Communication Challenges in Developing Nuclear Power in China

(Please contact the author for full report)

China must continue to find new, more sustainable means to fuel its rapid economic growth in the future. Expansion of its nuclear power supplies is part of the Chinese government’s plan to address increasing domestic energy demands. Currently, China has 28 new nuclear reactors under construction (WNA, 2014). More new nuclear projects are being negotiated. A significant portion of these new domestic projects involves cooperation with foreign countries such as France, the United States, and Japan (WNA, 2014).

Developing nuclear power as an alternative energy source is necessary due to the environmental damage of relying on coal and limitations of other renewable energies (Zhou, 2010). However, certain aspects of China’s political system and bureaucratic culture have made the Chinese public wary and distrustful of their country’s nuclear infrastructure initiatives. These aspects appear to include the Chinese government’s and state-owned enterprises’ weak public relations efforts, inadequate communications, and overall negative reputation.

This report assesses China’s public communication problems regarding nuclear energy infrastructure through a case study of a key nuclear infrastructure project halted by local dissidence. The case involves a Sino-French bilateral effort to develop a nuclear fuel processing facility, the Heshan project in Jiangmen City, Guangzhou Province in southern China (Bloomberg, 2013). The project was cancelled in July 2013 due to strong public opposition and protest. The case illustrates how the Chinese government and companies’ bad reputation, lack of transparency, and weak or non-existent public relations strategies fuel domestic public opposition to China’s nuclear energy development efforts.

The Heshan project’s cancellation case is a strong indication that China faces increasing constraints related to public communications in its quest to increase its nuclear energy supplies in the next decade. Its public communications woes are due in part to a global trend of decreased public acceptance of nuclear energy post-Fukushima. However, they are also related to China’s unique challenges in terms of the weak state of the Chinese government’s public relations concerning its nuclear energy objectives. If the Chinese authorities do not address these communications challenges, it will face increasingly insurmountable difficulties to carry out its nuclear energy objectives.

More specifically, the Heshan project case suggests the following conclusions.

First, the government does not sufficiently educate the public on nuclear issues. Information about nuclear site operations remains secret, causing rumors, suspicions, and negative perceptions to spread. Extant public educational materials on nuclear safety are also grossly inadequate.

Second, there is no public participation and transparency in the decision-making process. Local people have no access to government planners and no idea what is being planned or going on at any time, except what is divulged through official media releases.

Third, the blowback of the government’s perennial weak communication and interaction with the public has taken effect. The public has no trust in its local officials on various issues, including information on nuclear power and nuclear constructions. When authorities attempts to communicate with the public, as a Jiangmen official said, “no one would listen” (Caixin, 2013). The authority also does not seem to understand or grasp the best communication channels to reach out to the public to form an effective conversation.

Finally, the rise of social media exposes Chinese citizens to new information and allows to communicate with each in unprecedented ways. It provides a platform that helps messages spread faster, wider, and stronger. As in the Heshan project case, it also provides increased means by which Chinese can organize acts of dissidence. Social media in China has become the primary channel for its citizens not just for sharing information, but also for organizing public gatherings like protests (Zhang, 2013). With social media, public opinions become more and more important in the decision-making process, especially on the issues concerning public welfare such as nuclear construction planning.

Several recommendations can be made to both Chinese nuclear companies and international nuclear firms that seek to cooperate with Chinese companies for the future ventures.

1. Public information education campaigns should be considered as a long-term project alongside with all new nuclear construction planning. If the companies do not carry out these campaigns, the public will continue to distrust what information is available concerning nuclear policies and projects, seek nuclear information through other channels, gain false knowledge which leads to strongly negative opinions on nuclear power.

2. China’s nuclear development efforts must include public participation in some form in the decision-making process. Based on the Heshan project case, it seems people will insinuate themselves into the process and make their voices heard regardless of the government’s consent and especially if the government appears to not want public involvement in decision- making. The current outcome is that this participation is all negative, and the ultimate goal is to bring about the stoppage and cancellation of the nuclear projects. Including public opinion

by having an open and transparent decision-making process is crucial to gain public support. Nuclear companies and authorities can consider having community leaders on board throughout the new project planning process.

3. Public communication and relation actions must be taken at least in the regions where new nuclear projects are planned. All necessary public communication platforms and tactics should be deployed. This includes, but is not limited to, social media, PSA, television/radio programs content placement, visual strategies such as outdoor signage, special PR events and public events. Companies can achieve these PR efforts by either hiring PR firms or establish a devoted communication team.