China-France nuclear project suspended after protests

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Local people protest $15b China-France plant

Local authorities announced Wednesday the suspension of a joint China-France 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) nuclear fuel recycling project in the wake of days of protests from local residents who fear possible environmental and health hazards.

Authorities in Lianyungang, East China’s Jiangsu Province, said on their Sina Weibo account that “The preliminary work of the nuclear fuel recycling project’s site selection is suspended.” 

Lianyugang officials declined to make further comment on why the project was suspended. 

“Suspension means we’ve just stopped for now; we don’t know if this project will be reinstated,” a media officer from the city government’s publicity department told the Global Times Wednesday.

According to an article on the website of CNNC Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Co, a Beijing-based company under the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the fuel recycling project is jointly run by the CNNC and France’s Areva. The project aims to be able to deal with an annual 800 tons of nuclear fuel waste, and construction of the facility is expected to begin in 2020.

Although the project is only in the preliminary stages, with a number of sites under consideration, an article on nuclear energy website nuclear.net.cn claiming the most likely location would be Lianyungang caused huge waves among local people, after it went viral on social media.

Large protests against the potential project started Saturday, and by Monday, 10,000 people had become involved, gathering at a local square. There were some physical confrontations between protesters and the police, said one protester, who asked for anonymity.

The local public security bureau stated on Sina Weibo on Monday that online rumors saying police had used violence against some protesters and even killed one were false.

“We want the plant to be completely stopped instead of suspended. That means they can get it going again whenever they want,” said one of the protesters, surnamed Zhang. 

He said the protests were held mainly out of concerns that radioactive nuclear materials might damage the environment and people’s health, especially their children. 

“Lianyungang already has a nuclear power station. It’s not safe to have another nuclear recycling project besieging us,” Zhang said.  

The first two reactors at Tianwan nuclear power station, located in Tianwan, Lianyungang started operating in 2007, with a further six reactors planned. 

Total capacity is expected to reach 70 billion kilowatt-hours a year when they are fully put into use, the Xinhua News Agency reported in January 2016. 

Calming fears

This is not the first time locals have protested a nuclear project. In 2013, a nuclear fuel processing plant planned for Jiangmen, Guangdong Province, was abandoned after local people staged mass protests. 

This time, the company behind the plant has been trying to ease residents’ fears.

“The nuclear recycling project plant has low level radiation, so it is relatively safe and the impact on the environment and residents is controllable,” Xue Weiming, manager of CNNC Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Co, told Technology Daily on Tuesday. 

Safety concerns should not be an obstacle to the development of the nuclear industry in China, as the technology to safely deal with gases and liquids during the recycling process is already well-established, Gui Liming, an expert on China’s nuclear safety systems from Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

“Current technology can solidify waste materials so they won’t cause great damage to the environment,” Gui said, adding that solid waste will be buried far from built-up areas.

The risk of an explosion is another concern for nuclear recycling projects, but this is rare, according to experience from other countries, Gui said. 

Currently, there is only one nuclear recycling plant in Northwest China’s Gansu Province, which is far from enough for China’s current needs, he noted, especially as China needs more clean energy capacity. 

China has pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, and to do this it needs to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent.

Nuclear power accounted for less than 3 percent of all power output in China in 2014. 

China needs to double the number of power stations, although public concerns should be taken into account, Gui said.

Drawing lessons from the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, China’s third-generation nuclear reactors were upgraded by adding better safety systems.

The expansion of nuclear power  has restarted since the Fukushima incident. China expects that by 2030, it will have 110 nuclear reactors.

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