Protests erupted against a proposed nuclear reprocessing plant in the Chinese city of Lianyungang on August 6.
Areva and the Chinese government completed negotiations over technical aspects of the reprocessing project in June 2015 and commercial negotiations are ongoing. The 100 billion yuan (US$15b; €13.3b) plant is to be built by China National Nuclear Corp., based on Areva technology. China wants a plant to process 800 tonnes of spent fuel per year, as well as a MOX fuel fabrication plant modelled on Areva's plant in Melox, southern France. The aim is to build the reprocessing plant from 2020 to 2030.
Lianyungang hosts the Tianwan nuclear plant, which has two power reactors and two more under construction. A 2010 survey of 1,616 local residents showed widespread apprehension about the Tianwan plant: 83.5% of respondents said they "worried about improper handling of nuclear waste" at the plant.1
The prospect of a nuclear reprocessing plant in addition to the nuclear power station is clearly a bridge too far for many locals. Thousands participated in protests beginning on Saturday August 6, disregarded warnings from the local government and police that they were breaking the law. Protests extended over several days and at times involved confrontations with police.2
According to the August 10 New York Times: "The biggest protest in Lianyungang took place on Saturday [August 6], when many thousands of people, including families with children, marched through the downtown area. Despite warnings from the government, protests continued on a smaller scale this week, as residents defied ranks of riot officers with shields, according to news reports and video that people shared through social media."3
Meanwhile, citizens used social media platforms to denounce the proposed reprocessing plant while government censors did their best to remove critical comments.
A media publication under the umbrella of the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group gave this account: "On Monday night [August 8], thousands of residents gathered in front of a primary school near Suning Plaza and yelled "Protest, protest!" at SWAT police wearing heavy riot gear and carrying riot shields. Some residents were throwing water bottles in protest of a Sino-French nuclear fuel recycling project allegedly proposed for the city. Protesters said that since Friday, their numbers had grown significantly until SWAT teams moved in on Sunday night to disperse the crowds. ... Videos that were widely circulated on social media showed SWAT police chasing after citizens and violently beat them as they were lying on the ground. Eyewitnesses confirmed the brutal beatings."4
"We don't want this project," said a local citizen. "We worry about whether there will be a leak and whether the technology is good enough to protect people's health."5 Another local citizen said: "It is very important to choose a safe location to deal with nuclear waste since it is radioactive. Lianyungang is located in a seismically active area, and there is already a nuclear waste plant here. It is unsafe to see another nuclear project coming and besieging us."6
In addition to issuing warnings about unauthorized gatherings, the Lianyungang local government also tried to appease citizens. "The Lianyungang Municipal People's Government has decided to suspend site selection and preliminary work on the nuclear recycling project," the local government said. Yet the possibility of pursuing the project in Lianyungang has not been ruled out, with the provincial government saying that "no final decision had been made" on the location of the plant.7 Moreover it is a national project and thus the local government cannot unilaterally suspend or terminate the project.
"Currently, the project is still at the stage of preliminary assessment and comparing potential sites, and nothing has been finally decided," the local government said in an August 8 statement.1
Lianyungang is one of six sites under consideration for the reprocessing plant, and national authorities are concerned that unrest could spread to the other sites under consideration. Of the six sites, all but one ‒ Gansu Province ‒ is a heavily populated coastal province.3 Gansu is already home to China's first civilian nuclear reprocessing plant, a pilot scale facility beset by technical problems.
China's political leaders are wary of local protests escalating into broader challenges to their power. Local governments are increasingly giving ground in the face of growing public opposition to chemical plants, waste incinerators and other potential sources of pollution ‒ and now proposed nuclear projects are becoming increasingly contentious. A series of deadly accidents at industrial sites has heightened public fears and deepened distrust of government. Xiamen University energy policy specialist Lin Boqiang said: "Public concerns can be contagious and spill over to other cities, as has been the case with various incinerator and PX [chemical] projects."8
Wenfang Tang, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said: "While the Chinese government does not hesitate to arrest the few political dissidents, it spends more time and energy to appease public demands. The high level of government sensitivity and responsiveness to public opinion further encourages political activism in Chinese society. The louder you are, the more quickly the government will respond."3
Just as appeasement can encourage and embolden the citizenry, so too repression carries the risk of escalating public protests. The Financial Times reported:9
"People power ‒ ironically for an authoritarian state ‒ is now seen by the nuclear industry as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to growth. Industry officials point to the precedent of waste incinerators and petrochemical plants that make paraxylene, or PX: local governments have pulled or relocated projects in the face of protests (or in some cases built them in secret behind refinery walls).
"Nuclear industry officials also fret that any attempt to suppress protests with violent policing will lead to a public backlash against the power source. Efforts to keep project planning out of the public eye tend to aggravate public suspicion once a "secret" project becomes known.
"Mao Shoulong, a public policy expert at Renmin University, said the Lianyungang protest would make future nuclear projects more difficult. "Just like the PX protests, if the authorities try to crack down heavy-handedly there will be a huge backlash," he said. "The government should improve its public policy decision-making process and give the public the right to know, by making the policy-making process more transparent and the siting more scientific.""
An emerging anti-nuclear movement?
In July 2013, officials in southern China shelved plans for a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Guangdong province after more than 1,000 residents protested.10 And in February 2013 a nuclear project in Guangxi Province was reportedly halted due to public opposition.11
Proposals to build inland nuclear power plants have also ignited intense opposition according to the New York Times.3 The Chinese Academy of Engineering has stated that limited water supplies and poor radiation dispersal make the proposed inland sites more dangerous. He Zuoxiu, a retired nuclear physicist, said: "If there's an accident, the environmental impact from an inland nuclear station will be far more serious than one on the coast. Imagine if the Fukushima accident had happened on the course of the Yangtze River. Then how many people would have their food and water contaminated?"12
Li Ning, a nuclear scientist and dean of the School of Energy Research at China's Xiamen University, said last year that 'not in my backyard' protests were on the rise. "So far, it hasn't risen to the level of stopping nuclear, but in some areas it is slowing it down," he said.12 Speaking to Reuters after the recent protests in Lianyungang, Li Ning said that anti-nuclear actions "are happening more frequently, on a larger scale and in a more agitated way."7
Perhaps anti-nuclear protests will achieve nothing more than stopping a few projects and slowing some others, with no significant impact on Beijing's nuclear plans or broader political structures. At the other end of the spectrum, an emerging anti-nuclear movement may coalesce with other forces to challenge not only the nuclear program but China's authoritarian political structures more generally.
In December 2010, China National Nuclear Corp. started operating a pilot scale reprocessing facility with a design capacity to process spent fuel containing 50 tonne of heavy metal (uranium and plutonium) per year (50 tHM/yr). But the plant was shut down after a ten-day 'hot test' that revealed numerous safety and security issues.13 There has been discussion that the small plant would be a template for a larger indigenously-designed plant with a capacity of 200 tHM/yr, but that project does not have government approval.14
China could abandon plans for reprocessing and opt for direct disposal of spent fuel. A site in Gansu province has been selected as the primary candidate site for a deep underground repository and exploratory work is underway. In the meantime, spent fuel can be stored at reactor sites and at an interim store adjacent to the pilot reprocessing plant ‒ and storage capacity can be increased as necessary.14
A commercial-scale reprocessing plant will do nothing to help China's nuclear waste storage and disposal issues. If it helped in any way, it would merely be by acting as a spent fuel storage site and obviating the need to increase capacity at existing storage sites. The International Panel on Fissile Material notes: "One major motivation for reprocessing is to provide an off-site destination for spent fuel accumulating at the reactor sites."14 Of course, that aim would be far more easily and cheaply accomplished by simply building a new storage facility instead of a US$15 billion reprocessing plant.
So why reprocess?
Making best use of finite uranium reserves? China is estimated to have over two million tons of potentially economic uranium resources, so even if China's nuclear power program expanded to 400 gigawatts by mid-century ‒ greater than current global nuclear capacity, and 13 times greater than China's current nuclear capacity ‒ only roughly half of the two million tons of uranium resource would be consumed by 2050.14 China's current stockpile of about 300 million pounds15 of refined uranium oxide would suffice to operate its existing reactor fleet for around 20 years. And of course the world is awash with cheap uranium as we've repeatedly discussed in Nuclear Monitor in recent years.16
Reprocessing to facilitate nuclear waste management and disposal? Reprocessing does nothing to reduce radioactivity or toxicity, and the overall waste volume, including low and intermediate level waste, is greatly increased by reprocessing.
Reprocessing in support of a fast neutron (breeder) reactor program? China has a 20 MWe experimental fast reactor (CEFR), which operated for a total of less than one month in the 63 months from criticality in July 2010 to October 2015.17 China also has plans to build a 600 MWe 'Demonstration Fast Reactor' and then a 1,000 MWe commercial-scale fast reactor.17 Whether the 600 MWe and 1,000 MWe reactors are built remains uncertain, and it would be another giant leap from a single commercial-scale fast reactor to a fleet of them.
Building a commercial-scale reprocessing plant in support of an experimental fast reactor program makes no sense. A January 2016 paper from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs states: "The planned 200 tHM/yr reprocessing plant and the proposed 800 tHM/yr plant may not be the best facilities for supporting China's near-term and long-term fuel cycle plans. Fast reactors could be started up with enriched uranium or with plutonium imported from other countries which have large excess stocks available, at far lower cost than building these proposed reprocessing plants."18
The International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM) analyzed China's reprocessing program in a July 2015 report and concluded: "China should learn from the experiences of other countries that have prematurely launched large reprocessing programs in the expectation that the commercialization of breeder reactors would follow. The commercialization of breeders did not follow and the result has been hugely costly programs to clean up the reprocessing sites and to dispose of the separated plutonium."14
China's military reprocessing program helped lay the foundation for a civilian reprocessing program, with the small civilian reprocessing plant located next to the large Jiuquan military reprocessing plant and sharing some of its facilities.
The IPFM report argues that the military origins and connections might partially explain the current drive to expand civil reprocessing: "The persistence of civilian reprocessing in nuclear-weapon states reﬂects in part the strong institutional connections their reprocessing establishments formed within their governments when they were providing plutonium for weapons and the desire of those establishments to continue to have a mission after national requirements for weapons plutonium were fulfilled."14
Is there any Chinese interest in using ostensibly civil reprocessing plants to separate plutonium for weapons? Possibly, although the use of indigenously-designed, dedicated military facilities might seem a more logical pathway to fissile material for weapons. A reprocessing plant based on Areva technology (and the nuclear materials processed by the plant) would likely be subject to IAEA safeguards. Whether IAEA safeguards would apply was a sticking point between Beijing and Paris according to the IPFM.14
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, is concerned about the potential for a large reprocessing plant to produce material for weapons, regardless of safeguards:19
"If China builds and operates this plant, it plans to stockpile plutonium for 10 to 20 years ‒ ostensibly for advanced reactor fuel ‒ producing enough plutonium for between 15,000 and 30,000 bombs, roughly the number of weapons' worth of nuclear explosives that the United States or Russia could remilitarize if they weaponized the massive amounts of surplus nuclear weapons fuel in their respective stockpiles.
"This could be militarily significant. Currently, China's nuclear arsenal is believed to be only 200 to 400 weapons. Its surplus plutonium stockpile, moreover, is only large enough to produce some additional hundreds of bombs, and China lacks any working military plutonium production reactor. Would a Chinese commercial plutonium program serve as a work-around? This may not be China's intention now, but if tensions in the region increased, might this change? One has to hope not."
Similar points could be made about the large reprocessing plant under construction in Japan, and South Korea's efforts to establish reprocessing. Sokolski writes: "What makes these civilian plutonium-recycling efforts all the more dubious is how little economic and technical sense they make. They are not only unnecessary to promote nuclear power or manage nuclear waste, but also clear money losers. Privately, Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean officials and other government advisers concede these points; publicly, they don't."19
Publicly, Beijing seems committed to reprocessing, but political leaders might yet see sense. Arguments used to promote reprocessing "are beginning to be challenged within China's nuclear establishment" according to the IPFM.14 While Beijing and Paris announced last year that they have reached agreement on technical aspects of the proposed reprocessing project, they may be deadlocked over costs.
Beijing first signed an agreement with Areva for cooperation on reprocessing and MOX fuel technologies in November 2007. They hoped that a reprocessing plant would be completed in 2020 ‒ but as things stand, construction won't begin until 2020, if indeed it ever begins.
1. Chris Buckley, 8 Aug 2016, 'Thousands in Eastern Chinese City Protest Nuclear Waste Project', www.nytimes.com/2016/08/09/world/asia/china-nuclear-waste-protest-lianyu...
3. Chris Buckley, 10 Aug 2016, 'Chinese City Backs Down on Proposed Nuclear Fuel Plant After Protests', www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/world/asia/china-nuclear-fuel-lianyungang.html
4. Yin Yijun and Fan Yiying, 9 Aug 2016, 'Anti-nuclear Waste Protest Turns Violent in Lianyungang', www.sixthtone.com/news/violent-crackdown-doesnt-deter-nuclear-waste-protest
5. South China Morning Post, 9 Aug, 2016, 'Residents of Chinese city protest for third day over possible plans to build nuclear fuel reprocessing centre', www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2001467/residents-chin...
6. Zhao Yusha, 8 Aug 2016, 'Jiangsu residents protest nuclear project', www.globaltimes.cn/content/999002.shtml
7. David Stanway, 10 Aug 2016, 'China halts work on $15 billion nuclear waste project after protests', www.reuters.com/article/us-china-nuclearpower-idUSKCN10L0CX
8. 11 Aug 2016, 'Nuclear plant scheme halted in eastern China after thousands take part in street protests', http://m.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2001726/nuclear-p...
9. Lucy Hornby, 7 Aug 2016, 'China protests force rethink on nuclear waste site City that hosts reactor complex will not be home to first large-scale nuclear reprocessing plant', www.ft.com/content/003ecb60-5ec7-11e6-bb77-a121aa8abd95
10. 23 Aug 2016, 'China cancels nuclear fuel centre following protests', Nuclear Monitor #766, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/766/china-cancels-nuclear-fuel...
11. He Xin and Tian Lin, 31 July 2016, 'When a Wave of Protest Swamped a Nuclear Fuel Project', http://english.caixin.com/2013-07-31/100563607.html
12. Chris Buckley, 21 Nov 2015, 'China's Nuclear Vision Collides With Villagers' Fears', www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/world/asia/chinas-nuclear-vision-collides-wit...
13. Hui Zhang, 8 Oct 2014, 'The Security Risks of China's Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities', http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/blog/security-risks-china...
14. International Panel on Fissile Material, July 2015, 'Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs: Status, Problems, and Prospects of Civilian Reprocessing Around the World'
15. Rhiannon Hoyle and Mayumi Negishi, 31 July 2016, 'Japan Nuclear-Power Jitters Weigh on Global Uranium Market', www.wsj.com/articles/japan-nuclear-power-jitters-weigh-on-global-uranium...
16. 9 Aug 2016, 'Uranium: the world's worst mined commodity', Nuclear Monitor #828, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor
18. Matthew Bunn, Hui Zhang, and Li Kang, Jan 2016. 'The Cost of Reprocessing in China', Report for Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School,
19. Henry Sokolski, 28 March 2016, 'Can East Asia avoid a nuclear explosive materials arms race?', http://thebulletin.org/can-east-asia-avoid-nuclear-explosive-materials-a...