Hong Kong under nuclear shadow

By Yo Tong on March 31, 2011
Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant (red kite) is Hong Kong's next-door neighbor.

News about the four explosions at quake-hit nuclear reactors in Fukushima echoed throughout Hong Kong, turning into a wake-up call for many by reminding locals of the nuclear plants in Guangdong Province.

The safety of these reactors has now come under the spotlight.

Chengdu Business Daily
Chengdu Business Daily

When the third explosion at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant occurred on 15 March, the representative of China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group was quoted by Chengdu Business Daily:

Chinese nuclear power plants can sustain the worst earthquake in 10,000 years.

China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group is a major nuclear power corporation under Chinese State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council and owns Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station and Ling Ao Nuclear Power Station. Both of them are located 50km (31 miles) from the city center of Hong Kong.

Strange as it may seem, soon after the article concerning the durability of the nuclear plants attracted widespread attention in the Chinese community, Chengdu Business Daily swiftly withdrew the article from their website. Three days later, China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group played down the remark and said that such an evaluation was merely in terms of Annual Exceedance Probability.

The question is, how reliable is such an evaluation? In fact, evaluations regarding infrastructure followed by their subsequent retraction is not an uncommon practice in China: The Three Gorge Dam, currently the largest dam in the world, is one of the most remarkable examples of this phenomenon.

Soon after the dam body was completed in 2006, the experts of the Chinese State Council were quoted as saying that the condition of the dam’s body was “satisfactory,” that the dam is “impregnable and is capable of withstanding the worst flood in 10,000 years.” A year later, the representative of state-owned China Three Gorges Project Corporation said “starting from this year [the Three Gorges Dam is capable of withstanding] the worst flood in 1000 years.”

On 21 October 2008, Li Yong-an, the general manager of China Three Gorges Project Corporation said in an interview with the Xinhua News Agency that the dam was capable of sustaining the worst flood in 100 years. On 20 July 2010, Yangtze River Water Resources Commission Director, Cai Qihua, was quoted as saying that Chinese “cannot put all the hopes on the Three Gorges Dam this year” in terms of flood-control.

Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station
Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station

As for the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station, one of the two nuclear power plants near  Hong Kong has been plagued with problems and glitches since the early stages of construction. In September 1987, the construction was forced to be temporarily halted after the on-site workers misread the blueprint and left out 316 of 576 reinforcing rods when building the plant's first reactor. However the problem was not divulged until October 9th that same year.

In 2008, No. 1 reactor of the plant failed critical tests in sectors such as fuel handling, storage systems and control rods, but the information did not surface until recent reports by local media. According to a report by the Financial Times in 1995, the problem in loading control rods has been recurring in both No. 1 reactor and No. 2 reactor of the nuclear plant. These failures were described as being “repeated” incidents. It is believed that the problem is related to the design itself of the reactors.

On June 16th, Radio Free Asia reported that there was a leak in one of the fuel tubes on May 23rd and radioactive iodine had been emitted. Officials initially denied this information but later admitted to the incident, stressing that the amount of radioactive leak was small and below the international standard regarding safety issue reporting. The government nuclear safety watchdog in both mainland China and Hong Kong were notified and briefed about this,  according to a report by the New York Times.

Given the ever-changing evaluations in durability of infrastructure and the notorious track-record of Chinese authorities in concealing information from the public, it is not ridiculous for Hong Kongers to be worried when Zhang Lijun, Vice-Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, showed his support for nuclear energy in the aftermath of the traumatic earthquake that shook Japan on March 11th, 2011.

It appears fairly clear at this point that Chinese authorities are resolved on developing nuclear energy, and will not be moved by the incidents in Fukushima.