The Nuclear Debate
Hong Kong is preparing to import more nuclear energy from the Chinese Mainland. Shirley Zhao investigates the potential risks
Hundreds of people gathered at the Legislative Council earlier this month to oppose the Hong Kong government’s plan to increase imported nuclear energy from the Mainland. Demonstrating peacefully, and holding candles, the Greenpeace-organised vigil sent silent blessings to quake-ravaged Japan, but the local debate on nuclear power has become deafening in recent days. The Environment Protection Department (EPD) last year launched a public consultation on a proposal to increase nuclear capacity in order to supply half the city’s electricity consumption. It was billed as an important ‘anti-pollution’ strategy. Now, as Japan’s nuclear power plant crisis at Fukushima continues to unfold before the world, the EDP’s strategy has come under further questioning.
“Hong Kong needs no additional nuclear energy supply, but a more effective way to use energy and reduce electricity consumption,” says Prentice Koo Wai-muk, a campaigner for Greenpeace. Koo specifically criticized the China Light & Power Group (中電集團), the city’s largest power supplier, for giving its “big customers” like local shopping malls and high-end office buildings special discounts on electricity, and accused the group of encouraging the use of electricity “in a wasteful way.” He also claimed that 25 per cent of Hong Kong’s electricity is being consumed by these energy squanderers.
“The government should first reform this unfair tariff structure,” Koo told Time Out.
However, Dr. Luk Bing-lam, a senior engineer at City University of Hong Kong and chairman of the nuclear division of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, says reducing energy consumption is not enough for the reality of the territory’s massive energy need.
“With the development of new technology, people are using more electrical equipment like laptops, iPads, iPhones and game consoles,” says Luk. “We are consuming electricity everywhere.”
Luk added that, compared to coal-generated energy, which leads to severe pollution, and natural gas energy, which is relatively expensive and unstable in supply, nuclear energy is a “very important” partof Hong Kong’s fuel mix.
“It is necessary to increase imported nuclear energy,” states Luk, “but the amount should be discussed by Hong Kong citizens.”
The EPD are still studying opinions collected during its public consultation, as well as taking into account the enormous impact of the Japanese nuclear crisis, before deciding on whether to harness more nuclear energy from China.
At present, Hong Kong imports 70 per cent of the annual output of Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station, located in the Longgang district of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, about 50km north of Victoria Harbour.
The Fukushima crisis, along with last year’s reported ‘fuel tube leak’ at Daya Bay, has stirred huge public concern about whether this neighbouring 18-year-old nuclear power plant is actually safe in structure.
Luk says Daya Bay station is designed to last at least 40 years and can withstand an earthquake impact at Modified Mercalli Scale Level VIII, or a magnitude of 9.67 on the Richter Scale. “The operation systems of the station are checked regularly. Considering the results, I am not worried about the safety of the station,” he told Time Out.
According to Luk, the current evacuation zone set by the International Atomic Energy Agency in times of crisis is a 20km radius. Hong Kong, therefore, is far enough away should a crisis happen, which is highly unlikely in any case, and the impact on Hong Kong would be minimal.
According to CLP, which has a 25 per cent stake in the Daya Bay plant, the Shenzhen station has three back-up electricity sources to support the operation of cooling systems.
In case of a loss of electricity, a steam driver pump can operate to pump in cooling water. CLP also confirmed that Daya Bay’s two reactors are protected by a containment structure more than one-metre thick – twice the thickness of Fukushima’s reactors.
In addition, CLP said the Daya Bay station is located at a “seismically stable” site (the largest earthquake in the region in the past century measured 7.25 in magnitude) and is protected by a breakwater of around 17m above local sea level, and at a ground level of 7m local above sea level. The tsunami which hit Japan was 10m high.
Greenpeace argues that no technology is flawless, citing the current Fukushima crisis. The organization is calling for the Hong Kong government to stop its nuclear energy expansion immediately.
In an emailed statement, CLP said it had conducted an overall safety examination of Daya Bay’s operational system; the results indicated the system as “normal.” The company also confirmed it would “step up necessary measures” to enhance operational safety, including anti-flooding measures.
China has currently suspended the approval for all new nuclear plant projects in order to revise its nuclear regulations. It has also ordered safety checks on all existing power plants, an order which has been criticized as an “overreaction”.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s government says it will schedule a nuclear safety exercise for early 2012 so as to grade the health and safety departments in dealing with a nuclear crisis at Daya Bay.