A biogas digester system

China’s Nuclear Backlash Fosters Local Power

Wen Bo
Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Ding Jie, a water program officer for Wuhu Ecology Center, travelled to Wangjiang County, in China’s Southern Anhui province, to examine local water pollution cases this spring, she encountered something surprising. Ding was amazed to learn of Wangjiang's popular protest movement against a nuclear plant being built in neighboring Pengze, across the Yangtze, in Jiangxi province. Wangjiang is located downstream of Pengze, where Jiangxi's first nuclear power plant was underway.

Pengze was poised to be the first nuclear power station in an inland province. However, the Chinese government halted its construction after Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011.

Local opposition at Wangjiang, led by retired local governmental officials, has been strong. When Ding Jie shared information about the protest movement with her office colleagues in Wuhu, she learned that their city is also proposing a nuclear power plant.

Wuhu City, site of the proposed nuclear power plant
Wuhu City, site of the proposed nuclear power plant
Photo: Ding Jie

Southern Anhui is a mostly rural agricultural region, and so the investment in intensive megaprojects like nuclear power appears to make little sense, especially given local water constraints and the high liability that nuclear plants bring.

Even with growing demand for energy, inland provinces like Anhui and Jiangxi do not seem to have a crushing need for nuclear power. The incentive for local authorities appears to be that the construction of nuclear power plants poses a lucrative business opportunity.

Wuhu Ecology Center decided to try to empower local communities with decentralized energy supply practices. In one of the center’s project areas along the Qingyi River, Xiuli Village is using the "pig/marsh-gas/tea" ecological model – a circular agriculture practice that generates gas from pig waste in a clean, simple biogas digester, which is used for cooking and electricity. Each household also grows organic tea with this method, which benefits from the fertilizer by-product of the digesters. The cost of construction is around $700 per household. Subsequently, trees around the village are thriving again as villagers no longer have a need to collect fuel wood.

Such traditional energy projects are not uncommon in China. In the past, Chinese government programs led to a huge rollout of biogas digesters in rural areas, but national programs did not reach every area, and such support may have dwindled in recent years. Thus, NGOs and private business are well positioned to help promote such indigenous knowledge and scale up good practices.

While high-profile environmental protests in Dalian, Shifang and Qidong were able to stop risky projects at the local level, is a growing need to promote alternative energy solutions to deter government and industry's excuses for more megaprojects such as big dams and nuclear plants.

"Four nuclear power plants are being proposed in Anhui province alone. It is a bit too much," said a local governmental official of Wuhu. "Can we stop one, at least the one in Wuhu?"

His words would be called “nimbyism” (“not in my back yard”) in the West, but they represent many Chinese people's thinking that China is going too far, too fast in its rush to build large, dirty energy projects that can do more harm than good to local communities in their path. But as the "pig/marsh-gas/tea" model shows, there is a better way. The growing movement to build clean community-run energy projects is leading the way.

Japan Goes Geothermal Post-Fukushima

After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima nuclear plant, all of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors were temporarily shut down, reducing the nation’s power-generating capacity by about a third.  But thanks to its location in a geologically active zone, Japan sits on about 20,000 MW of geothermal energy – equivalent to about 20 nuclear reactors.

Although three Japanese companies control more than half the global market for geothermal turbines, the nation has barely tapped its own steam power; it currently gets about 0.2% of its energy from geothermal. The government has introduced feed-in tariffs to force the 10 regional electricity monopolies to buy renewable energy at above-market rates, including geothermal. Japan’s new Renewable Portfolio Standard calls for doubling the nation’s geothermal energy in the 10 years. Two new plants planned for the tsunami-hit region are due to open in 2015 and 2020 respectively.

Renewable Energy News
notes that, because a typical geothermal plant takes five to 10 years to develop, Japan will have to turn to wind and solar for immediate renewable energy sources. Japan has about 1,900 GW of potential wind energy. The online magazine reports: “None of the country’s wind farms were damaged by the tsunami or earthquake, although some power lines were damaged. Many wind turbines near the hardest-hit coastlines continue generating electricity today.”

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  • Wen Bo is the Program Director for the National Geographic Society Air and Water Conservation Fund. Contact him at china-conservation@ngs.org