How should Hong Kong react to China's nuclear expansion?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011
Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant under the Kong Kong flag

Thirty years ago, Guangdong Province was selected as the site for a momentous experiment - the opening up of China - which changed the economic order of the world. Hong Kong played a crucial role: there were some aspects of the economic transformation over which Hong Kong had some measure of control through its businesses' investments. Importantly however, there were aspects where Hong Kong had no direct decision-making authority and had to adapt itself to national and provincial policymaking.

Nuclear development in China - past, current and future - mirrors this economic transformation. The first nuclear facility in China was built in Guangdong at Daya Bay, which acted as a testing ground for nuclear development across China. Again, Hong Kong society as a whole had some influence on the development of this facility given it involved a joint-venture with a Hong Kong listed company, China Light & Power. However, just as for economic development generally, there were many aspects of the nuclear development process over which Hong Kong had no control, and was subject to national level energy policy. Future developments will be the same.

China sets her energy policy to achieve a range of objectives, amongst them:

  • Matching supply with rising energy demand, which has been regularly revised upwards since 2002;
  • Combating climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the world's biggest emitter, which China has targeted by its 40-45% energy intensity reduction goal; and
  • Shoring-up energy security by diversifying away from oil and coal.

The tools with which China manages this juggling act include hydro-power, renewables, and nuclear, and the 12th Five Year Plan makes a case for expanding all of these to one degree or another. Notably, these sources will still be the minority, collectively expected to make up just over 11% of primary energy consumption by 2015. Coal continues to dominate.

Whether China has got the balance right amongst the various energy options - coal, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, hydropower, etc. - is a matter of legitimate enquiry within and without China. But at the end of the day, that policy is not set by Hong Kong. The Central People's Government has made a fourfold expansion of nuclear capacity by 2015 a part of the new energy story, and in order that the expansion should occur near the industrial operations which the electricity should serve, a large proportion of the expansion is slated for Guangdong Province.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Guangdong has about 43% of currently operating reactors in China (6 out of 14) and close to 20% of reactors presently under construction (5 out of 27).  A recent academic article estimates that Guangdong will be home to over 30% of the reactors in the planning pipeline (12 out of 38).  Even if Hong Kong abolished its current policy of importing 23% of its electricity in the form of nuclear power from Guangdong, and even if Hong Kong abandoned its plans to expand this to 50% of electricity by 2020, Hong Kong will inescapably find itself in a nuclear neighborhood.

What then should be the approach of Hong Kong? If China has made her decision and is adamant that she will move in a nuclear direction, then how can that decision be implemented in the best interest of public and environmental safety for Hong Kong people and the other people in China?

Arguably, the influence of Hong Kong's vehicles for public expression  -  e.g. an open press, the ability to ask questions in the Legislative Council, the right to dissenting assembly - have helped enhance safety and management at the Daya Bay nuclear power plant. That has been beneficial not only for Hong Kong people but also for the people of Guangdong, and indeed for all Chinese people who use or live near nuclear facilities, in so far as Daya Bay was a bellwether for the country's nuclear development.

This is a role Hong Kong can continue to play, but it is a role that requires discussion, learning, and wise counsel. Experts on nuclear operations, safety, and risk management play a uniquely important part, as well as utilities, government, the media, research and education institutions, civil society and the broader public.

Finally, a healthy and rigorous discussion on the expansion of nuclear power should open our thinking to the advantages and trade-offs across the energy spectrum. During the three months from 11 March 2011 that Hong Kong newspapers featured the Fukushima accident regularly on their front pages, on less prominent pages they also reported at least 20 separate coal mine incidents across China in which over 140 people lost their lives, and dozens were missing or injured. The lives of over 400 villagers in Sichuan were endangered by a nearby coal mine, and civil unrest in Inner Mongolia was directly linked to coal operations.

The cursory descriptions of most of these incidents indicate that they are regarded as humdrum in the local media. Hong Kong people should be as much concerned about the actuality of harm to public health in China's total energy scene as the potential for harm from the nuclear sector. Shouldn't the same concern for human life and environmental integrity that characterizes the scrutiny of the nuclear industry be applied across the board of energy options in China, including coal, hydropower, and even wind and solar?

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