HONG KONG (Reuters) - As China pushes an aggressive expansion of nuclear power it is running into a major stumbling block - a breakdown of trust, post-Fukushima, in official assurances of public safety.
A plan to build a $6 billion uranium processing plant in the southern province of Guangdong was canceled this week after about a thousand people took to the streets demanding the project was scrapped over public health and environmental fears.
Beijing plans to plough tens of billions of dollars into the construction of dozens of nuclear power projects across the country by 2020, as part of efforts to reduce its reliance on dirty coal-fired power and cut air pollution.
Industry insiders blamed the cancellation of the project on poor communication and a lack of public education. They say if things do not improve more protests could spring up elsewhere, threatening those plans to build new reactors.
"The public consultation last only 10 days, which is way too short," said a top industry executive with knowledge of the matter. "The materials it provided about the project are also woefully inadequate." He declined to be identified as he was not authorized to publicly comment on the project.
The outcry highlighted growing skepticism in China over official assurances about safety following a series of food and pollution scandals.
In the Internet age, in which the Chinese public is becoming increasingly vocal about their rights and mobilizing on social networks, popular protests like the demonstrations in the city of Jiangmen against the processing plant suggest a wider backlash against nuclear power.
"If public communication is not done properly, it would have a major negative impact on China's future nuclear power development," said Lin Boqiang, professor and director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.
"Other people could learn from Jiangmen. The government should learn how to do effective communication with the public over major nuclear projects."
NUCLEAR POWER TARGET
China has 15 nuclear reactors currently in service.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, Beijing cut its 2020 nuclear power capacity target to 58 gigawatt (GW) from 80-90 GW. But the new goal still represents a nearly four-fold increase from the current capacity and makes China the world's largest nuclear market.
Foreign nuclear groups such as Toshiba Corp's Westinghouse and Areva have won multi-billion dollar contracts to build nuclear power plants in the world's second largest economy.
The uranium processing project in Jiangmen, near Hong Kong, was supposed to supply fuel to existing and future power plants in Guangdong, a major Chinese industrial powerhouse and a center of nuclear energy expansion.
China has been buying stakes in uranium mines in Asia and Africa, but without the capacity to enrich and process the ore it will still be dependent on foreign firms to turn it into useable fuel.
Already, anti-nuclear activists in Hong Kong, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have launched a petition this week to oppose further expansion of nuclear capacity in Guangdong, according to Frances Yeung, senior environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth's Hong Kong office.
Massive protests broke out in Hong Kong in the 1980s when China announced its plan to build the Daya Bay nuclear plant just across the border from the city, then under British rule. Fuelled by fears of nuclear accidents following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, more than 1 million signatures were collected to register public objections to the construction.
The Chinese government eventually built the plant, but the French-designed project suffered delays.
POOR COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS
The scrapped Jiangmen project was a joint venture between China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG). They are now looking for alternative sites.
But power industry executives say that the Chinese state-run nuclear power companies and local governments lack the communication skills to reassure the public at a time of heightened fears about safety.
Public safety concerns have forced China to cancel plans to build several major chemical projects in coastal areas in recent years. Critics say unsupervised local governments have been pushing for economic growth at the expense of the environment and public health.
Nuclear fuel processing, the work that would have been done at the proposed Jiangmen project, poses little risk to public health, according to industry experts and the industry lobby group, the World Nuclear Association.
They say enriching uranium at a processing plant poses less risk than handling spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive, at a reactor. But, the public in Jiangmen were not convinced.
"Great, long live Jiangmen leaders. Germany has also decided to give up nuclear power," a Jiangmen resident said in a post on the Jiangmen government's page on the popular social networking site Weibo, under registered name of ‘YOoUuNnGg', in reaction to its decision to scrap the uranium processing project.
The Global Times, a strident tabloid owned by the top state-run paper the People's Daily, attributed the scrapping of the project to an "opaque and unreasonable" decision-making process and called on local governments to "establish a system that fosters consultations between officials and the public".
Chinese state-owned enterprises like CNNC and CGN have been increasingly aware of their public image and seeking to improve transparency, but critics say they are still largely functioning as government bureaucracies rather than commercial enterprises.
When reached by Reuters, an official at CNNC's propaganda department in Beijing said she could not immediately comment on the report and asked for emailed questions regarding the Jiangmen project. CGN could not be reached for comments.
"I suspect that the Chinese have got a long way to go in developing public consultation before they site new facilities - and not just in nuclear," said Steve Kidd, former head of World Nuclear Association, now an industry consultant.
(Additional reporting by David Stanway in BEIJING and Grace Li and Lavinia Mo in HONG KONG; Editing by David Lague and Alex Richardson)