Cancellation by China of a uranium processing facility in Guangdong due to public protests hogged the headlines in almost every newspaper a few days ago. These reports pointed out how, in recent times, public protests have been successful also in halting construction of many chemical plants and urbanisation projects in China, but provided no information on the nature of the now cancelled nuclear facility. Uranium processing is too abstract a description. It could refer to processing of uranium ore or to conversion of uranium into a gaseous compound (called uranium hexafluoride and hex for short) for feeding to an enrichment plant. It could also be a facility for turning enriched hex into fine oxide particles to make pellets for the fabrication of fuel for reactors. It could even be a plant for treating highly radioactive used uranium fuel to recover plutonium.
The readers are only told that the plant was expected to be built at the cost of $ 6 billion by two organisations together, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG). However, according to a report dated July 13 in China Daily, “The planned industrial park, with a designed capacity of 1,000 tons of uranium in 2020 (as end product), will feature facilities for uranium conversion, enrichment and manufacturing of nuclear fuel equipment.” It seems to be what is called a ‘one-stop’ facility, excluding ore processing and treating spent fuel for plutonium recovery operations.
Reporting on July 13, South China Morning Post gave the additional information that the facility was to be built at a 229 hectare site, with the buildings occupying about 22 hectares. It said that about 160 residents of a village in the area would have to relocate as a result of the project.
The proposal for the facility is actually a few years old. It appears to have been conceived as part of the 12th five year plan which began in 2011. Earlier, on March 31 of this year CNNC signed an investment framework agreement and a land use agreement with Heshan City in Guangdong. Heshan City with a population of 360,000 is about 60 km southwest of Guangzhou capital of Guangdong province. According to the agreement, CNNC would invest in setting up Longwan Industrial Park in Heshan to house the facility. Its completion is expected to take 12 years i.e. by 2025, indicating that it is indeed a large project. CNNC is believed to have evaluated 40 alternative sites before selecting this one.
The facility is to have an annual capacity to produce 14,000 tons of hex and fabricate 1000 tons of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel for reactors. It is expected to service the eight reactors in Guangdong which currently have a combined capacity of 7,950 MWe (Mega Watt-electric) and also the twenty reactors planned for the future in the same province to produce 25,000 MWe by 2020.
The proposal for the facility seems to have been made public only recently. But, according to the South China Morning Post report, the head of the village to be evacuated was taken last year to a nuclear fuel plant in Yibin, Sichuan and asked to canvass the villagers to support the project. Recently, the municipal Government invited the views of the public on the project. The deadline for presenting the views was also extended by ten days. On July 13, the very next day after the extension was announced, Heshan municipal Government spokesman announced cancellation of the project, apparently due to the intensity of the public protests.
A report in World Nuclear News on June 13, gives the cost of the facility as $7.3 billion. This is higher than the cost figure mentioned in the recent news reports. It said that besides a uranium conversion plant, an enrichment plant and a fuel fabrication plant were to come up at the Park. The report added that completion of the facility was expected by the year 2020. The 1000 tons of LEU is assessed to be available for about 30 batches of reload fuel for a 1000 MWe Light Water Reactor(LWR).
No detail was given for the enrichment plant. Calculations show that to get 1000 tons of 4% LEU, one needs 11,000 tons of uranium hexafluoride. The enrichment plant would need to be four times that of the existing capacity (assumed to be 1,500 tons Separative Work Units). China now has uranium enrichment plants in Gansu and Shanxi, both built by the Russians. With the nuclear power programme expanding, clearly the capacity needs to be increased. This underlines the importance of the proposed facility in Heshan. The recent claim that China has developed indigenous designs of centrifuges for enrichment plants suggests that the facility proposed at Heshan could be based on these designs.
At the time CNNC signed the agreement with Heshan for the facility in March 2013, it was conceived as a project of CNNC and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group. A month later, the latter changed its name to China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG ), shedding the word ‘Guangdong’. According to the Chinese media (China Daily, July 13), the change meant ‘ consolidation of its image as a State-owned enterprise’. According to CNI23, this is believed to be a move to bring it under greater central management from Beijing. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) is planning to buy 83% of CGNPG’s shares, a significant part of it from Guangdong province. CGNPG also plans to shift its HQ from Shenzhen in Guangdong to Beijing. These steps are indicative of Beijing’s intentions to assume greater responsibility over the facility.
Some reports from Hong Kong say about 2000 persons joined in the protests against the Heshan facility. Surprising is however the very quick withdrawal of the proposal by the authorities despite its critical importance to meet the needs of the planned expansion of nuclear power generation in China. The day after the protests, the Mayor of Heshan is reported to have said “The Heshan government respects the public’s opinion and will not apply for approval for the project.” Whatever may be the reason, the least that can be said is that there has been a change of mind on the part of authorities; suggesting the same are information being given by the China Nuclear Industry 23 Construction Co. Ltd. (CNI23), which is associated with a large number of military as well as civilian nuclear projects for the last 50 years.
Cancellation of Heshan plant may not mean any inclination of Beijing to revisit its policy on nuclear power generation, a field important for the country’s development. Questions which arise now are – Will Beijing go back and reconsider one of the 40 sites , claimed to have been evaluated earlier and passed up, as an alternate location ? How China will react if the protests extend to these other sites and to the many earmarked new nuclear power stations also ? The answers are not clear.
(The writer, Mr L.V.Krishnan, is an Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He is a former Director- Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Govt of India, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu,India. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)