China cancels nuclear fuel centre following protests

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013,

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.

Public concern began to grow when 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.

On July 13, a notice that the project had been cancelled was posted on the Jiangmen government's website. 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 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: "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."