China’s Nuclear Vision Collides With Villagers’ Fears


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A nuclear power plant near Ninghai, China. The nation’s plans call for building dozens of reactors, including one in Hubin Village, to cut its dependence on coal.

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James Hofman/Getty Images

HUBIN VILLAGE, China — This placid, leafy hamlet tucked beside a dam in the countryside hardly seems like the next testing ground over China’s efforts to cut smog and greenhouse gases. But here among cornfields and crumbling stone homes skirted by persimmon trees, the government intends to build a nuclear power plant.

“They want to build it here, right here,” said Wang Jiuxing, a retired village official, tapping his foot outside a dilapidated general store, 540 miles west of Shanghai in China’s central Henan Province. “They say all the preliminary work has been done.”

Hubin is one of dozens of sites across the country where officials have plans ready, awaiting further approval, to build atomic reactors over the next decade — an ambitious program to expand the use of nuclear energy that Beijing considers essential to weaning the Chinese economy from its reliance on coal-fired plants, which churn out air pollution and carbon dioxide.

Ask villagers here what they think of the proposed plant, though, and talk quickly turns to the Communist government’s dismal record of industrial accidents, as well as the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Residents in Hubin will be resettled to new homes a few miles away, but many said that they would still feel threatened living so close to a nuclear station.

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Bags of contaminated waste from the Fukushima plant lined a road in Japan last year.

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Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

“It’s just not safe,” said Liu Shimin, a farmer in her 20s, nursing a baby outside her home near the banks of the Yahe River. “We’ll always be wondering, ‘What if there’s a big accident, like that one in Japan?’ ”

Such fears are on the rise in China as the nation embarks on a new phase of nuclear power construction that could make it the world’s biggest producer of nuclear energy by 2030. To meet its goals, analysts say, China must add six to eight reactor units — a plant usually has several — every year over the coming decade, most likely including its first in inland provinces like Henan and neighboring Hubei.

China’s authoritarian government, adept at corralling public opinion to get its way, can ram through its plans over the objections of people like Ms. Liu. But opponents say its closed, secretive political system is ill equipped to manage a rapid expansion of nuclear power, pointing to its struggle to prevent industrial disasters such as the chemical explosions in Tianjin in August that killed 173 people.

“The Chinese are beginning to wrestle with the same issues that Western countries were dealing with, concerning fear of the technology, transparency in decision making and trust of the authorities,” said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who follows China.

To the government and many energy experts, China faces a choice: Build more nuclear plants, despite the public opposition and safety risks, or continue to rely on coal and accept the pollution and greenhouse gases that go with it.

Without expanding nuclear power, they say, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for President Xi Jinping to fulfill his pledge to stop China’s carbon emissions from growing by 2030 — a commitment made in a landmark climate change agreement with President Obama last year. Mr. Xi also pledged that so-called clean energy sources would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by then.

“A lot is at stake here,” Mr. Hibbs said. “If the Chinese don’t get it right, their entire plans for shifting the electricity generation system toward noncarbon sources would come under considerable stress.”

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China already operates 30 nuclear power reactors, mostly along its east coast, accounting for 2.4 percent of national electricity consumption. Twenty-one additional plants are under construction, and the World Nuclear Association counts 135 proposed reactors under serious consideration. By 2030, officials want nuclear power to generate up to 10 percent of China’s electricity.

Even if all goes as planned, coal will continue to dominate the energy supply in China. But proponents of the government’s approach say serious cuts to coal use are possible if enough nuclear plants provide a steady alternate source of electricity.

“Low-carbon development would be much harder to achieve if we ruled out nuclear power,” said Zhou Dadi, a professor at the state Energy Research Institute in Beijing, which advises policy makers.

Since starting up its first power reactor in 1991, China has repeatedly wrestled with the pace and scale of its nuclear ambitions. Plans for a nuclear plant in Hubin Village, for example, go back over a decade, part of a rush of proposals for inland plants put forward after 2000.

But a corruption scandal in the nuclear sector in 2009 forced a pause, and after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, Beijing suspended construction on all nuclear plants, introduced new safety rules and effectively froze plans for inland reactors until the end of 2015.

Now, officials and engineers who support nuclear power have been lobbying for construction of inland plants to resume as part of China’s next five-year growth plan, which begins in 2016.

The Chinese Academy of Engineering, a government advisory body, submitted two reports to policy makers this year arguing that greater use of nuclear energy, including from reactors built inland, would help reduce the air pollution that is choking Chinese cities. Pollution from coal causes up to 1.2 million premature deaths a year in China.

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Up to now, China has built its reactors close to the coast, where water needed for cooling systems is plentiful and there are big cities nearby hungry for power. But the next phase is almost certain to push inland, and that has become a chief focus for opponents of the nuclear program.

They argue that limited water supplies and poor radiation dispersal make the proposed inland sites more dangerous, and that the sites are more densely populated than places where reactors have been built away from the coast in countries like the United States. They worry especially about the risk of radiation leaking into China’s biggest river, the Yangtze.

“If there’s an accident, the environmental impact from an inland nuclear station will be far more serious than one on the coast,” said He Zuoxiu, a prominent retired physicist who is China’s most vocal opponent of nuclear energy. “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?”

Proponents of nuclear power in China say the proposed inland sites need technology not very different from those on the coast, and that the new reactors will be much safer than older models. They also argue that China’s nuclear safety administration is more effective than other regulators in the country, especially since the Fukushima disaster prompted Beijing to devote more resources to it.

“After Fukushima, they have thought about the lessons learned,” said Gavin Liu, president of Asia for Westinghouse Electric Company, whose AP1000 reactor is a cornerstone of China’s nuclear plan. He added, “I think we’re going to see more a robust and reliable nuclear construction program going to happen here.”

Opponents of nuclear power in China maintain that the country can achieve its clean energy goals without a nuclear building spree, by investing heavily in improving solar and wind power and by upgrading the power grid so it can send electricity more efficiently across vast distances.

They point to the deadly explosions in Tianjin, where hazardous chemicals appear to have been stored improperly at a facility close to residential areas, as an example of how of lax regulation, graft and official obfuscation can undo the Chinese government’s promises to put safety first.

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“Those searing lessons must never be played out in a nuclear reactor accident,” Wang Yinan, a researcher at a government think tank and influential critic of the nuclear plans, told the Chinese magazine Caixin last month. “For our political stability, economic development and social order, that would be a weight too heavy to bear.”

Studies indicate that many Chinese would oppose a nuclear plant near their homes, but support nuclear energy in principle. That support, though, reflects the government’s ability to control information and discourage debate, said Arthur Mol, an environmental policy professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Xuehua Zhang, a Chinese environmental policy researcher who has questioned plans to build more nuclear plants, especially inland, said, “Public participation in this decision-making process of whether and where to build nuclear power plants is extremely important.”

Ning Li, dean of the School of Energy Research at Xiamen University in China, who supports greater use of atomic energy, said “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.

In July 2013, officials in southern China curtailed plans for a nuclear fuel fabrication plant after hundreds of residents protested in a nearby town. That episode “sent a shock wave” through China’s nuclear establishment, which had assumed its plans could be insulated from public opposition, said Rob Forrest, a physicist who studied China’s nuclear program while at Stanford University.

In Hubin, the authorities have sought to reassure residents by taking representatives to visit a nuclear plant in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. “We have to believe that the government is doing this because it must and can keep us safe,” said Mr. Wang, the retired village official.

Other villagers expressed a mix of resignation and worry. Residents in Nanyang, a city of 1.5 million about 20 miles to the south, have also voiced alarm on the Internet and called for the project to be scuttled.

“Here and around Nanyang, there’s opposition, but that’s futile,” said Li Chaoyong, 50, who builds and repairs homes around Hubin. “But if there are problems again like in Japan …” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head.



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