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When it comes to real questions of security will the CENO be there for Hong Kong?|Stephen Vines

Following the recent scare at the Taishan nuclear power station, close to Hong Kong, the question arises as to whether assurances of nothing to worry about can ever be believed and, more pressingly, whether the Hong Kong authorities will be prepared to stand up for the people they are supposed to represent and demand timely and adequate information.

Why do we even know that there was a problem at Taishan? Most certainly it is not the result of transparency on behalf of the Chinese company that runs the plant but because Framatome, the French joint venture partner, wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy warning of an ``imminent radiological threat’’. This communique then found its way into a CNN report which brought it into the public domain.

The first response from the plant’s operator, the China General Nuclear Power Group, was to issue a bland statement saying that “the environmental indicators of Taishan Nuclear Power Plant and its surroundings are normal.”

Two days later the foreign ministry in Beijing told reporters that “there is no abnormality in the radiation levels around the nuclear power plant, and safety is guaranteed.” However, the French company admitted that it was dealing with an “performance issue” but said there was no cause for concern.

There is no evidence to suggest that these belated reassurances are incorrect but it is worrying to note that Taishan is no stranger to minor safety issues. This year alone there was an automatic shutdown caused by an electrical malfunction in March and in April an alarm was triggered when a burst of radioactive gas unexpectedly entered a pipe in the plant’s waste gas treatment system.

It is important not to be alarmist over incidents of this kind and to bear in mind that overall the nuclear power generation industry has a good safety record. However, things can and have gone seriously wrong at nuclear plants, with deadly consequences. The question therefore arises as to whether the authoritarian system that operates in China would be willing to admit to error or prepared to give citizens prior notice to mitigate the impact of a nuclear leak?

The answers are not reassuring and even less so in view of how the outbreak of Covid 19 was handled in Wuhan as Dr Li Wenliang was hauled in by the police after blowing the whistle on the initial spread of what was then a new and fatal disease.

No one is rewarded for telling uncomfortable truths in an authoritarian system but rewards are lavished on those who cover up information that the authorities wish to see buried even if, as in the case of Covid 19, the consequences are devastating.

Compare how many people died in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that occurred in the last years of the former Soviet Union where the Communist Party did its utmost to suppress news of the major leak, with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In Japan, where politicians are elected but far from perfect, it is believed that only one person died as a direct result of the explosion. In Chernobyl at least 50 died following the initial blast with an estimated 4,000 later succumbing to poisoning from the fallout.

The fact of the matter is that authoritarian governments cost lives, not by design but because they value preservation of their rotten systems above the lives of their citizens.

Hong Kong stands within a 200-kilometre radius of four Mainland nuclear plants, with another three under construction. It is known that contingency plans exist for tackling a major incident at Daya Bay, the oldest of these plants, but whether other contingency measures are in place is unknown.

After news of Taishan’s problems were publicized the best that Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only, could manage was a bland reassurance that the government was closely observing events and that there was nothing to worry about.

Does anyone seriously believe that Ms Lam, who cringes at the mere sight of a senior cadre, would stand up to the hard-faced bureaucrats and demand proper answers to questions that are literally a matter of life and death? She has never given the smallest indication that protecting the people of Hong Kong is her number one priority, yet she talks incessantly about national security. What could possibly be a bigger question of security than the safety of the people in face of nuclear fallout? Who would dare to stand up for Hong Kong among the motley collection of nonentries who make up the SAR government?

(Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of ‘Eastern Express’ and founding publisher of ‘Spike’. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse”

Vines’ latest book Defying the Dragon — Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, was published earlier this year by Hurst Publishing. He is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously — Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium, Market Panic and Food Gurus.)

Stephen Vines’s article can be found in our Columnist section.

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