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China expanding nuclear power but lacks emergency planning

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SHANGHAI — The Chinese government repeatedly offers assurances that the nuclear crisis in Japan poses no radiation risk in China. Officials monitor radiation levels in the air over coastal cities daily now. And planes and ships bringing cargo and passengers from Japan are closely scanned.

But the Chinese government has not told citizens living near nuclear facilities what to do in case of a similar disaster here.

Chinese environmental campaigners, citizens on microblogs and even the normally pliant state-run media are questioning why China has no obvious emergency preparedness plan, even though many people here live less than a quarter mile from nuclear facilities.

“If there is any leaking problem, we don’t know what to do,” said a farmer surnamed Wang, whose village is 200 yards from the Qinshan nuclear facility in Zhejiang province. Like other villagers, he spoke on the condition that only his family name be used, so as not to attract local government retribution for speaking to the foreign media. “What should we do if something happens?”

China has 13 nuclear facilities in operation, at least 26 under construction and more than 100 additional facilities planned to meet its growing energy needs. With an investment of $150 billion over the next decade, China has by far the world’s most ambitious nuclear power program.

Most of the existing plants, like Qinshan — China’s first indigenously built nuclear facility — are along the country’s southeast coast, which is economically booming but far from the country’s coal mines and natural gas fields. But more plants are expected to be built farther inland, in areas more prone to earthquakes.

“If something happens, how should ordinary people deal with it? This kind of education or information is currently lacking,” said Wang Xiaojun, the communications director for Greenpeace East Asia.

On March 16, in a rare bow to the heightened public concern, the ruling State Council — China’s equivalent of a cabinet — suspended all new approvals for nuclear plants until the government could inspect existing plants and issue revised safety rules.

But Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, speaking March 30 at a climate meeting in Australia, said China’s overall nuclear goals remain unchanged.

Many here say what is urgently needed is more public awareness and input before new nuclear facilities are approved and more public education, including emergency preparedness, for those living near nuclear facilities.

Government officials from different agencies gave various accounts of whether emergency plans are in place and who was supposed to implement them. Officials even seemed to disagree on exactly how close is too close for people to live near a nuclear reactor.

Li Chuanchen, a senior engineer at a Shanghai radiation monitoring station, said China does not have specific regulations determining how close people could live to a nuclear facility. He said nuclear plant operators should work with the local government to conduct emergency drills.

But Feng Yi, deputy secretary of the China Nuclear Energy Association, said the rules state that nuclear plants should be constructed far from other potentially hazardous facilities, like oil depots, and if a nuclear plant is built in a densely populated area, no additional people should be allowed to move into the area.

He also said the area within 1.8 miles of a nuclear plant should have a “good evacuation plan,” and that it was fine for 30 to 40 households to live within that zone.

Hundreds of people live within a few hundred yards of the expanding Qinshan nuclear facility. Most wanted to move when the plant was first being built, but they were not offered enough compensation or were told they didn’t live close enough to qualify for relocation.

The villagers said they have never been told what to do in case of an accident.

“Even after the Japanese nuclear crisis broke out, we did not see any officials coming down here to do any education,” said a villager whose surname is Zhu. “We ourselves have been tracking the developments and trying to learn from the Internet.”

Zhu and others in the nearby villages said people here were already suffering health problems associated with living close to a nuclear facility and that the cancer rate in the area has increased.

Although there are no statistics to verify the claims, a doctor and two nurses at three nearby hospitals said they were seeing higher numbers of thyroid and breast cancer cases from the coastal area of Zhejiang province but that there was no definitive link to the Qinshan plant.

The drive for more public involvement in the country’s nuclear expansion has found an unlikely ally in the state-controlled media. Since the incident in Japan, editorials and commentary pieces in newspapers have urged a slowdown in building new plants.

People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s main newspaper, said a recent government manual on dealing with emergencies concentrated on the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 and the earlier epidemic of the H1N1 influenza virus.

But the report is short on ‘‘specifics telling citizens how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” a March 21 editorial said. The paper said it was “important to conduct drills to prepare the public for possible devastation brought by natural disasters.”

“We can learn a lot from Japan,” it said.

Researcher Wang Juan reported from Qinshan, China.

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