Protests halt Chinese nuclear waste facility construction

Local protests have put a halt to a proposed 100bn yuan (£11.5bn) nuclear waste processing plant in the Chinese city of Lianyungang.

Preliminary work was carried out, but local residents staged a demonstration over possible health risks associated with the facility.

The coastal city, about 500 km north of Shanghai, was set to be chosen as the site for the project, due to start construction in 2020.

The project, to be run by the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in collaboration with France's Areva, is scheduled for completion by 2030.

"The Lianyungang Municipal People's Government has decided to suspend site selection and preliminary work on the nuclear recycling project," the local government said without offering further details.

In a report published on Monday by the official local newspaper, the Lianyungang Daily, the local government said ‘no final decision had been made’ on the location of the plant. It threatened to take legal action against ‘illegal elements’ it accused of ‘fomenting social disorder’ and spreading rumours about the project.

Lianyungang, in the province of Jiangsu, is the location of the Tianwan nuclear project, which currently consists of two Russian-designed reactors. Two more units are now under construction and there are plans to expand further.

China has ambitions to become a world leader in nuclear power. It had 30 reactors in commercial operation by the end of June this year, amounting to 28 gigawatts of capacity. It is aiming to raise that to 58 GW by the end of 2020.

However, it is struggling to resolve bottlenecks in the industry, including fuel processing, waste recycling, grid access and a shortage of qualified staff.

The closed fuel-cycle technology used for the proposed waste project would be similar to that used at a plant at Rokkasho in Japan, which has already been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

China's reactors could instead take the U.S. route and bury waste underground, said Li Ning, a nuclear scientist and Dean of the School of Energy Research at Xiamen University.

"But the (Lianyungang) government gave in so quickly and from that perspective, it does not bode well for the nuclear industry," he said.

China’s increasing use of nuclear technology has led to its involvement in the UK’s Hinkley Point power plant, taking a one third stake in the £18bn project.

Yet Prime Minister Theresa May recently put development on hold while the government reviewed the details of the expensive plan.

The Chinese ambassador recently warned that the UK needed to make up its mind quickly in order to prevent a souring of the relationship between the two countries. 

Lord Mandelson has said May needs to take the decision before the end of next month or risk jeopardising increasingly important economic ties with China.

The peer is president of the Great Britain-China centre and said that although May was right to scrutinise the deal, a quick decision was needed as the UK will be more reliant on China once it exits the European Union.

"To stretch this out beyond the end of September would be a mistake," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We have an enormous amount to play for in the post-Brexit world, we all want to deepen our economic ties with China post-Brexit. It will be a major foreign economic policy priority for the country.

"I don't think that making any move in the meantime that makes that more difficult, and difficult enough it is going to be, is in Britain's interests."

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