Thousands of people took to the streets of an eastern Chinese city this weekend to protest against a proposed nuclear waste reprocessing facility, in a show of public opposition that China fears could derail its ambitious plans to construct dozens of nuclear reactors.
China has been building nuclear reactors at a blistering pace, part of a plan for non-fossil fuels to provide a fifth of national energy supply by 2030. The country so far lacks sufficient nuclear waste processing facilities to handle the output from its planned reactors, and is also short of enrichment facilities to process fuel for the reactors to burn.
Anti-nuclear protests in China have been few and far between but Beijing has treated them with kid gloves for fear of setting off broader public opposition to the state’s nuclear plans. The only two nuclear projects that have attracted significant public opposition in the past 10 years have been called off.
Protesters in Lianyungang, a port city to the north of Shanghai in Jiangsu province, said they were worried about the health and safety impact of the proposed Sino-French venture. Thousands of residents turned out on Saturday evening in a protest monitored but not stopped by local police, and a second protest was expected for Sunday evening.
“The government kept the project a secret. People only found out about it recently. That’s why most people are worried,” said Mr Sheng, a local resident who declined to give his full name. “Some speculate that the nuclear waste is from other countries and do not understand why the project should be built here instead of over there if it’s as safe and beneficial as they say.”
The city is about 30km west of the Russian-built Tianwan nuclear plant, a complex that will be among the largest in China when all eight planned reactors are built. Its economy has faltered along with China’s industrial slowdown. In June, a scrap steel yard in Lianyungang that was China’s largest declared it could not pay its debts.
“We already have a chemical industrial park in Lianyungang and the pollution problem is quite worrying. Nuclear waste is far worse than normal chemical pollution,” said Mr He, a local shop owner. “Also, we all know what happened to Fukushima in Japan after the nuclear accident. We are really worried.”
French nuclear fuel group Areva in 2012 agreed to co-operate with China National Nuclear Corp, which operates the Tianwan site, to develop a nuclear fuel recycling plant in China but did not specify a location. In November last year, the French company — whose reactor business has been merged with French rival EDF — said CNNC might buy a minority stake covering the areas of uranium mining, recycling and decommissioning.