Work on China’s nuclear power plants started picking up again about a year after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. But the meltdown in March 2011 was still fresh on the minds of four retired cadres in Anhui Province’s Wangjiang County.
They filed a petition opposing the Pengze nuclear power project in neighboring Jiangxi province, eventually winning local government support. This kind of official opposition to a nuclear project is almost unheard of in China.
The Pengze plant would be China's first inland nuclear power facility. It’s slated to rise north of the Yangtze River only 10 kilometers from the heart of Wangjiang and just three kilometers from a county village.
The petitioners are former Wangjiang County Party Committee deputy secretary Wang Jinzhou, former county people's court chief justice Fang Guangwen, former county people’s congress deputy director Tao Guoxiang, and former urban-rural construction bureau director Wang Jize. They started collecting publicly available information about the Pengze plant two months after the Fukushima accident. They then compared this information to China’s national construction standards and related regulations.
Last July, they completed an eleven-page petition that called for a halt to the project and sent it to the central government’s State Council, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Anhui Province government, and county authorities. The petition claimed population data in materials filed by the Pengze plant’s builders had been falsified. It also said seismic data was unreliable, and that villagers had been bribed to favor the plant during a survey of public opinion.
The group first sent its petition to the county government. But it took no position until two organizations leading the project—the Jiangxi National Defense Science and Industry Office and China Power Investment Jiangxi—arrived in Wangjiang in August 2011 to undertake safety research and ask the county to provide geographic data. Fang said that it was at this juncture that the county for the first time expressed its opposition to building the plant in its vicinity. The county refused to provide the data.
Then, the Wangjiang government researched the plant more, and on November 15, 2011, it completed a report that requested the project be called off. The county government gave its report to the Anhui Energy Bureau. But several months later, the county government had not received a response. Only when the document was linked to on a microblog, causing widespread concern, did the bureau say the county’s report had been forwarded to National Development and Reform Commission, the nation's top economic planner. The NDRC has not commented.
Wang speculated that the delay was connected to the development of nuclear power in the province. “Anhui is preparing four of its own nuclear power projects,” he said.
The projects he referred to are the Wuhu Fanchang, Chizhou Jiyang, Anqing Congyang, and Xuancheng nuclear power plants along the Yangtze River. The Jiyang site is less than 50 kilometers from the Pengze plant and less than 15 kilometers from a small town in Wangjiang County.
Before the Fukushima disaster, these projects met little resistance. The Chizhou prefectural government said in 2009 on its website that the public had input into the environmental impact assessment and a forum was held where forty-one representatives of the public voiced their support for the project.
China temporarily slowed the pace of such construction following Fukushima. For instance, there have been no updated news releases about the projects in Anhui or the several dozen nationwide.
However, China is still determined to develop nuclear power. In November 2011, Anhui’s latest energy development plan stated: “In accordance with the national strategic layout for nuclear power, at the same time as continuing to ensure work at the Wuhu and Chizhou nuclear power plant sites and the Anqing high-temperature gas-cooled reactor nuclear power project site, steadily push forward the preparatory work for nuclear power projects.”
And in mid-February 2012, Li Ganjie, director of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, visited the Sanmen nuclear facility in coastal Zhejiang province and said the nation should be confident about the development of nuclear power.
On February 23, 2012, the Hongyan River nuclear power plant in coastal Dalian, Liaoning province, passed a preparatory safety assessment organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The plant’s unit number one was the first Chinese nuclear power facility to apply for the installation of nuclear fuel since the Fukushima disaster.
As the pace of work on China’s nuclear power projects picks up, there are differing attitudes toward the retirees’ petition and the opposition by the Wangjiang County government.
He Zuoxiu, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has long opposed inland nuclear plants, said the petition was “quite right” and would try to forward it to national leaders.
In a letter, the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau said that the Pengze project has yet to conduct necessary procedures relating to water assessments, intake permits, and sewage discharge.
However, Zheng Mingguang, president of the official Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute, told China National Radio that the institute had recently conducted a second review of the Pengze site selection report and concluded that there were no environmental problems.
Feng Youcai, the Ministry of Environmental Protection's safety management division official in charge of overseeing the Pengze plant, said that “no problems were found” in the project’s documents. However, he pointed out that the project had only passed the site selection phase of the environmental impact assessment and it had many more hurdles to overcome.
Many proponents of nuclear power say critics hold many misconceptions and communication needs to be enhanced. But many of the companies building nuclear power plants and the government have not held honest discussions with stakeholders and are unwilling to provide adequate information. The Ministry of Environmental Protection rejected Caixin’s application for more information on documents related to the Pengze plant’s environmental assessment.
The four retired officials in Wangjiang plan to continue opposing the Pengze plant and inland nuclear projects in general. Wang said that the discussion over whether to stop work on the Pengze facility was a referendum on inland plants.
Fang said that “Shanghai media have had the most intense reaction and they have sent the most reporters because building nuclear power plants on the Yangtze affects them the most,” but almost no reporters from provinces with inland nuclear power programs have interviewed the men.
As might be expected, the four retired officials have a clear game plan for their opposition. “Our actions are divided into three phases: official, media and litigation,” Wang said. Petitioning the government was the first step, and using the media to attract attention the second.
“If this still doesn't work, we can only move to litigation,” he said. “In the next step, we’ll sue whichever departments approved construction of the Pengze nuclear plant, and we'll sue to the end.”
Cui Zheng is a Caixin staff reporter.