Scott Murdoch | THE AUSTRALIAN

In China’s far eastern region of Rongsheng, the government is rolling out one of the most ambitious nuclear power developments in the world.

China has commissioned at least three power plants in the Shandong province as it attempts to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. However, the details of the projects remain tightly controlled, with hundreds of residents, farmers and business owners left to question their future amid concerns over the safety of nuclear technology.

A journalist, photographer and news assistant from The Weekend Australian were recently detained by police while researching the Shidaowan project. The company behind the development, the China Huaneng power company, refused to answer questions. French nuclear regulators this week warned China needs to step up its level of supervision, control and interaction with the rest of the world as it invests more in nuclear generation. There are 20 nuclear reactors in operation in China and a further 28 under construction.

China nuclearIt has been mooted that Shidaowan will come online by 2017, more than three years behind schedule, after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan halted ­nuclear development around the world.

Under the government’s plans, next-generation CAP1400 reactors are being developed in Shandong. The program has been approved by the National Development and Reform Commission, the peak economic planning agency in China.

It is forecast that nuclear power generation will almost triple, from 15.69 gigawatts to at least 58GW, by 2020, as China aims to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power generation.

However, in the small villages around the new power plant in Rongsheng, the human and environmental costs of the development are already clear.

Villages have been razed, with dozens of residents forced from their homes in the early stages of the plant’s construction.

The project has brought work, with labourers housed in cramped conditions.

But residents are concerned about the use of world-first technology. Some have been told they will be moved and placed in high-rise accommodation, leaving behind their friends, family, traditions and culture.

The Yujiazhang village is 352 years old and has about 60 families living in basic accommodation. They are, in the main, small-scale farmers. The village is one of five neighbouring the Shidaowan plant. Grandmother Zhou, 85, has lived in the village since birth, raised her family and has no intention of leaving. However, the ­villagers will have little say in their future.

“No one has come to me to ask about moving,” Mrs Zhou told The Weekend Australian. “My neighbours have told me that we might have to move to high buildings. I don’t want to move, I am 85 years old, I only have a few years left and I do not want to leave my home town.”

Mrs Zhou has seen the area change dramatically over the years, but nothing has prepared the locals for what lies ahead.

“I have been told that a nuclear power station is being built nearby my village, it is very dangerous,” she said.

“The villagers have had land by the seaside for generations, we could grow our own food, we could fish, and not only feed our family but we could make some money from that.

“But now the land has been seized and if something goes wrong then the seas will be completely damaged and our villages could be wiped out.”

Her neighbour, Mr Yu, 68, a farmer, is, in light of the Fukush­ima accident, concerned about his family’s health.

“I do not want to move but we do not know what is going on the opposite side of the road,” he said.

“Our villagers are worried about it. It will badly influence our health and our children’s health. Even if they move us out, I will feel pity for our homeland. I don’t want to leave.”

However, there are some locals who are keen to leave. They do not want to live with the health risks — and there is a chance of government compensation.

So far, the government has paid those affected by the development 900 yuan ($153) each year for every 666 squares metres of land.

Mr Qu, 61, said residents had little choice but to move. “If they give us a house and compensation then I will leave because it could be very harmful to our bodies,” he said.

“We have no choice. You can see our village is very close to the plant, it is just across the road.”

Former nuclear power engineer Du Minghai said while China was rolling out the most ambitious nuclear program in the world, it had to ensure it strengthened safeguards to prevent environmental, social and health problems.

“In terms of the plant design, equipment manufacturing and maintenance management, China still has gaps compared with the world’s most advanced levels,” he said.

“We should introduce and ­insist that foreign-management methods are put in place, and make sure that we don’t localise the management systems of the plants.

“Some people are saying that China is using the highest standards and building the most advanced nuclear units, but to some extent I think this is just political language being used to make sure politicians support their projects.”