Hong Kong will consider the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and its impact on the nuclear industry before deciding whether to harness more nuclear energy from the mainland, environment officials say.
The unfolding crisis has led a number of nations to review the role and safety of nuclear power, with China ordering safety checks at all existing plants and suspending the approval of new projects.
But Beijing's caution has also thrown into uncertainty Hong Kong's ambitious proposal to meet about half of its electricity needs with nuclear power from Guangdong by 2020. The proposal aims to lower the city's carbon intensity - a measure of carbon emitted per unit of GDP - by 60 per cent.
To reach the target, Hong Kong would require power from at least two new nuclear reactors, along with the two existing 984-megawatt reactors at Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station, 50 kilometres from the city, which supplies 23 per cent of Hong Kong's electricity. The remainder comes from coal and gas.
Hong Kong officials never spelt out where the new reactors would be built and to what extent the city would participate in the project. Commenting on Beijing's move, officials stressed that they still had not made up their mind whether to seek more nuclear energy.
A spokesman for the Environment Bureau said it was still studying views collected in a consultation exercise on climate change strategy before deciding if the target of sourcing half the city's energy from nuclear power would be adopted.
'Safety is one of the four considerations in our examination of the future fuel mix for Hong Kong, alongside energy security, affordability and environmental friendliness,' the spokesman said. 'We will also take account of the impacts of the Fukushima incident, in particular on the future development of the nuclear industry, in considering our way forward in framing the future fuel mix.'
CLP Power, which owns 25 per cent of the Daya Bay plant through a joint venture with the Guangdong Nuclear Investment Company, also declined to comment on the mainland's decision to delay approval of nuclear projects. A spokeswoman said its future plans would hinge on government policy on the fuel mix.
The power firm also would not say if Beijing's move would delay its nuclear plans. It had estimated that the plan to increase the proportion of nuclear power used would have to be approved next year if the 2020 target was to be met since it would take at least five years to build a nuclear power station and at least eight years to lay transmission lines.
A person familiar with the energy market believed it was unlikely that Beijing would put a permanent halt on nuclear power developments as long as the plants were shown to be safe. 'If these plants are safe and not built in seismic belts, I don't think the plans will be greatly adjusted,' the person said.
The person said that if the nuclear power plan was axed, Hong Kong would have to burn more natural gas to meet its carbon reduction target and would be increasingly dependent on a transcontinental pipeline network and liquified natural gas terminal projects on the mainland.
The city's climate change strategy says that just 3 to 4 per cent of its energy needs will be met from renewable sources, mostly from two proposed offshore wind farms. Gas would account for about 40 per cent and coal the remainder under the strategy's proposal for 2020.
Under the mainland's nuclear power development plan, Guangdong would be home to 18 reactors providing about 35,000 megawatts of capacity, half the national total, by 2020.
Five reactors are already in operation, five more are under construction and four have been approved for preparatory work. Four more are being planned, for Shaoguan in the north of the province and Lufeng in the east. The latter site has been tipped as Hong Kong's potential future source of nuclear energy.
Green activists and some lawmakers have seized on the Fukushima crisis and see the mainland's nuclear power review as a chance to shoot down the Hong Kong proposal. They said the city should divert resources to enhance energy efficiency and renewable energy.
'Hong Kong should stop thinking about getting more nuclear power imports. It should dare to tell the central government clearly about this and that all existing nuclear power plants should also be shut down,' said unionist legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, who was involved in the movement against construction of the Daya Bay nuclear plant in the early 1980s.
More than one million people signed a petition, but the central government pressed ahead with the project, first planned in the late 1970s. The plant has been operational since 1994.
The subsequent construction of four more reactors in Ling Ao, next to Daya Bay, met little opposition from the Hong Kong public. The city consumes 70 per cent of Daya Bay's outlook via CLP Power's transmission network under a contract that has just been renewed for another 20 years until 2034.
Daya Bay came under the media spotlight in recent months after what the power firm described as negligible incidents, such as cracks in fuel rods last year. The incident prompted the operator to improve its notification system.
Professor Lam Kin-che, former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Environment, said it was time for the Hong Kong government to look again at different options for mitigating climate change, making a proper scientific assessment and appropriate political decisions. But there was no single solution, he said.
'We should look at each of the available options, which must have both pros and cons.'
Lam said the government had a responsibility to tell the public clearly what the risks of nuclear energy were and what could be done to safeguard the reactors.
Professor Woo Chung-ho, a nuclear specialist from Polytechnic University, said it would be unwise for Hong Kong to reject nuclear power from the mainland as it would lose any say over the development of new nuclear plants in Guangdong.
Prentice Koo Wai-muk, a campaigner from Greenpeace, which is mobilising the public to oppose nuclear power developments, said Hong Kong could still fulfil its carbon reduction targets by significantly reducing demand for electricity and developing large-scale renewable energy projects along with Guangdong.
Close to home
The mainland's nuclear plans would see the number of reactors in Guangdong rise from five to this many by 2020: 18