Just stay tuned for fall-out

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 1994, 12:00am

HONG Kong people have been worried about having a nuclear power plant just across the border in China ever since the plan to construct the Guangdong Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station was announced. A million people signed their names to a campaign objecting to the construction of the plant.

It is now too late to object to nuclear power. The Daya Bay plant is about to go into operation. Many people are not so much worried about the hardware as about the management and maintenance of the machinery.

It should have occurred to the investors of the plant and the Hong Kong Government, that their most important tasks are to ensure that there is the highest level of management and maintenance, and to ensure that Hong Kong people know about - and feel confident in - the contingency plan in case of an accident.

A year ago, legislators and community groups demanded that the Government release the contingency plan. After some delay, the Government released a pamphlet and a booklet for the general public.

The pamphlet is entitled ''What the Hong Kong Government would do, and what you should do, in the unlikely event of an accident at the Guangdong Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station''.

While it is useful for members of the public to have some idea about what government departments will do in the event of an accident, the public is most concerned about what sort of action members of the public might be required to take.

At the time of an accident, I could be working in my office; or I could be riding on a bus; or I could be waiting to see my dentist. What should I do then? Should I stay in the office? Should I immediately go home? Should I collect my children who may beat school? Should I shut all the windows? The Government might say that what action I might be advised to take would depend on the type and severity of the accident. Well, yes, but I believe the public would still like to have some idea now, as the plant is about to go into operation, about the types of action they might be expected to take. Knowledge provides comfort.

The Government's advice is: ''You should stay tuned to the radio and TV for announcements about what to do''.

And on the provision of public information, the pamphlet states: ''How we'll let you know what's going on . . . In the very unlikely event of an accident involving the release of radioactivity from Daya Bay, the Government Information Services Departmentwould be responsible for giving out information and advice to the public through radio, television and press announcements.'' THE booklet entitled ''Contingency Plan'' has chapters on notification and monitoring plans between the Daya Bay plant, the Emergency Committee of Guangdong Province for a Nuclear Power Accident and the Hong Kong authorities; on assessment of informationand alert procedures within the Hong Kong Government; and on counter-measures.

But on the all-important chapter - the shortest chapter - on public information, the public is not any more enlightened.

The booklet unhelpfully tells us: ''When a nuclear emergency has been declared by the Guangdong authorities, the Hong Kong Government Information Services Department will keep the public fully informed of developments to avoid panic caused by exaggeratedfears and rumours.

''Timely and accurate information on the emergency and on the Government's response will be released to the public together with specific advice on what they should do. These will be achieved through regular press releases and press conferences as necessary.'' It is no wonder that the public continues to demand more information. The Government could not have provided more user-unfriendly information. When people are extremely concerned about safety, it is wholly insufficient to tell them to stay tuned to public broadcasting services.

Hong Kong's concern is now further compounded by the news that the Guangdong Provincial Government has decided to build at least two more nuclear power plants. The generating capacity of these new stations will be the equivalent of up to five Daya Bay stations.

Since Hong Kong has no influence to stop these stations from being built, it is even more important that credible contingency plans are put in place, and that the public understands better what may be expected of them.