kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

When the nuclear power plant at Daya Bay was nearing completion in the early 1990s, some worried people left Hong Kong. Calling themselves atomic refugees, they said they were not prepared to live in a city 50km downwind from what they perceived as a time bomb. Many had openly professed such fears for years; the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine strongly reinforced their concerns.

In the 11 years since Daya Bay went into full operation, there has never been a crisis. In that time, Hong Kong air pollution has grown infinitely worse; the air we breathe today is very obviously bad for our health.

Without Daya Bay, it would be appallingly worse.

In round terms, a third of the electricity supplied by China Light and Power comes from Daya Bay. If the nuclear station did not exist, fossil-fuel burning plants in Hong Kong would need to burn at least another 3 million tonnes of coal every year. This would pump an additional 7.5 million tonnes of carbon monoxide, 150,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide and a lot of other revolting gunk into our atmosphere.

You think we've got air pollution problems now? It's scarcely imaginable what odious muck we would be breathing and trying to see through if Daya Bay did not exist.

I would like both our electricity supply companies to talk with Guangdong authorities about building more nuclear power stations.

To my mind, it's vastly preferable to have our electricity come from an emission-free reactor than from stations whose smokestacks belch filth into the atmosphere.

No matter what steps China Light and Power and Hong Kong Electric take to make their plants cleaner and friendlier to the environment, when you burn coal and oil you end up with dirty air. That fact cannot be ignored.

We get about a quarter of our power from Daya Bay. So why doesn't the government pressure our two power companies to build four more nuclear power stations in Guangdong to serve all our energy needs? Then they could tear down the towering smokestacks at Lamma and Black Point; this would have an immediate and dramatic effect on our atmosphere.

Simplistic? Maybe, and numerous green groups disagree with me. But it is something we surely need to consider seriously.

Lee Chack-fan, chair professor in geotechnical engineering at the University of Hong Kong, says the idea of more nuclear power stations feeding Hong Kong with energy is a good and interesting one.

Fossil-fuel generators are cheap to build but expensive to run. Nuclear stations can cost up to five times more to build than plants that burn gas or coal but save costs in the long run; a little bit of uranium generates a lot of power.

Balancing the economics of nuclear versus fossil stations is a difficult financial trick that needs to include the cost of disposing of spent nuclear waste.

But there is no comparison when it comes to pollution. Nuclear plants win hands down.

The two major sources of air pollution in Hong Kong are buses and trucks burning diesel fuel and power plants. The two electricity generators cause 30 per cent of all pollution.

The chairman of the anti-air pollution campaigners Clear The Air, Christian Masset, warns the idea of Hong Kong 'going nuclear' is a far-fetched assumption.

'We have to keep our feet on the ground,' Mr Masset says. 'We have to think of saving energy, having much cleaner power plants and cleaning their emissions.'

He says a more realistic basis for clean air and affordable electricity is the use of liquefied natural gas. He points to Beijing as an example where this has meant a 'fast and dramatic' improvement to the atmosphere.

'Clear the Air does not support the nuclear option,' he said. 'We don't know the real cost of disposing of nuclear waste. That's a different sort of environmental issue.'

Green groups have a knee-jerk reaction to anything nuclear. This harks back to the 1950s and 60s and the glory days of 'good' causes; many of today's environmental and social groups trace their roots to the heady era of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The prejudice against nuclear power is unrealistic. Apart from Chernobyl and the widely publicised accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979, nuclear reactors have been performing reliably for 50 years.

I believe greater use of nuclear power is a viable and desirable alternative as a solution to our energy demands. It's a solution we should examine.