CLP Group

Daya Bay leak exposes a culture of secrecy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am

Sometimes it's not such a bad idea to have a hand hovering over the panic button.

In Hong Kong, we often panic about small things and maybe, as the good people who run the Daya Bay nuclear plant assure us, the tiny radiation leak last month was really not worth worrying about and we should not overreact.

Yet, something is uncomfortably familiar about the company's response to reports of the leak. First they belatedly admitted that the report of the leak, coming from a US-based source, was indeed correct. They then stressed that this was nothing more than a 'minor operating incident' and that the Chinese state nuclear regulator had been notified.

However, it is unclear whether such notification was also furnished to the Hong Kong authorities at the same time. Hong Kong, after Shenzhen, is the most heavily populated centre close to the plant but there is studious ambiguity in statements from the Hong Kong government as to when it received notification.

Also notified was a body called the Daya Bay Nuclear Safety Consultative Committee, apparently an independent monitoring committee. The website of the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Operations and Management Company refers to this committee but does not disclose its membership. CLP Power, the Hong Kong company which owns 25 per cent of the plant, is equally silent on this matter.

Surely there is nothing to be embarrassed about here? Or is there? And how reassuring is it to learn that China's notoriously secretive National Nuclear Safety Administration was notified about the leak and also remained silent?

There is no independent evidence to suggest that the problem was anything other than the minor incident that the company claims it to be. But why not make it public? This raises the question of whether a similar response of silence would apply to a more serious incident.

CLP, operating in the more open environment of Hong Kong, has at least fielded a member of its senior management team to speak about this issue. This compares with a total non-appearance by the plant's own executives. Even CLP's reassuring noises about the incident bring to mind - and this may be unfair - the assurances from oil company executives that underwater drilling for oil carried very little risk.

However, the real worry is that China has no powerful and independently minded nuclear watchdog and it most certainly does not have a government whose first response to a crisis is full disclosure.

This is why, when the Daya plant was under construction in the 1980s, there were unprecedented protests in Hong Kong centred around safety concerns. The protests were brushed aside as ill-informed and panicky but subsequent events have shown that the concerns were not groundless.

As far as I can tell, not a single safety breach has been reported to the public at the time it occurred in the plant. There was subsequent disclosure and, in all cases, the breaches were minor but this is not reassuring. What it demonstrates is a culture of secrecy layered on top of a belief that the public does not have a right to know unless higher authorities deem it appropriate.

As Hong Kong lies in uncomfortable proximity to Daya Bay, we cannot lightly dismiss safety concerns. Even though, in general, nuclear power is largely safe and even though this plant's record is not alarming, the self-righteous way in which the authorities have dealt with this incident suggests that, should the worst happen, there is no guarantee that full disclosure would be high on the agenda.

The Hong Kong citizens who protested against the building of Daya Bay cannot, with hindsight, be criticised for panicking.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur