The New York Times
  • Reprints
  • This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers here or use the "Reprints" tool that appears next to any article. Visit for samples and additional information. Order a reprint of this article now.

    March 29, 2011

    Nuclear or Coal?


    HONG KONG — Twenty five years ago a million people here signed a petition opposing a plan to build a nuclear power station with two reactors a few miles across the China border to provide power for Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. Some eminent citizens promised to emigrate if the plant was built.

    But built it was and they had to eat their words. Operating since 1993, it has since attracted little attention from the Hong Kong people even though it sits by the sea, close to a fault line.

    In fact, many people today wish that much more of the territory’s power would come from nuclear sources, which currently account for only about 15 percent of local consumption, rather than from the coal-fired stations, which contribute a great deal to Hong Kong’s serious air-pollution problem.

    Premature deaths in Hong Kong caused by air pollution are now estimated at around 2,800 a year, and the air causes 90,000 hospitalizations a year. Air pollution has also driven away businesses to cleaner cities like Singapore, Sydney and, indeed, Tokyo.

    But Hong Kong air is clean compared with most Chinese cities, so the public-health arguments in favor of more nuclear power are all the stronger on the mainland. The World Health Organization estimated in 2007 that every year more than 600,000 Chinese die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. Things are unlikely to be better now.

    Some of those deaths could be attributed to household burning of coal and charcoal for warmth and cooking. A large and rising part could be attributed to road vehicles. But that still leaves a huge number of deaths directly attributable to the coal-fired power stations that generate most of China’s electricity.

    Nor is that the only cost of coal. There is also the huge number of deaths from coal-mining accidents.

    Big cuts in coal-related deaths are of course possible without going nuclear. Cleaner power stations with the latest antipollution technology are replacing old ones. Poorly run coal mines are being forced to close, reducing the mining death toll. But with China having to import growing amounts of oil and natural gas, the country’s reliance on coal will continue for years to come.

    The one renewable source that many want to be tapped — hydroelectricity — arguably has as many drawbacks as coal. The most potential area for hydro power is in the remote southwest of China, from the upper reaches on rivers that flow into neighboring countries — India, Vietnam, Myanmar. But the full exploitation of hydro potential would damage immensely the livelihoods of tens of millions of people living downstream in the plains of the Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra rivers.

    Many people in China may not care about that, but Beijing, anxious to appear as a good friend, now takes its neighbors’ worries seriously. While nuclear concerns should give a renewed boost to solar and wind energy, their potential is still small relative to China’s future needs.

    Of course, views are different in developed countries with cleaner air, little energy-demand growth and high government sensitivity to the public’s nuclear fears. For sure, there will be enhanced attention everywhere to safety devices and the location of plants.

    But even advanced countries like France and South Korea seem likely to continue to prefer to look at nuclear power as less of a danger than increasing carbon emissions or dependence on imported oil. And those people now expressing grave reservations need reminding that until recently they were lecturing the world about carbon emissions and global warming.

    As for China, the push for nuclear power could even be enhanced as Fukushima provides an opportunity to weigh nuclear dangers against the reality of today’s death toll from coal.