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Energy

Solar farm may spell end for China’s plan to build nuclear plant on North Korea’s border

Renewable development on site earmarked for reactors raises speculation the authorities have gone cold on the idea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 11:48am

China has set up a solar farm near the North Korean border on a site previously earmarked for a nuclear power plant, in an apparent sign that the authorities have abandoned plans to build a reactor.

The Baishan solar farm in Jingyu county, Jilin province was recently connected to the local power grid after a three-month construction period plagued with problems.

A farmer living near Baishan reservoir said solar panels had been put up over the past few months and now covered half of a large swathe of elevated land by the lake’s west bank.

The solar plant can generate up to 10 megawatts of power, provincial newspaper Jilin Daily reported in July.

According to the report, construction of the facility, which took place between April and June, encountered many problems, including a funding shortage, low temperatures, rainy weather and geological conditions that suggested the site was unsuitable for a solar power facility.

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Nuclear plants need to be built on stable, rock-solid ground and the Baishan farmer said construction workers had to bore holes and pour cement on to the ground to hold the panels.

Building a nuclear power plant on the site would mean these panels would first have to be dismantled and removed.

“The solar panels are built to stand for decades. I don’t think I will see a nuclear power plant here in my lifetime,” the middle-aged villager said.

According to the Jilin Daily report, the solar panels would protect the site. It did not explain how it would do so, nor did it elaborate on plans for future development.

Authorities had earlier acquired the area south of Gangding village, which was once used for cultivating corn and beans, to build the Jingyu nuclear power station, according to the county government website.

The planned power plant was one of two Chinese nuclear projects proposed near the North Korean border.

Ground-clearing work on the site, meant to house four AP1000 nuclear reactors, was completed in 2013.

The reactors, if built, would have been situated less than 100km north of Chunggang, a North Korean county bordering China across the Yalu river.

Chunggang is home to an intermediate-range ballistic missile base targeting the US military base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, according to globalsecurity.org.

In the border city of Dandong in Liaoning province, construction of the Donggang nuclear power plant has also been put on hold, according to Chinese media reports.

China put the construction of new power plants on hold after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, but many other projects have resumed operations in recent years.

Sources in the Chinese nuclear industry said it was rare for a project site to be covered with solar panels.

The move suggested that the government at different levels had decided against developing the nuclear plant as planned, they said.

Turning a nuclear plant site into a solar farm was a “complete waste of resources”, said a Beijing-based nuclear scientist who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A nuclear site had to meet high safety standards, including low earthquake risk, sparse population, a rich and reliable water source and big-enough enough buffer zone should a leak occur.

It often took years and even decades to find an appropriate site, he said.

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Zhang Li, a professor at the school of nuclear science and technology at the University of South China in Hunan province, said nuclear safety considerations often go beyond elements such as the natural environment and plant design.

“We must also take into account human risk factors from the world outside,” he said, without specifically referring to the site. He declined to elaborate.

There were signs earlier this year that plans for the site were changing.

In March, Qian Tianlin, general manager of China Nuclear New Energy, told Chinese media that the firm had signed a contract earlier this year to build a small reactor for winter heating in Baishan, as opposed to bigger plans to build the AP1000s.

China Nuclear New Energy is a subsidiary company of the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), a major player of the Baishan nuclear project.

The contract was a “breakthrough after years of efforts and repeated failures”, Qian was quoted as saying in the Science and Technology Daily, a newspaper run by the Ministry of Science and Technology. He did not elaborate on the problems the project had faced.

“We have no information to share at the moment,” a company employee told the South China Morning Post this week in response to queries on whether plans for the site had changed.

The CNNC did not respond to the Post’s requests for comments, while a Jingyu county government official in charge of the nuclear project development office did not answer calls to his mobile phone.

Farmers in Baishan said nuclear engineers previously visited adjacent villages regularly, holding workshops on nuclear safety, but that these had stopped since last year.

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The farmers expressed mixed feeling about the latest developments.

While they were relieved that unlike nuclear reactors, a solar plant did not carry a risk of dangerous leakage or a meltdown, they were also disappointed as they had hoped the nuclear project would help lift the area out of poverty.

“We have an unpaved road, which turns into a quagmire whenever it rains,” one villager said. “My immediate concerns are about the muddy road at my doorstep.”