Until recently, China's plans to build a nuclear power plant on the sandy beaches and mud flats of Daya Bay along the South China coast seemed like the sort of international deal in which everyone would win.
China would derive technology, profits and some power for energy-starved Guangdong province from its first commercial nuclear venture. Hong Kong would buy 70% of the plant's electricity, assuring the British colony future supplies of energy. And France and Britain would get the lucrative construction contracts to install the nuclear reactors and generators in what would be the first overseas sale of a nuclear power plant anywhere in the world since 1981.
Now, however, in the wake of the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Hong Kong residents concerned about safety have been rushing to Peking in a determined but apparently futile campaign to have the nuclear plant scrapped.
The Daya Bay plant will be located in Guangdong province about 30 miles east-northeast of heavily populated Hong Kong, financial and trading capital of the East Asian mainland.
"It may be quite a long way away, but it is a lot nearer than Kiev is to Helsinki," the English-language Hong Kong Standard observed in one of many recent newspaper editorials in both the English and Chinese press against the project. (Kiev, about 60 miles from Chernobyl, showed above-normal radiation readings after the Chernobyl accident; radioactivity from Chernobyl was detected in Helsinki and elsewhere across northern Europe.)
Despite Hong Kong's reputation for political apathy, more than 1 million of the colony's 5.5 million residents have signed a petition against Daya Bay that was recently brought to Peking. A sample survey showed that 72% of the colony's residents opposed the project.
Contracts to Be Signed
Nevertheless, the anti-nuclear campaign appears to be doomed. Site preparations have been completed, and on Tuesday, Chinese officials are expected to sign the contracts for the plant with French and British companies.
In opposing the Daya Bay plant, Hong Kong residents have run into the same Sino-British steamroller that two years ago flattened their attempts to question the agreement returning the colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
"The government has not changed and will not change its decision to build a nuclear plant at Daya Bay," Jiang Xinxiong, China's minister of nuclear industry, told a press conference here Sept. 5.
Britain, which will continue to govern Hong Kong until 1997, is not disposed to ask China to alter its plans. British officials in both Peking and Hong Kong are busily making plans for Queen Elizabeth II's first trip to China in October--a visit that British officials hope will further British business interests.
After meeting with leading Chinese officials in Peking early this month, Edward Youde, the British governor of Hong Kong, said there is no possibility of stopping the nuclear plant, and the Hong Kong government "will stand by the commitment we made in respect of the project." In 1983, the Hong Kong government guaranteed the loans for the $3.5-billion plant.
Britain has been closely involved in the idea for the Daya Bay plant for many years. As oil prices climbed after the world oil crisis of 1973, the Hong Kong government formed a nuclear steering group to investigate the possibility of turning to nuclear energy.
By the late 1970s, Hong Kong's largest electricity supplier, China Light & Power Co. Ltd., a privately owned utility, began discussing with Chinese officials a jointly operated nuclear plant on Chinese soil in southern Guangdong.
In 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping announced that China would buy two 900-megawatt pressurized-water nuclear reactors from the French manufacturer, Framatome, which uses nuclear technology licensed by an American company, Westinghouse.
Those French reactors were originally supposed to be placed on a site farther north, in Jiangsu province, but were diverted to Guangdong after China shelved plans for the Jiangsu plant.
Set Up Joint Venture
Early last year, China formally set up the joint venture to operate the Daya Bay plant, with China holding a 75% share and the Hong Kong utility, China Light & Power, the other 25%. The twin-reactor, 1,800-megawatt project is supposed to begin operating in 1992.
China has only one other nuclear plant under construction, at Qinshan in Zhejiang province.
During his recent press conference, Jiang, the nuclear industry minister, said the Daya Bay site was chosen after careful geological study. For more than 1,000 years, he said, the area has had no earthquakes that would have measured 7 or more on the Richter scale. The Daya plant will be able to withstand quakes of 8 or more, he said.
Such assurances have failed to quiet the Hong Kong opposition.
Political groups, legislators and newspaper publishers continue to question whether the site is safe, whether the technology is fool-proof and whether Hong Kong residents could be evacuated fast enough in case of a disaster.
So great has been the furor that nuclear safety issues have become enmeshed with the larger political questions about how much political autonomy and economic prosperity Hong Kong will have under Chinese rule.
"Now that the post-Chernobyl public is so aware of the possibility of disaster, the Daya Bay plant is destined to become yet another source of destabilizing rumors, like Deng Xiaoping's health," one political group, the Hong Kong Observers, wrote recently. "For many people who are already deeply worried about Hong Kong's future, Daya Bay is the nail in the coffin, and privately, people are admitting their intention of leaving Hong Kong if the plant is built."
To help cool the political climate, China let a delegation of Hong Kong legislators come to Peking to discuss the plant. That was notable, because during negotiations on Hong Kong's future, Peking had insisted that the legislators, many of them appointed by the governor, should be treated as private citizens, not legitimate representatives of Hong Kong's people.
Still, Peking officials made it clear that the nuclear plant is not a matter for negotiation.
But Jiang said that misgivings in Hong Kong about safety "are understandable," and he will make sure that all Chinese departments involved in Daya Bay "concentrate on safety first."