Late Monday night, a major nuclear investment company announced that workers at the Daya Bay nuclear plant in Guangdong had been exposed to radition equivalent to two chest X-rays. The incident, which occured on October 23, stemmed from a leak in a pipe that carries hot water from the plant’s two reactors. The leak was so small that international regulations don’t even require it be reported to the public—but there have been 15 so-called “level one” incidents since 2000 at Daya Bay, according to the South China Morning Post. Daya Bay is the source of all the nuclear energy Hong Kong consumes. And as green fever continues to spread, our reliance on the Daya Bay plant will only grow. To reduce the SAR’s reliance on coal and other carbon-emitting energy sources, the Hong Kong government vows that by 2020 the amount of nuclear energy Hong Kong uses will double—making it the single biggest nuclear power-consuming city in Asia. But is that the kind of list we want to top? In September, the Environmental Protection Department released a consultation document that set out measures to curb the territory’s greenhouse-gas emissions. It describes various proposals toward that end, but the main strategy the government proposes is to adjust the composition of the kinds of energy we bring in for everyday use. Currently, Hong Kong relies overwhelmingly on coal as fuel for electricity generation. In 2009, coal made up about 54 percent of Hong Kong’s energy mix. Natural gas and nuclear energy both account for about 23 percent of the energy mix, respectively. Under the government’s plan, nuclear energy would replace coal as the main supplier of Hong Kong’s energy—meaning, in the future, about 50 percent of electricity will be generated by nuclear energy. The next-biggest contributor to Hong Kong’s energy mix will be natural gas, constituting 40 percent, while coal will make up less than 10 percent. The government cites a lot of reasons to back up its proposal. In the September document, the government describes nuclear energy as cheap and reliable, adding that its effect on the environment is negligible because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases as part of the electricity generation process. The government holds that increasing nuclear energy imports would help avoid an over-reliance on natural gas, which is preferable to coal but still contributes significantly to global carbon emissions. And since Hong Kong doesn’t have its own nuclear plant and there are no plans to build one in the territory, all of this necessitates tapping into the increasing number of nuclear power generation projects on the mainland. In the report, the government states that Hong Kong should “take advantage” of such developments. While the government portrays nuclear energy as a close-to-perfect solution, experts and environmentalists do not think that the consultation document has fully outlined the potential consequences of such a decision. “I don’t think that the government has provided sufficient information for the public and other stakeholders to understand the decision,” says Dr. Daphne Mah, Senior Research Associate of the Kadoorie Institute of the University of Hong Kong. “The government views the import of more nuclear energy from the point of carbon emission and technological possibilities. Of course, these are core dimensions to consider. But for nuclear energy, there are a lot of controversial aspects that should be discussed. For example, the location of the new nuclear plant, the risk of nuclear explosion and the storage of nuclear waste.” Of all the contentious issues surrounding nuclear energy, the most critical is safety. The government depicts nuclear energy as a mature technology, but Mah said the reality is not so clear-cut. “Our concern is not just about the probability of nuclear incidents. If something happens within the nuclear plant, the impact can be catastrophic,” Mah says. “The impact can be of regional scale and influence the whole Guangdong province. It also has a huge impact on people’s health. Not only on the current generation, it can affect future generations… The problem is whether we want to take this risk if it can bring disastrous consequences.” As proof of the soundness of its proposal, the government likens Hong Kong to other developed territories who have taken steps to embrace nuclear energy. For example, in the September report, it lists France as an “international example.” France generates about 77 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy and has the world’s second-largest nuclear sector. However, the government fails to point out that the number of nuclear incidents within French borders is also on the rise. According to the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety—a national body that tracks such risks in France—there were 443 significant incidents related to French nuclear power reactors in 1986. But 20 years later, in 2006, the anuual figure rose to 735. No incidents at Daya Bay have earned above a “level one” designation, but they could portend larger issues ahead. “The Daya Bay nuclear power plant is relatively new, as it has only been in operation for more than ten years. But if the units of the nuclear plant become aged in the future, it might face a similar situation as France,” Greenpeace campaigner Prentice Koo says. The Daya Bay incidents are so minor that they do not have to be reported to the public. Many have, though, in the form of announcements on the Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Company’s website. That company, which runs the Daya Bay plant, is a subdivision of major Hong Kong electric company CLP Holdings, an owner that some find problematic. “The government relies on CLP, a corporation, to be responsible for notification. Official-to-official channel is very weak in this sense. This is unreasonable because public safety is not a corporate responsibility. Ultimately it’s the government’s responsibility,” says Chairman of Professional Commons Albert Lai, who is also a trained engineer. The current notification and communication mechanism, which kicks into gear if there is a big problem at the plant, is far from satisfactory. The public deserves greater transparency, and it is worrying to think that the procedures put into place to deal with incidents at the nuclear plant would remain this weak even as Hong Kong ups its reliance on its products. What’s more, nuclear energy is not equivalent to clean energy, which wields little environmental impact. “It is misleading to say that nuclear energy is a zero-carbon energy. When uranium is extracted, you need high temperatures in the mining process. Therefore, a lot of fossil fuel is burned. Besides, carbon is emitted when a power plant is built,” says Dr. William Yu, head of Climate Programme at World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF). Power generation also produces significant radioactive nuclear waste. According to Greenpeace, under the new scheme Hong Kong needs to generate 11 to 12 billion kilowatt-hours of nuclear energy per year. To do that, we will produce 700,000 tons of radioactive solid waste and 700,000 tons of liquid waste. Even though the government says that it will follow international standards when it comes to disposing of this waste, thus far no country in the world has come up with a permanent solution to handle it. Even in Europe, there are no permanent storage sites for these inevitable byproducts of nuclear power production, which are toxic and lethal. According to a spokeswoman from the Environmental Protection Department, the government has no plans to build a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong, which means any new plant would likely be constructed on mainland soil. But that creates an even bigger problem: even if Hongkongers needn’t worry about the environmental impact of a power plant in our territory, we now have to acknowledge that we are willing to cast off the less-than-glamorous and potentially dangerous physical production of our power to our poorer neighbor. “If the government describes nuclear energy to be so clean and safe, why isn’t it willing to propose the new plant to be built in Hong Kong?” asked Lai. “This violates the principle of environmental justice. Now all the environmental costs have to be bore by the mainland, and Hong Kong gets all the benefits.” WWF’s Yu agrees: “The government wants to solve the climate problem in shortcuts, and the adoption of nuclear energy is a quick fix to the problem.” So, what about the slower alternatives? The government hasn’t set up a target that encourages Hongkongers to lower their electricity consumption. It also hasn’t considered sourcing more renewable energy, like wind, from the mainland or anywhere else. Proposals like those might mean more work for our environmental officials—but in light of the potential hazards of nuclear power, perhaps they are worth a second look.