C3S Paper No. 0119/2016
August 6 is a reminder of the first use of a nuclear weapon in war 71 years ago. The imagery of the instantaneous destruction it caused has come to be used as an argument against all things nuclear.
On that same day this year, the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Division of China National Nuclear Corporation, CNNC chose to issue a rather vague statement that it is looking for a site for a plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in China and that Shandong and Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Gansu were among the provinces under consideration. About ten days earlier, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, SASTIND carried an announcement on its website saying that one of its senior officials had visited Lianyungang in Jiangsu in the last week of July and that much progress had been made on the site selection for the reprocessing plant. Further, SASTIND chose to conduct an unannounced national level nuclear emergency drill, the first of its kind, on August 6. News of it was published the next day.
These news items were sufficient to provoke the people of Lianyungang to launch a protest against the plan for setting up the reprocessing plant near their town. Ignoring the Police warning issued the previous day, they gathered in thousands on the night of Saturday August 6. It began as a peaceful protest, but ended up with some violent incidents as the protest lasted till the following Monday.
Officials of Lianyungang Town denied at first that a final decision had been taken, but also added that they have no role in the decision. On Monday, Government of Lianyungang convened an emergency meeting and announced its decision to suspend preliminary work for selecting a site for the nuclear fuel cycle project to quickly end the protest. Apparently, the official strategy is not to allow protests to continue and spread to other parts of the country. An article “Cautiously Welcoming the Decision to Suspend the Lianyungang Nuclear Waste Project” appeared in a popular website, but was asked to be deleted by Beijing. This suggests two things. Publicity to the protest is not desired and the suspension decision is not final.
China has been planning to build a large spent fuel reprocessing plant for over a decade now.A site on the sea coast is an ideal one for locating a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. There is ample supply of sea water to provide for substantial dilution of liquid radioactive wastes to render their concentration insignificant. Hence the search for a site in one of the five coastal provinces listed by CNNC. The SASTIND statement was an indication that Lianyungang area is likely to be the chosen site.
Lianyungang is a Town with a population of 4.7 million in Jiangsu Province. There is already an industrial chemical park in its neighbourhood. Also, a Nuclear Power Station on the coast at Tianwan about 30 km from the heart of the Town, houses two operating Russian design reactors similar to those in Kudankulam but of an earlier version. Agreement with Russia was signed in 1997 and construction began in 1999 and the reactors were commissioned in 2007. Addition of two more units was approved and work began four years ago. There are no reports of earlier protests against these nuclear plants in Lianyungang. The 13th Five Year Plan finalised in March this year has proposed addition of two further units at Tianwan. The plan appears to be to have eight units in all, at the site. To make it possible, the Government will have to show more transparency and exert itself hard to win over the public.
Rapid accumulation of spent fuel in existing reactors is posing problems of safe storage for China. On average, a reactor has enough capacity to store spent fuel built up over ten years or so. About 4,000 tons of spent fuel were said to be lying in eleven reactor sites, as of Dec 31, 2013. Another 22 reactors have commenced operation since then. More are under construction.
A pilot plant for reprocessing spent fuel from civilian reactors was commissioned in 2010. It is located at the military site in Lanzhou in Gansu province and can handle only 50 Tons of spent fuel per year.
Presently, storage pools are nearly full in the reactors commissioned in the 1990s and early 2000s. Spent fuel from them is now being transported for interim storage to a pool in the pilot reprocessing plant in Lanzhou, which is over 3000 km away. Elaborate provisions are needed to ensure safety and security requirements are met during transport. The spent fuel is loaded in well shielded casks of robust design that China has procured from US and Russia. A trip one way takes about three months. The number of casks available are limited and the distance allows only two trips a year. The interim storage pool at Lanzhou has a limited capacity and can take only about 500 tons of spent fuel. Even a doubling of the capacity as proposed will prove inadequate.
Three years before the pilot plant began operations, in 2007, an agreement was signed with France – the country with the largest and most successful reprocessing programme – to launch a feasibility study for construction of a large plant in China by the French firm Areva. The plant’s capacity was set at800 tons of spent fuel per yearand it was to provide interim storage for 3000 tons. The study envisaged operation of the plant by France in the initial years.
An industrial agreement with Areva on the project followed in 2010.An agreement defining the technical specifications for the plant was signed in 2013 in the presence of the Presidents of France and China. An MoU was signed last year marking the end of technical discussions and the beginning of commercial negotiations. The anticipation that commencement ofconstruction is near may have precipitated the protest in Lianyungang. Throughout the negotiations since 2007, the expectation was that construction might begin in 2020 with completion by 2030.
In a Belfer Centre report published in US, in January this year, the authors listed several reasons why China should abstain from reprocessing spent fuel, (see C3S Paper No. 0014/2016). Viewing from the non-proliferation angle, the report favours a method of dry storage of spent fuel as in the US, in which the used fuel assemblies are embedded in concrete casks for indefinite storage. This is unlikely to be adopted by China, though it might be the resort in some exceptional cases.
China has adopted a policy of ‘closed fuel cycle’ that calls for recovery of plutonium from spent fuel for use in reactors so as to augment the scarce indigenous uranium resources. China has built a small fast reactor for experimental purposes. But it runs on Highly Enriched Uranium and not plutonium. This is another reason why China is keen on building a large reprocessing plant.
It is still possible that Beijing will find a way of proceeding with construction of a plant in Lianyungang itself or another location.In order to succeed, there are lessons to be learnt from the recent history of protests against nuclear facilities in China.
When a nuclear power station was planned at Pengze on Yangtze River in Jiangxi province and construction was to begin, several retired officials of a nearby town Wangjiang in the adjacent province Anhui protested in 2012. Wangjiang town has a population of 175,000 and is situated downstream from Pengze. One of the protest leaders was He Zuoxiu an octogenarian Physicist and a member of Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Group wrote to Anhui Provincial Government, which debated a motion against the project and conveyed it to the National Energy Administration.
He Zuoxiu later said he did not oppose reactors in coastal locations but was against setting up reactors in inland provinces. Some of his protégé’s have also echoed his views. A lot of money has already been spent at Pengze on site preparation and relocation of local residents. There are currently no signs of revival of the Project.
In June 2013, a day after some 2,000 citizens protested against plans to set up a uranium processing plant near the Town of Heshan in Guangdong, the Mayor had to defer to public opinion and declare that the Town will not apply for approval for the project (see C3S Paper No.1177). The plant was expected to cater to the needs of the many reactors in Guangdong and its neighbourhood. To this day, there are no indications that an alternative site has been found.
Lianyungang protesters may be drawing inspiration from these instances.The Chinese experience holds lessons for India as well.
(Mr. L.V. Krishnan, is a C3S Member and Former Director – Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu,India. Email id: email@example.com)