China grapples with its own ‘Kudankulam’ protests

China is facing its own ‘Kudankulam’ moment: a people’s protest against a nuclear power plant that is still under construction, but has raised fears in the local populace ever since the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.

The protest in Wangjiang village in Anhui province, one of China’s poorest, is directed at the Pengze nuclear power plant that is coming up in neighbouring Jiangxi province, along the mighty Yangtze river.

In that sense, it also has parallels with the ‘Mullaperiyar dam’ crisis in India, where the benefits from a project are seen to accrue predominantly to one State, whereas fears of a catastrophic accident are felt rather more in a neighbouring State.

Indicatively, to build the Three Gorges Dam, inarguably the most ambitious hydropower projects in the world. AFP

The Pengze plant, which is not along the coast (unlike the one at Fukushima) but in an inland province, is one of an estimated 60 that China, ravenously hungry for energy, plans to commission by 2020 as it cuts back on polluting coal-based thermal power plants. Nuclear power accounts for barely 2 percent of China’s electricity production, but there are plans to ramp it up to 5 percent over the next decade.

If the protest at Wangjiang village intensifies, it could upset those ambitious plans, but given the nature of civil society protests in China and the low tolerance for such agitations, this may not get much traction once the government sets its mind to it.

Indicatively, to build the Three Gorges Dam, inarguably the most ambitious hydropower projects in the world, more than 1.2 million people were displaced – in many cases forcibly. The dam that “tamed the Yangtze” – and realised one of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s dreams – is now proving ecologically ruinous, but when the government wanted it done, it was done, even if the project was low on foresight.

In Wangjiang, villagers were awakened to the potential for disaster after Beijing reviewed safety procedures last year in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. But they didn’t organise street protests or demonstrations in the way the anti-nuclear protestors at Kudankulam project are doing. Instead, they have been petitioning their local government authorities against the Pengze plant.

The local government leaders sent on the petition to provincial-level leaders (who in turn forwarded it to central level energy officials), and followed it up with a resolution passed in the local party congress voicing opposition to the Pengze plant.

The villagers, who are mostly farmers, accused Jiangxi province authorities of having fudged population density figures so as to secure approval for the plant. Under Jiangxi provincial law, no approval can be given if more than 100,000 people reside within a 10-km radius of a nuclear power plant. Wangjiang officials claim that that their village alone, which falls within 10 km of the plant has more than 150,000 people.

Protestors also cite the instances of recent seismic activity in the area – including an earthquake in 2011 that measured 4.6 on the Richter scale – to pitch their case that the plant is unsafe.

On the other hand, Jiangxi officials claim that the plant is supremely safe, and the only thing to ooze from the reactors will be economic prosperity for the surrounding local communities.

The safety of China’s nuclear plants was the subject of several WikiLeaks cables that were leaked, like radioactive waste, last year. But as much as they reflected genuine concerns for safety, they were also seen to be an effort by the US energy giant Westinghouse to expand its marketshare in the lucrative Chinese nuclear power market by talking down the indigenous Chinese technology on the ground that it was dated and unsafe.

China, noted a cable from August 2008, is “vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet.” The cable, which took note of an interaction with Westinghouse China CEO, said that China’s indigenously built reactors – the CPR-1000, which were based on old Westinghouse technology from its AP1000 reactor – were gaining marketshare.

“Rather than building a fleet of state-of-the-art reactors,” the cable said, “China is assuring that they will be burdened with technology that by the end of its lifetime will be 100 years old.” And by bypassing the “passive safety technology” of Westinghouse’s AP1000 – which shuts down a reactor automatically in the event of an accident and which it claimed was 100 times safer than China’s CPR-1000 – China was “vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet.”

Wangjiang villagers are perhaps giving voice to similar concerns about the safety of the Pengze plant – and to that extent are echoing the sentiment of the Kudankulam protesters in faraway Tamil Nadu. But that apart, the level of tolerance that the anti-nuclear ‘protestors’ enjoy in China will be a test of the leaders’ readiness to listen to anxiety over the plant.

For campaigners against the Kudankulam project, who perhaps feel that their grievances are not being heard, it may prove a contrasting case study in the nature of governmental response to popular protests.


Updated Date: Mar 01, 2012 18:30 PM

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