The Chinese government has abandoned plans for a huge nuclear fuel centre in Guangdong province. At a projected cost of US$7.32 billion, the Heshan Nuclear Power Industry Park was to be equipped with facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment as well as manufacturing of fuel pellets, rods and finished assemblies. It was to be a joint venture between China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China General Nuclear (CGN). The joint venture partners are now looking again at a range of other siting options.[1,2]
Land clearing for the project went smoothly. The government sent notices to residents in four villages to relocate and they received compensation within two to three weeks. Villagers were told that the land would be used to build an industrial park. But public concern began to grow and villagers were surprised that the "industrial park" they had been told about was going to process radioactive fuel. On July 12, more than 1,000 protesters descended on the offices of the Heshan city government to oppose the project. Heshan and Jiangmen officials hastily called a press conference and promised to run more TV programs to educate the public.[3,4]
On July 13, a notice that the project had been cancelled was posted on the Jiangmen government's website. "The people's government of the city of Heshan has decided to respect the public opinion and will not consider the CNNC Longwan industrial park project," it said.
On July 14, residents gathered again outside Jiangmen's government headquarters, worried that the project had merely been postponed, but the city's Communist Party chief emerged to reassure them that it had indeed been scrapped for good.
Reflecting on the failed project, some government officials blamed old bureaucratic habits for alienating the public. One official pointed to the fact that officials and party committees lacked social media accounts that could have been used to get their side of the story across. Officials probably feared that the protests could escalate to the scale of those provoked by large chemical-factory projects in recent years.
One official said: "The more we explained, the more people believed we were deceiving them." For example, a Q&A on the local government's website responded to a question about risks in the event that the plant was bombed during warfare by stating: "Given that it is a civilian nuclear facility, the plant is protected by international law and could not be attacked during wartime."
The Economist reflected on the events: "The government in Beijing would be happy if anti-nuclear protests were to stay at the level of bickering between counties or even the occasional outburst of nimbyism, as in Jiangmen. But there is a risk that the success of Jiangmen residents in securing a change of heart could encourage others. ... As well as complicating China's nuclear plans, such protests would raise fears in Beijing of something more worrying: an anti-nuclear movement becoming a cover for anti-government activity. Taiwan offers a precedent. In the 1980s opponents of the island's authoritarian government rallied public support for their cause by tapping into public concerns about nuclear power. The Communist Party does not want to run that kind of risk."
While anti-nuclear activism has been uncommon in China, a nuclear project in Guangxi Province was reportedly halted in February due to public opposition.
Anti-nuclear activism is stronger in nearby Hong Kong, where groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have launched a petition to oppose further expansion of nuclear capacity in Guangdong.
"Chinese civil society is getting stronger," said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "People now realize if their numbers are big enough, if they are united and stand their ground, the government will back down."