Why Is Nuclear Safety in China a Public Concern?

Mar 27, 2011 

Ever since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis over two weeks ago, it has become evident that Chinese officials are divided on nuclear safety. Zhang Lijun, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, stated on March 12 that China’s resolve to develop nuclear power would not change. Yet on March 16, in an executive meeting of the State Council, a comprehensive security check on nuclear facilities was ordered posthaste throughout the country, and approval of nuclear power projects was suspended.

Relying on the Law is Not Enough
Government departments at various levels with differing attitudes and responsibilities reflect that the country has been taken hostage by interest groups. The country’s Environmental Impact Assessment group (EIA) is the first hurdle for the establishment of a nuclear power plant, which is exactly where corruption has hit the hardest.

As I have repeatedly stressed, a modern state generally sets up three mechanisms for protecting the environment: the law, EIA pre-operative interaction, and monitoring of industry pollution. The three gate-keeping mechanisms do exist as a formality in China. The People’s Congress and government at various levels have developed over 1,700 environmental protection laws and regulations, according to 2008 data, and set up departments dedicated to environmental assessment and monitoring. The depressing reality however, is that China’s ecological environment is rapidly deteriorating and on the brink of collapse. The EIA has become the first defective gatekeeper.

In the prevailing corrupt political setting, with such a complete set of environmental agencies and over 1,700 regulations failing to protect China’s environmental and homeland security, how can people expect that the future “Atomic Energy Act” will be able to turn the tide?

Sources of Mistrust
The huge number of environmental problems, including pollution and protests from environmentalists, has revealed a maddening and depressing reality: with the steady increase of various types of construction projects year after year, increasingly more people have come to view the EIA as a big piece of pie, which has given birth to an interlocking food supply chain consisting of business owners, EIA and local government departments, and even officials of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, all of whose interests are closely bound together.

An article published by Outlook Weekly in April 2009 reported that from 2002 to June 2008, 487 staff from 22 provincial, district and municipal environmental departments had been under investigation, with several high ranking officials in environmental protection being fired due to EIA corruption. The person in charge of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s EIA center was investigated for corruption. According to the result of a random inspection conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2009, among 75 EIA agencies in 20 provinces, 30 have violations, 40 percent show poor work quality or poor management.

The EIA has already become a food supply chain for some interest groups to seek profit: how can its reliability and credibility be guaranteed? Moreover, regardless of technical skills, experts cannot escape becoming servants to politics in China.

 Take the Three Gorges project as an example. In the 1989 Three Georges feasibility report, experts who withstood pressure still concluded that the project would bring more harm than good to the environment. However, the State Council rejected the conclusions and had another team devise a more favorable report in 1991, for higher officials’ approval. The EIA treating even the epic Three Gorges project as child’s play calls into question its handling of lesser projects.
It’s no surprise that nearly all pollution cases in recent years have passed EIA tests. Incidents where government departments tamper with expert reports have been reported.

 The Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a “Notice about further strengthening the management of EIA on biomass power generation projects” on Sept. 4, 2008. The appendix of this document specifies that the minimum distance between the project site and neighboring residential areas, schools, hospitals and other public facilities is 300 meters (approximately 0.19 miles).

 However, Zhao Zhangyuan from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences participated with the EIA on the project, disclosing that the original safe distance was set to be 1,000 meters (0.62 miles). He said that based on the toxicity of dioxin contamination, even 1,000 meters was too short, so there is absolutely no basis for setting the distance at 300 meters.

The systemic corruption within China’s political infrastructure has also infiltrated the field of nuclear power. Safety and quality control issues often have to yield to cost control, profit and corruption. Since the end of 2007, there have been three cases in China’s nuclear power system where senior officials had been investigated for alleged corruption.

At the end of 2007, Jiang Xinsheng, the former president of China National Technical Import and Export Corp. was investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for leaking secrets in a nuclear-power-plant bidding.

At the end of 2008, Shen Rugang, the former deputy general manager of China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and over 20 staffers had been investigated. In 2009, Kang Rixin, general manager of China National Nuclear Corporation was investigated.

Paul Felten, then-marketing director of the French nuclear power company Areva, which was cooperating with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, had been detained for more than two months in China for alleged corruption. The prevailing critical issue is whether the quality of nuclear power projects can be ensured.

Due to the strict censorship regime in China, the government and the people have asymmetric information access. The regime in China can block anything it does not want the people to know about as “state secrets.”

A critical radiation leak occurred on Oct. 23, 2010 at the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province (the third accident in the plant within half a year.) The pipeline bearing coolant from the No. 1 reactor had three cracks, with the longest being three inches, leaking 2 mSv of radiation. China Light and Power Company, the major shareholder of the plant, did not disclose the accident until three weeks later.

Though 2 mSv is not a dangerous amount, the incident rattled residents. But only in Hong Kong, which still has some freedom, could an emergency meeting of the Legislative Council be held, criticizing the Chinese authorities for delaying the release of relevant information and disregarding Hong Kong’s public safety. Shenzhen residents were out of the loop.

Nuclear power projects carry much greater risk than standard projects. Under China’s ruling system, nuclear safety is not just a matter of technical competence; it is dictated by political and social factors. Before the political root of corruption can be eliminated, suspending construction of such projects is the only right choice.
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the U.S., she authored “China's Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She writes regularly on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.