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July, 2008:

Coal Shortages Strain Shanxi Environment

Reuters in Beijing – Updated on Jul 29, 2008

The mainland’s worsening coal shortages have exerted unprecedented pressure on Shanxi, the country’s top coal-producing region, to push output beyond approved levels and worsening environmental strains, official media reported on Tuesday.

Demand from users who normally get their coal from Shanxi is expected to exceed its output by more than 200 million tonnes this year, despite the region’s all-out efforts to boost production, the official China Securities Journal said.

Shanxi produced 330 million tonnes of coal in the first half of this year, 14 per cent higher than a year earlier, and coal sales to other Chinese provinces increased 10 per cent to 278 million tonnes during the same period, the report said.

Many of Shanxi’s coal miners, especially state-owned ones, were operating beyond their certified production capacity, a major threat to mine safety, Wang Shouzhen, chief of the Shanxi Coal Bureau, was quoted as saying.

Overproduction was a further blow to Shanxi’s fragile environment, leading to more dust pollution, faster ground subsidence, increasing disruption of land and of underground water flows, the report said.

Although Shanxi needs to slow its mining to achieve sustainable development, energy demands made that difficult, the report added, citing Mr Wang.

Coal shortages have forced many regions to reduce power generation, leading more than a dozen Chinese provinces to ration power as the peak demand season approaches.

Coal-fired power plants burn about half of China’s coal output to produce 80 per cent of the country’s electricity.

Asia Must Strike Right Balance On Oil Policy

Updated on Jul 29, 2008 – SCMP

Asian governments are acting irresponsibly in maintaining subsidies on oil. They believe that keeping prices down will promote development, control inflation and ensure stability. Each of these points is arguable. What is not, however, is that their efforts are encouraging abuse of a commodity that is in short supply, and diverting precious resources from vital sectors such as education and health.

High oil prices have forced some governments in the past two months to lower subsidies. The price caps they had in place were so hefty that to do nothing would have further eroded budgets. Domestic concerns were behind their moves – yet it is global reasons that should be driving their policies. Subsidies increase consumption and this is helping push prices higher.

Asia accounts for just 20 per cent of world oil use. There is no denying that it is the US and other developed countries that by far consume greater quantities. But it is taxes, not subsidies, that generally determine prices in these nations, and in the absence of concerted government intervention, people are being more careful about oil use. In Asia, the opposite is true; about two-thirds of the annual increase in global oil demand is from our region. The percentage for imports is even bigger.

China is perhaps the only Asian country able to withstand record oil prices and maintain present subsidies. Yet on June 20, Beijing announced an 18 per cent increase in the price of diesel and a 5 per cent rise in electricity charges on the mainland. The move followed on the heels of Taiwan, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. The steps were small, but necessary. Further cuts are needed; the aim should be to eventually scrap subsidies.

Capping oil prices in developing countries benefits a minority. On the mainland, the winners are big industry and the privileged few who can afford vehicles. The losers are the government and the petroleum companies forced to take a cut in income. Leaving prices to market forces would achieve the central government’s wishes to keep growth in check and decrease pollution levels. Throughout the region, the diversion of large chunks of budgets to keeping oil prices down is preventing the development of social sectors. In India and Indonesia, funding that should be going to education and health care is instead being used to keep motorists on the road. Malaysians have some of the cheapest petrol and highest per capita vehicle ownership. Rather than subsidising oil, governments should be improving living standards and trying to tackle global warming.

Ministers from China, India, Japan and South Korea met US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in early June and acknowledged in a statement that “phased and gradual withdrawal of price subsidies for conventional energies is desirable”. Subsidies, they said, “should be replaced, where possible, by better targeted policies for intended beneficiaries”. Efficiency would be enhanced and the door opened for greater investment in alternative energy sources. Japan is already one of the world’s most fuel-efficient countries. China and India refused to commit to a timetable.

Asia’s developing nations are taking the right steps, but small ones – and not necessarily for the right reasons. They should be looking as much at conservation and responsible use of oil as growth and inflation rates. Social development must not be ignored. Only by casting off subsidies can they move onto the right track. Such a decision has to be gradual and may seem filled with uncertainty. It is nonetheless the only sustainable way forward.

Energy Audits Likely For Existing Buildings

Cheung Chi-fai – Updated on Jul 28, 2008 – SCMP

Energy audits for existing commercial buildings may be phased in as a requirement under the proposed law on mandatory building energy codes, a senior official has said.

A grace period of at least a year is also likely to be granted to ensure a smooth transition to the compulsory requirements.

Alfred Sit Wing-hang, assistant director of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Department, said a bill making the codes compulsory was being drafted for tabling next year.

A taskforce of professionals has also been formed to advise on technical details of the bill.

The law will require new buildings to meet the codes specifying energy use requirements in areas such as lifts, lighting and air conditioning. The codes are now voluntary.

Under the proposal, all existing commercial buildings will also need to undergo energy audits, proposed at 10-year intervals, to find ways to improve energy consumption.

“It will be done in phases. But the old buildings will not necessarily be in the first phase as they tend to have fewer installations and consume less energy than newer ones,” Mr Sit said.

It was necessary to strike a balance between the age and energy consumption of the buildings when coming up with a feasible plan on energy audits, he said.

There are about 40,000 buildings in Hong Kong, of which about 8,000 are commercial. It was estimated nearly 90 per cent of the city’s electricity was consumed by buildings.

If the audit rules were required of all buildings, there might not be enough auditing professionals to carry out the task, Mr Sit said.

Mr Sit said the law would not include demands for a carbon audit as it was a new concept while energy audits were an established practice.

There would also be no rule regulating light pollution, as officials believed building owners would know the energy consumption level of exterior lighting installations and could make changes if they wished.

Ho Sai-king, chief engineer of the department, said building management companies should be able to find plenty of room for energy saving.

At the Housing Society managed Prosperous Garden in Yau Ma Tei, one of the towers had its power bill cut by about HK$130,000 a year by having its electrical installations changed in line with the codes at a one-off cost of HK$2 million.

Light Pollution in Nathan Road

Residents need help with light pollution in Nathan Road

Updated on Jul 27, 2008 – SCMP

I refer to the report (“Shedding light on a hot topic”, July 20), about the light-pollution problem caused by the flashing neon on Nathan Road.

While smoking is banned in public areas, our government does not put much effort into curbing the light-pollution problem.

The Times Square incident regarding public space indicated that there is no precise definition of a public area even if it is written on a well-drafted contract.

From my point of view, a public area does not simply refer to the area itself, but also to the quality of the air at that location, as this is air we all have to breathe.

I remember when I was studying economics at university, our professor told us that there is usually a divergence between private cost and social cost.

By that he meant that businesses do not have any incentive to take into account the interests of the public when they are making corporate decisions.

In the case of Nathan Road, residents have undoubtedly been adversely affected by the array of flashing neon lights.

Unfortunately, there is nothing residents can do unless they get government support.

Officials recognise that air pollution is a problem.

Why can’t they take the next step and deal with other forms of pollution?

Mike Lam Chun-wa, Tai Kok Tsui

Rush To Cities Needs Big Thinking

Rush to cities needs big thinking, institute says

Ting Shi – SCMP – Updated on Jul 25, 2008

The mainland’s best chance of meeting the challenges of massive urbanisation lies in encouraging the development of its biggest cities, a report issued yesterday says.

Urbanisation promises to continue at an unprecedented rate – by 2030, two-thirds of all Chinese, or 1 billion people, would probably be living in cities, the McKinsey Global Institute report says. That also means cities will have added 350 million people in 20 years – more than the entire US population today. By 2025, China will have 219 cities with more than 1 million people and 24 cities with more than 5 million.

Mega-cities – those with populations of more than 10 million – will continue to grow rapidly. By 2025, they will be home to 13 per cent of the mainland’s urbanites. Over the next two decades, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Wuhan will probably surpass 10 million and join Beijing and Shanghai among the mainland’s mega-cities.

Rapid urbanisation carries serious challenges. Demand for water will increase by 70 to 100 per cent, while energy needs in urban areas will more than double. Some 900GW to 1,100GW of power production capacity will have to be prepared by 2025 to meet the energy demands of those cities. During this period, the mainland will also have to pave 5 billion square metres of road, lay 28,000km of commuter railways and erect 20,000 to 50,000 skyscrapers to accommodate the new urbanites.

The pressure for land will increase, demand for resources will double and pollution will rise. Also, providing health care and education to migrants would severely strain municipal finances, the report says.

To ensure that this unprecedented transformation unfolds as smoothly as possible, Beijing should take a more concentrated approach, the report suggested. That would require “a deliberate shift” from the current policy of developing mid-size cities to focus on the largest cities.

The bigger the city, the bigger its economy and the better its education and infrastructure, the report says. Apart from the natural efficiencies created by scale, large cities also have the advantage of municipal leaders who are the best administrators, it says.

A concentrated approach also creates the greatest energy efficiencies. Under the mega-city scenario, mainland cities would use energy 18 per cent more efficiently than under the dispersed-growth scenario.

Such urban policies “would generate the greatest benefits and the least harm for the country”, it says.


Updated on Jul 24, 2008 – SCMP

Urban Hong Kong is one supersized billboard. Is anyone bothered? This city has always had many neon signs hanging along the busiest roads. Photos to promote tourism show these streets and Hong Kong’s buzz of activity. Owners compete by putting up bigger signs. Building owners are paid for allowing advertising; this has been seen as “normal” for the city’s commercial life.

In reality, putting up signage has been poorly regulated, even though signs can cause injuries if they should fall – indeed, one advertising sign crashed to the ground recently, killing a passer-by. No one in authority or political life seems too concerned about this overall state of affairs, however.

The smaller signs jutting out from buildings along narrow, busy streets are one thing, but the massive advertising signs that go on buildings and walls, and on top of buildings, are probably some of the largest in the world. There has been a quiet revolution in recent years; they have grown ever larger due to technological advances that allow advertising graphics to be enlarged to cover the side of a whole building.

You cannot escape several large signs hawking famous brands, when going up Cotton Tree Drive, for example. Building owners who are property developers like to place giant advertisements for new properties on their existing buildings.

Take the Cheung Kong Center in Central – an expensive building on Queen’s Road. On one side of the building, the developer has created a permanent structure to hold a large advertising sign to sell its new properties. Likewise, China Building, further down the road, also has advertising wrapped round one side of it. Thus, aesthetics and taste must take a backseat to the opportunity for a hard sell.

When the Ritz Carlton Hotel closed, the owners allowed a giant advertising sign, for men’s underwear, to cover one whole side of the building, and the owners of the Mandarin Oriental didn’t want to lose the opportunity to earn a few dollars, allowing a sizable sign for women’s cosmetics to go up for a few months while the hotel was renovated.

When we look across the harbour from either side, one unmistakable aspect is the multitude of massive signs, flashing their brand names, on top of many buildings. Some show moving images and light up even during the day, so you can’t miss them. That is the point, of course.

Whether massive, big or small, these advertising signs also consume a lot of electricity when lit. A scarce resource – energy – is being wasted. Moreover, Hong Kong uses electricity to advertise itself. The evening light show has become famous with tourists. Traders can afford to do so because the world is not yet pricing energy appropriately, and material consumption is good for business.

At various times, critical voices have been heard against either the subject matter of some adverts – such as emaciated, seemingly just assaulted, female models selling fashion items, or on environmental grounds; using energy causes pollution and exacerbates climate change. There have also been longstanding complaints from some residents, whose comfort and sleep is disturbed by glaring billboards and flashing lights.

Government officials, politicians and business leaders essentially take a commercial view that the city’s lights are part of promoting Hong Kong. When a sign falls off and hits some unfortunate soul, there are whispers that something may need to be done to fasten them more securely. But there is no discussion about whether things have got out of hand altogether.

Many people are bothered; it’s just that there hasn’t been a comprehensive look at the many disturbing aspects of “billboard” Hong Kong. A thunderbolt may come from outside. Remember how upset our leaders were when a tourist guidebook put a hazy picture of Hong Kong on its cover and talked about our air pollution? What if we were voted the most energy-wasteful city?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange

Powering Ahead With Range Of Initiatives

Group says it has significantly reduced emissions since 1990 and vows to continue with clean-energy strategy

May Chan – SCMP – Updated on Jul 23, 2008

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should stretch beyond out-of-pocket donations and voluntary work, according to big businesses in Hong Kong. They have strived to communicate new business ethics with employees, stakeholders and business partners.

The scope of CSR is drawn by the careful calculation between the capacity of the company, the resources at home and politics. For CLP Group, it has found itself at the centre of discussions on environmental issues, which have been gaining momentum over the past 10 years or so, according to its communication director Jane Lau Yuk-yin.

On the business side, the group has committed itself to improving efficiency and providing cleaner energy. The group generates power from a mix of nuclear, natural gas and coal.

From 1990 to last year, the total emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides and other pollutants from CLP’s power stations decreased by 74 per cent, 57 per cent and 76 per cent respectively, while total electricity demand increased by 82 per cent over the same period. Last year, it achieved its goal of producing more than 5 per cent of power from non-carbon emitting renewable sources – three years ahead of schedule. The group set a target to reduce its carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2050.

“We have to be sensitive about changes in surroundings, and understand our own capacity in making commitments,” Ms Lau said, noting that the issues of environmental protection, sustainability and pollution have been gaining attention in Hong Kong.

“CSR is not a formula – it is not a set of tests to be passed. It is more of a value system, which manifests itself in every aspect of the company,” she said.

Staff members were briefed about the vision and mission of the group, Ms Lau said, while externally community wide educational projects were being undertaken throughout the year to communicate its message to the public. That includes initiatives such as tree-planting projects and its annual Young Power Programme to educate secondary school students in renewable energy.

Ms Lau said good CSR policies had given the group a good reputation and motivated it to enhance energy efficiency but, above all, it had cultivated a win-win mindset among young people.

“In the educational programme, young people get the chance to understand how energy relates to them, both in the ways it is produced and in the ways it is used,” she said.

“That helps them to be more responsible users and decision makers and, in some ways, also helps us to better understand what the market needs.” Another major corporation, NWS Holdings, on the other hand has been progressive in finding ways to implement CSR initiatives.

It started with donations and regular volunteer projects, but the concept has been developed into more sustainable forms, according to its assistant general manager of corporate communication Maria Cheung.

The company holds regular seminars on CSR policies, and it has set clear guidelines for its contractors.

In the bidding process, the contract does not necessarily go to the lowest-bid, as bidders are appraised on their responsibility towards the environment and to their staff.

NWS Holdings has also set up charity funds that sponsor community projects, and regular volunteer programmes that involve its different subsidiaries and all levels of staff.

Ms Cheung said CSR had actually improved the company’s image, which in turn eased communication on labour issues between frontline staff and the senior management. “It has sent a clear message to all that we are a caring company, and that helps build up trust,” she said.

“For example, in negotiations with our bus drivers, about their request for a wage increase, they were very understanding when we explained the pressures we faced, and an agreement was made peacefully.

“Some of the bus drivers have actually worked side by side with some of the senior management in volunteer projects … they have known each other in informal settings.”

According to Community Business, a non-profit organisation promoting CSR initiatives in Hong Kong, companies still need to deepen their understanding of the concept.

It said many companies still thought of CSR as community work, although it was encouraged to see an improvement in the business sector in their commitment to CSR initiatives over the past five years.

Clock Ticking On Pollution Bomb

Spending now on energy-saving initiatives will have long-term benefits for businesses, their customers and the city

May George – SCMP – Updated on Jul 23, 2008

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned recently that only seven years remained for stabilising emissions of global-warming gases at a level that could be considered safe. The head of the United Nations’ panel of climate scientists asked the European Union to lead the way in global talks on tackling climate change.

In Hong Kong there are no caps on carbon dioxide emissions because there is no legislation forcing individuals and businesses to act. Ask a Hongkonger what he or she cites as the most immediate environmental problem in the city and most likely it won’t be global warming – instead it will be air pollution.

Richard Welford, deputy director of the corporate environmental governance programme at University of Hong Kong and a founder and chairman of non-profit organisation CSR Asia, said air pollution was very much linked to climate change, which was an immediate problem.

Many companies in Hong Kong and the mainland are not only looking for ways to reduce their own carbon emissions, but are also looking at the huge business opportunities available in the environmental arena.

“There are some great business opportunities in Hong Kong and in the Asia region to help the mainland, which is dealing a lot of the time with old machinery, to become more energy efficient,” said Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong.

“There is good potential for businesses. Energy efficiency technology is a very practical way to help companies and households become more environmentally friendly and to save costs.”

Local companies have turned to manufacturing LED lighting, small and large wind turbines, and flower pots made from starch and bamboo rather than plastic, to name just a few of the initiatives. While the majority of this is being exported to European and North American markets, it shows that Hong Kong companies have cottoned on to the money that can be made out of the environment.

Never slow to see a market opportunity, banks and financial institutions generally are also trading carbon emissions. Some, such as Goldman Sachs, treat them the same as any other commodity on the market.

The big boon for the environment has been the sharp upturn in the price of oil, making renewable energy – which up until now was seen as a somewhat expensive alternative – more palatable.

“The first step with climate change, is to reduce energy use,” Professor Welford said. “And, with energy becoming expensive, it’s a win-win situation. Companies need to start measuring what their carbon emissions are.

“Very few Hong Kong companies are doing this. It’s relatively easy – you basically look at all your energy consumption and then multiply it by a number that results in your carbon emissions.

“Once they have measured their carbon emissions, then they will know what they need to start reducing.

“Most companies run a one electricity bill system, so they don’t know where their energy efficiency improvements are. They need to do a carbon/energy audit.”

At the same time, as individuals are being urged to switch their lights and computers off when they are not using them and not to idle their car engines – preferably not to have cars at all – companies are seeing the dollar signs involved in creating environmentally friendly offices and green buildings, saving the firm money but also making them more attractive to their customers.

One company which caught on to this phenomenon early is Sino Property Services (SPS), a property management arm of the Sino Group. Sunny Yeung Kwong, associate director of Sino Group and head of SPS, described how Sino Plaza commercial building in Causeway Bay recently won a gold award for energy saving from the government’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department.

“Four years ago we changed from an air-cooled air-conditioner system to a water-cooled air-conditioner system. We paid HK$5million for it, but every year we are saving and we see it as a very exciting example of what can be done that we want to share with others,” Mr Yeung said.

The water-cooled air-conditioning system saves 40 per cent of energy consumption and is saving Sino Property HK$1million in electricity bills per year.

Other initiatives touted by Sino Property include a recently launched Green Academy, the first of its kind in the property industry. One hundred green ambassadors of the company are commissioned to promote green management and awareness to the public throughout the 180 Sino-managed properties. The target is to provide comprehensive energy saving and environmental training to more than 6,700 property management employees, plus Sino Property’s business partners, clients and tenants.

Other green building initiatives introduced by Sino Property have included replacing more than 10,000 sets of fluorescent lamps, saving between 30 and 45 per cent of the electricity used in the process. Sino also replaced 4,000 sets of its conventional exit light boxes with LED type boxes last year, saving 80 per cent of the electricity used.

“In Hong Kong, we do have this Building Environmental Assessment Method standard, which is completely voluntary,” Professor Welford said.

“What’s happened in Singapore is that they have taken those voluntary standards and insisted on having them, and I think that is something that Hong Kong could look towards.

“[In Singapore] you don’t get building permission until you can show that your building is energy efficient. So that means building in proper energy systems, windows that reflect light and solar energy.

“Singapore does have its own climate change strategy. And they are doing things that the Hong Kong government ought to be doing, including requiring buildings to be energy efficient. So all new buildings will have to live up to a certain standard of energy efficiency [otherwise you won’t get building permission]. Now that’s a very tangible thing that could be done in Hong Kong.”

He said that developers, such as Swire Properties, were putting energy efficiency in place.

“Pacific Place Three is a good example of this.”

Another plus point of green buildings, as signified by some of the programmes introduced by Sino Group and Swire Properties, is that customers look for quality when looking where to put their shops.

“On the one hand it costs more money [to make it a green building], but on the other you get a better quality building which you can rent out for more money, because there are firms now that say `we want these and we will pay for it’. They are better managed in terms of recycling programmes and air-conditioning.

“And there are better companies out there, like Marks & Spencer, who will pay a higher premium for a better quality building.

“So there are costs, but you can get a better revenue, by having [those costs],” Professor Welford said.

While climate change is a massive issue for the world, Professor Welford said it was not just up to businesses and lethargic governments to effect change in this region. “We’ve got to put pressure on individuals. Pushing business is only part of the solution. [We’ve got to push individuals] and make them look at their own habits. Getting people to switch lights off, switch air-conditioning off, switch computers off. Individuals don’t want to discomfort themselves,” he said.

There’s seven years to go to safely tackle climate change, according to the UN’s chief climate change researcher – and the clock is ticking.

Shedding Light On A Hot Topic

A night tour of Nathan Road discovers the array of flashing neon is not as cool as it might appear.

Yau Chui-yan – Updated on Jul 20, 2008 – SCMP

Twenty people gather in Nathan Road and look up at the same flashing advertising sign for a minute.

The 20, all from different professions, none of whom know each other, have joined a “Nathan Road tour” with the same purpose – to see the world famous thoroughfare’s dazzling array of neon signs.

They are trying to count the flickering frequency of a four-storey advertising sign. Some estimate that the sign is flickering 10 times a minute, others 20 times, but most give up early because the sign is too bright to look at for a whole 60 seconds.

When told that the flickering frequency is 40 times a minute, the group is amazed. “How do you live next to a flickering light like this?” is the common response.

The first stop on the tour is St Andrew’s church on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The group stands next to the church, which is dimly lit. They are told that there are regulations governing the lighting used on important buildings in countries like Britain.

“There are stars, in Tsim Sha tsui,” one group member says in amazement pointing at the sky. “The weather is much cooler than we expect,” another says.

But after leaving the church area, there are no more stars to be seen, just the flashing advertising signs.

The first blow is a big advertising box located at the intersection of Nathan and Austin roads.

“The lighting of the advertising box made me feel so hot,” says Leung Pak-wai, a social work student. His friend Cheung Siu-shan, a geography student, agrees.

According to Elsie Yuen Oi-chi, the group’s escort from Friends of the Earth, the difference in temperature between the city and rural areas is 10 to 12 degrees Celsius. “These advertisements contribute to the temperature,” Ms Yuen says. “When 1 watt of electricity is consumed, 1.3 watts will be consumed to use an air conditioner to lower the temperature.”

Light pollution and energy wastage from flashing advertising signs is not a new topic in Hong Kong. The situation has become serious since Kai Tak airport closed in 1998 and restrictions on blinking lights were relaxed.

From January last year to June this year, the Environmental Protection Department received 67 complaints about external lighting. The department’s response is to advise the management firm or owners of the lighting to reduce the intensity or adjust the angle of spot lamps to minimise the impact on nearby residents.

The government also issued letters last September to chambers of commerce and trade associations appealing for their support in reducing unnecessary lighting and using more energy-efficient lights.

However, what is still missing is legislation directed at light pollution.

Friends of the Earth tried to highlight the problem last month with its “dim light” campaign, in which some building owners agreed to turn off their lights for one night.

James To Kun-sun, a Democrat lawmaker representing Kowloon West, has had complaints from people living in the district.

“There is no such legislation and affected people have no way to ask for help,” Mr To says.

“Also, in some cases, the main tenant, who owns the rights to the outer area of the building, will pay some of the affected residents as compensation. This also complicates the issue.”

He has tabled questions in the Legislative Council a few times, but his request for legislation on light pollution has not received a positive response from the government.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “The government didn’t even want to research this topic. Maybe the government thinks this is business operation and the number of people affected is small.”

Mr To may be right. To most people in the city, flashing lights are advertising and nothing more.

Cathy Yu Sin-ping used to be one of those people, but she changed her mind after inspecting the flashing light boxes close up.

“At first I felt this was remote and nothing to do with me,” says Ms Yu, who spends her daylight hours working as a clerk

“After this tour, I now understand the meaning of `those who have more power create more destruction’.”

Walking along Nathan Road, Ms Yu found it was most comfortable in Yau Ma Tei, because that is the section with the fewest advertising signs.

“It is much cooler,” she said.

The group agrees that the neon signs have a powerful advertising impact. However, they started to wonder at the wastage while looking at a blank advertising sign shining brightly.

“It is understandable that businessmen want to have better exposure by having an advertisement. But is there a need to switch on all the lights?” Ms Yu asks, while looking at a building in Mong Kok, which has about 70 lights shining brightly. When the tour gets moving again, there is discussion about Hong Kong’s well-worn image as the sparkling, brightly-lit Pearl of the Orient.

“I think that image is a construction, because there are lots of lights shining across the harbour,” says Mr Leung, the social work student, who plans to bring a friend on a Nathan Road tour.

“But I believe it is not necessary for this to be the image of Hong Kong. It can be something else. We have to think about it,” he adds, to general agreement.

Nuclear Blunders Raise Safety Questions

Incidents cast doubt on ‘clean’ energy

Associated Press in Paris – Updated on Jul 20, 2008

First, an overflowing tub at a French nuclear plant spilled uranium into the groundwater. Then, a burst pipe leaked uranium at another nuclear site, raising an alert two days ago.

The two accidents within two weeks, both at sites run by French nuclear giant Areva, have raised questions about safety and control measures in one of the world’s most nuclear-dependent nations, and giving fodder to anti-nuclear activists.

Environmentalists said the incidents were a wake-up call, raising doubts about an industry in which France had staked out a leading role internationally. France has 59 reactors churning out nearly 80 per cent of its electricity and state-owned Areva exports its nuclear technologies around the world.

French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo insisted that the incidents were minor, but he nonetheless ordered an overhaul of the nuclear supervision and information processes, and checks of the groundwater around all nuclear plants in France.

Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon visited one of the plants to meet employees and local officials.

The former French environment minister, Corinne Lepage, who opposes nuclear energy, said the “repeated incidents … shine a light on the nuclear industry’s failures, mainly due to underinvestment in safety, the protection of human health and the environment”.

On Friday, nuclear safety officials announced the discovery of a burst underground pipe at a plant in Romans-sur-Isere, in southeastern France, run by an Areva subsidiary, Societe Franco-Belge de Fabrication de Combustibles. The pipe had been broken for years and did not meet safety standards.

Jean-Pierre Gros, Areva’s head of combustion, said between 120 grams and 750 grams of uranium had leaked. Areva insisted the leak of lightly enriched uranium did not spill beyond the plant, and it had no impact on the environment.

But the incident was another blow for Areva after a leak at the Tricastin site, about 40km from the historic southeastern city of Avignon. A liquid containing traces of unenriched uranium leaked from a factory run by Areva subsidiary Socatri, spilling from a reservoir that overflowed.

It leaked both into the ground and into two rivers, the Gaffiere and the Lauzon, the nuclear safety agency said. Officials banned the consumption of well water and the watering of crops from two polluted rivers, as well as fishing, swimming and water sports. Local authorities said the leak happened when a tank was washed.

Areva insisted the Tricastin problem “did not affect either the health of employees and local populations, or their environment.” Still, it cost the plant director his job.

Ms Lauvergeon vowed to resist pressure by anti-nuclear activists to resign over the incidents. During her visits to the two sites, she also said she apologised to residents living near the Tricastin factory. “I told them we are sorry and that they could count on our solidarity in case of problems,” she said.

But the accidents were bad publicity just as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been pushing for even heavier investment in the nuclear industry, given spiralling fossil fuel prices.

Mr Sarkozy said this month that France would build a second new- generation nuclear reactor, or European Pressurised Reactor. Meanwhile, the US, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea are working to create an experimental fusion reactor in southern France, which is aimed at revolutionising global energy use.

Luis Echavarri, director-general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, defended the industry’s safety record, saying it compared favourably to other industries such as coal mining. “You can’t ask for perfection from any industry,” he said.

Anti-nuclear campaigners, however, said the incidents showed nuclear power’s inherent dangers. “[These] aren’t isolated incidents – it’s a global problem,” Frederic Marillier of Greenpeace said. “It clearly illustrates the industry’s faults – nuclear is not a `clean energy’.”