Public Participation and Trust in Chinese Nuclear Power Development

by Sam Peterson

Following the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear incident on Friday, March 11, 2011, Chinese citizens in the rural Shandong peninsula began stockpiling salt and consuming cydiodide tablets as precaution against radiation. Their government had provided little to no information regarding the immediate fallout of the Japanese nuclear event, and would continue to withhold information regarding the incident until several weeks later.

These levels of secrecy and privacy concerning nuclear information are common in China, where an “iron nuclear triangle,” comprised of national Chinese government agencies, in particular the extremely powerful State Council, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), state-owned nuclear enterprises (SOEs) and scientific experts from universities and research institutes. There is a seemingly endless list of Chinese regulatory agencies with varying degrees of authority over nuclear power plant creation, safety, administration, and emergency preparedness. This bureaucracy presides over all nuclear activity, but there exists no “systematic legal system” with which to supervise the safety and development of Chinese nuclear ambitions. After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which caused the Fukishima Daiichi plant disaster, a majority of OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) began thorough reviews of their respective nuclear programs. With every major nuclear incident, particularly those followed by massive radiation leaks, such as Three Miles Island, where a meltdown occurred March 28, 1979 outside Middletown, Pennsylvania, or Chernobyl, in the northern Kiev oblast of Ukraine, where an explosion occurred April 26, 1986, there have been serious social pressures against the continued expanse of nuclear power. Though there were massive protests in Hong Kong, involving 56 local groups and more than 1 million residents, following the Chernobyl disaster, the Chinese government has never shown any serious hesitations in their pursuit of nuclear energy.

This pattern of persistence has continued following the Fukishima incident, as evidenced by the 15 Chinese nuclear power plants currently in operation, and 26 undergoing construction as of 2013, a total which represents more 40% of global nuclear construction. The only change in nuclear policy the Chinese government has exhibited is a 79.8 billion RMB ($11 billion USD) investment in “nuclear power safety improvement, radiation pollution control, research and technology innovation, and emergency response.”

While the opinions and objections of Chinese citizens are generally disregarded in the selection and construction process of nuclear facilities, a majority of citizens (80%) support the continued expansion of nuclear power in China, though less than 50% of the public supported a nuclear facility nearby their hometown. Governmental secrecy surrounding nuclear development in the new millennium has grown, exemplified by evidence showing a nuclear project in the Shandong province was unknown to 26% of nearby residents for nearly a decade. In a survey 96% of residents said they were not consulted before the Haiyang nuclear project in Shandong, and 93% of those same residents said they were not made aware of the risks associated with a nuclear power plant.

Though they are kept in the dark about the nuclear expansion in their country, citizens are generally trusting of their government (51% stated on a survey they trusted government information concerning a nuclear accident, and 77% said they trusted the capacity of the government to respond to a nuclear incident) and infrequently trust NGOs and international nuclear authorities. The importance of governmental trust cannot be overstated in continuing Chinese nuclear expansion, as the longevity of the delicate relationship between citizenry and nuclear power is contingent upon governmental prowess in dealing with any issues along the way.

 

He, G. Z., et al. (2013). “Public participation and trust in nuclear power development in China.” Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 23: 1-11.

 

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