doses of radiation – or what measures would be used to avoid radiation leaks.

[…] “My concern is that poor protective measures could lead to pollution of food chains by the leakage of uranium dust,” Dr Luk Bing-lam, past chairman of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers’ nuclear division, said.

[…] Luk said the plant seemed to involve processing of natural uranium, which would emit radiation relatively higher than that from granite rock. “But we are not 100 per cent sure given the limited information made available by the government,” he added. [Source]

M. V. Ramana and Frank von Hippelvon pointed out at chinadialogue that CNNC is known to be planning facilities for spent fuel reprocessing, and warned that China risks becoming, like Britain and Japan, “the prisoner of a costly and inefficient program for dealing with spent fuel”:

The problem with this strategy is that reprocessing spent fuel isn’t economically viable and offers no significant environmental benefits. While the term ‘reprocessing’ might seem similar to ‘recycling’, it is by no means as eco-friendly. Except for the plutonium and uranium, all the radioactivity present in the spent fuel is redistributed among different waste streams which will eventually enter the environment.

The reprocessing technology proposed by AREVA for China is called the Plutonium-Uranium Redox Extraction (PUREX) process. It produces an acidic solution of intensely radioactive fission products known as High Level Waste (HLW) that also contains long-lived radioactive elements. Other waste streams, often termed Intermediate Level and Low Level Wastes are also created; low level wastes are often released into water bodies near a facility, while some gaseous fission products escape into the atmosphere. [Source]

Elsewhere on the nuclear front, Global Times reported late last month that CNNC had achieved a “milestone” in domestic uranium enrichment capabilities.

Accusations of scaremongering and lack of public information about the Jiangmen scheme echo recent protests over a planned PX plant near Kunming. They too secured an apparent victory, the publication of the project’s environmental impact assessment. When the document finally arrived, however, it omitted required sections on public participation and concerns, and was condemned as another example of the “furtive” opacity that had fueled the protests in the first place. Kunming itself was the latest in a string of similar PX protests, including others in Chengdu, Dalian, Ningbo and Xiamen.