Nuclear issues require more transparency

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 3:14am

Mention the words "nuclear" and "uranium", and the uninitiated immediately think of radiation, explosions and bombs. It is a matter regional authorities in Guangdong did not give sufficient thought to for a planned nuclear fuel facility 100 kilometres from Hong Kong and 90 kilometres from Macau. The release of limited information and a public consultation of just 10 days raised fears the project was being pushed through without adequate concern for safety and the environment. Amid protests, they have rightly dropped the scheme.

It is not that authorities were unaware of the need for community involvement. Years of increasingly vocal nation-wide protests have sent a clear message that putting development ahead of environmental and livelihood issues is unsustainable. Numerous projects have been scrapped and greater effort taken to inform, assure safety and gain approval. But although the province's regulations were followed with the 37 billion yuan (HK$46.75 billion) plant at Heshan in the Jiangmen municipal district, the nature of the project meant that there had to be utmost transparency and wide-ranging public and cross-boundary engagement.

That obviously did not happen. Agreements for the facility were signed in March and preparatory work on the site was under way when the mandatory 10-days of consultation began on July 3. Such progress appeared to make whatever views were held a moot point. Yet environmental assessments and gauging public opinion are crucial when considering an industrial complex, and even more so for one involving nuclear materials. Months or even years, not days, are needed for such a process.

Fuel fabrication facilities process uranium into pellets for use in reactors. They are not a danger if operated properly. Nonetheless, the material needs to be kept securely and handled safely. What the plant will do needs to be properly explained well ahead of time. It has to be proven to be safe and if not, plans modified or dropped.

Nuclear energy is a mystery to those who do not have a scientific bent. Decades of misinformation and scare-mongering by anti-nuclear lobbyists have engrained a belief among some people that plants are not as safe as those powered by other fuels. China's record and that of other experienced nuclear nations proves otherwise. But that does not mean that authorities can rush projects.