When Chinese nuclear authorities approached an overseas expert about plans to build a nuclear fuel facility in Heshan, in the western Pearl River Delta, he immediately raised concerns about locating such a plant so close to a major urban area.
“It was a few years ago. I asked if they had another choice,” the expert recalled to the South China Morning Post, declining to be named because of his company’s policy on media interviews. “The population there seemed a bit dense, and it was a bit close to big urban areas. [Henan is only 30 kilometres from Foshan, near Guangzhou].
“I suggested that if they moved the site closer to Taishan , where a new nuclear power plant was already under construction, there would be fewer residents nearby and probably less resistance.”
He went on to explain that such project needs as much land as possible to create a big enough buffer between it and residents.
But the authorities didn’t listen. Still, he was surprised to hear recently that the Heshan government cancelled the project due to public contamination fears.
“There’s a very low risk of radiation from a fuel plant,” he said. “I can’t believe they cancelled the project because of that.”
A more justifiable concern was the potential threat posed by chemicals used in the enrichment process, such as highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid, which is highly regulated in the US because of its potential use in chemical terrorism.
The nuclear enrichment plant would need to store substantial amounts of hydrofluoric acid to extract pure uranium from ore. An accidental leak could blind or even kill residents nearby.
There have been occasional hydrofluoric acid accidents in China. Just last month, a leak at a chemical plant in Shangluo in Shaanxi , resulted in a large-scale evacuation.
Other dangerous chemicals are used in uranium milling and processing, including ammonia.
“To be safe, any industrial plant with harmful chemicals should be kept some distance from residential areas,” he said.
But that’s not why authorities said they were cancelling the Heshan project, and the move had left at least one academic shaking his head in disapproval.
Professor Gu Zhongmao , a senior scientific adviser to the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) with the China Institute of Atomic Energy, said the Heshan government’s hasty surrender in light of “uninformed public fears” would become an “international joke”.
The people were protesting, Gu said, because they had never been made aware of basic facts. Fears of radiation poisoning from such a plant were unfounded, as the nuclear fuel rods produced contain mostly uranium-238 – the most stable uranium isotope.
“A nuclear power plant emits less radiation than a coal-fired power plant, and a nuclear fuel plant is safer still,” Gu said.
Gu conceded that the public’s knowledge of such plants may be poor, but government officials should have known better.
“The best way to deal with public unrest is to tell people the truth. It is a local government’s duty to inform the public about the project as much as possible,” he said. “But these officials have no courage, no credibility, no accountability. They are idiots.”
Nuclear energy authorities have not said whether they have a back-up site in mind, but people close to the industry said there was probably a long list of options, such as coastal areas, and Heshan was probably not the only option in Guangdong.
The Heshan site was the result of difficult negotiations between the CNNC and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (GDNPC).
The provincial government was been keen to support the Heshan project, with its price tag in the billions of yuan, before thousands of people took to the streets with banners and slogans in recent weeks, people familiar with the project said.
The CNNC and CGNPC were eager and ready to start the project. Site-clearing and preparation began last year, and many workers and technicians had already moved in. Many farmers were also keen on the project after they were given more information. Some were given a tour of a similar plant in Yibin , Sichuan , that is located in the heart of a residential area.
But most of the protesters were from Jiangmen city, which administers Heshan. After the project’s cancellation, many nearby farmers told the Post they were disappointed and angry.