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Why our energy future lies in safely produced nuclear power

South China Morning Post — 01 Dec 2010

Already, about one-quarter of Hong Kong’s electricity is nuclear, which is more than 10 times the national average. Nuclear electricity has saved, for Hong Kong alone, the atmospheric emission of millions of tonnes of CO2 and other pollutants every year. A substantial Chinese nuclear programme could bring about an impact a hundredfold bigger.

However, while we enjoy a lower-carbon-footprint lifestyle and better air quality, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are constant reminders of the nuclear safety issue. Although tens of thousands of scientists and engineers have spent decades of hard work to produce generations of safer and more efficient reactor designs, we must remember that present-day nuclear power reactors are not intrinsically safe. Our marvellous record today is the result of a rigorous system managed, operated and supervised professionally, and with zero tolerance for errors. China has to secure an enormous energy supply to sustain the economic activity and livelihood of its huge population. This colossal task is currently managed by converting into CO2 a sea of oil and a mountain of coal every day. This is obviously an undesirable situation – environmentally, sociopolitically and strategically.

Given the magnitude, complexity and urgency of the problem, China has few practicable alternatives, and a sizeable nuclear power programme is understandable. In such a scale of things, the participation or not of Hong Kong carries little weight. As a matter of fact, Hong Kong is already located right at the centre of one of the highest concentrations of nuclear power plant developments in the world. Non-participation will not make Hong Kong less susceptible to problems from Guangdong’s nuclear plants, or keep our sky clearer and our atmosphere cleaner.

We estimate that more than 20,000 scientists and engineers will be needed to provide healthy support for the nuclear industry in the Pearl River Delta region within the next 20 years, when the many new reactors built today will start to age and face problems. We will have to count on their expertise and professionalism, not only for the energy supply, but also for our health and safety. Our best bet, it seems, is to be proactive, seek opportunities for active participation and help build a better and safer nuclear industry around us. We may then hopefully achieve a win-win solution for Hong Kong.

C. H. Woo, chair professor of solid-state electronics, department of electronic and information engineering, S. Q. Shi, professor, department of mechanical engineering, C. T. Liu, chair professor of materials science and engineering, department of mechanical engineering, all Hong Kong Polytechnic University; J. Lu, professor, college of science and engineering, City University of Hong Kong

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