Nuclear energy for HK remains on course

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

The nuclear power plant crisis in quake-hit Japan has renewed debate in Hong Kong about whether the city should import more nuclear energy from the mainland.

At the same time, China's energy chief has said lessons will need to be drawn from the accidents in Japan to ensure the mainland's nuclear energy sector develops safely.

Hong Kong is pondering whether to take more nuclear energy from Guangdong to satisfy half of the city's electricity demand by 2020.

Professor Woo Chung-ho, a nuclear specialist from Polytechnic University, said it was inevitable and necessary for Hong Kong to join the nuclear tide of the mainland.

Despite the Japanese accidents, nuclear development on the mainland remains on course.

Woo said the question was not whether the city needed nuclear power, but how it should be provided most safely. 'No matter whether you buy it or not, nuclear power is going to boom across China because it is a national security issue in which we have no say at all,' he said. 'And only when Hong Kong joins the club may we have some say over whether a new nuclear plant will be built at our doorstep, or at least vital information can be sent to us faster.'

Hong Kong imports about 70 per cent of the output of the Daya Bay nuclear power station, which lies about 50 kilometres northeast of the city. Six more nuclear reactors built next to Daya Bay, at Ling Ao, help supply Guangdong province.

Although nuclear plants in Fukushima and Daya Bay were all categorised as second-generation technology, the Hong Kong-area plant had strong layers protecting the reactors, Woo said. Authorities would therefore have more time to handle the possible risk of explosions and the spread of radiation, he said.

The Daya Bay plant was developed in the 1970s with French technology and uses pressurised water to carry away the heat generated from the reactors to the stream generators. In order to cope with the pressure, the reactors' protective layers are at least twice the thickness of those in the Fukushima plant, which uses US technology from the 1960s. The reactors there have been in operation for 40 years, and those in Daya Bay, for 17 years.

But Greenpeace activists have called on the government to opt for more renewable energy sources.

Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong said in a legislative meeting that the city was unlikely to suffer an accident similar to Japan's. 'First of all, the chance of Daya Bay being hit by a massive earthquake is very low,' he said. 'Moreover, the design of the nuclear plant is different from the one in Japan.'

Lee said Hong Kong had an emergency plan in the event of an accident at the plant. Information was available on the Security Bureau website.

'There are rescue and evacuation exercises held in MTR and the other government organisations. Do we need an exercise for the whole community?' Lee said.

The mainland's nuclear industry remains calm. A senior engineer from China Guangdong Nuclear Power, which owns and operates the Daya Bay plant, said the Chinese public had overreacted.

'I applaud our Japanese colleagues,' he said, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak for the company. 'They are holding a plant designed to have a lifespan of just 50 years against a disaster that happens once in a thousand years, and they are still holding ground. I don't think the development pace of the Chinese nuclear industry will slow down. After all, we have third-generation technology.'

Like most commercial reactors in the world, the troubled Japanese reactors belong to the second generation, which use man-made power sources such as diesel engines to pump water to cool the reactor in an emergency shutdown.

Experts believe that the third-generation technology, which China bought from the United States and France, would withstand meltdown accidents of the kind in Japan.

Third-generation reactors employ gravity, rather than man-made power, to cool a reactor in case of emergency. One approach, from the US, is to build a water tank above the reactor, which can be opened when all pumps fail. Another approach, from France, has a tank under the reactor into which melted fuel can drop and cool safely.

Professor Zhao Zhixiang, chief academic adviser to the China National Nuclear Corporation, said third-generation reactors would handle the bulk of the mainland's future nuclear energy supply. Third-generation technology, though, has never been tested.

This is an edited version of two articles published in the SCMP on March 15 and March 17