Nuclear Energy

Hong Kong’s Energy Sector

Over the years, much debate has raged both in Hong Kong and overseas as to whether Nuclear power should be used or not. Having delved not so deeply into the issue myself, I have come to the conclusion that Nuclear power is something that has its questions, but ultimately is sufficiently efficient and safe to be used as a source of energy.

In fact, the much quoted example of France shows that almost half of the country can legitimately be powered by nuclear energy. And in China, nuclear power plants are being built left, right and center. In the SCMP, Christine Loh, chief executive of think-tank Civic Exchange and former Legco member argues this very thought.

The official vision here and in Beijing is to turn Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta into a “green, quality living area with cleaner air, less pollution and a lower-carbon environment”. But is that sufficiently appealing?

A key part of this transformation, in the government’s proposed climate change plan, has to do with the energy sector. This plan will probably be the key driver of Hong Kong’s environmental upgrade in the coming decade.

The government has accepted that, as the richest and most advance part of China, it has the responsibility to do better than the national target to reduce carbon intensity. Thus, the Hong Kong government proposes a reduction target of 50-60 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 – against the national target of 40-45 per cent. For Hong Kong, this is of course not the same as an absolute emissions cut, but it’s a start.

The bulk of the reductions will come from switching away from coal. By reducing coal-burning from 54 per cent to 10 per cent and increasing natural gas from 23 per cent to about 40 per cent, the city’s fuel mix will change dramatically. Half of Hong Kong’s electricity will come from nuclear power.

While reducing coal burning has general support, switching to nuclear power is controversial for green groups, who argue instead for renewable power such as wind and solar. Yet the constraint for this region is its modest endowment in renewable resources, according to the most authoritative research done by scientists at the University of Science and Technology. If we are to reduce emissions significantly within 10 years, it seems renewable power won’t be a big help.

China has a dozen nuclear reactors in operation and 24 under construction, and it decided this year to expand its nuclear capacity further by 2020. As a result, Hong Kong has the opportunity to buy more nuclear power from across the border, which is critical to the government’s proposed plan.

The commercial side of changing the energy mix will make electricity more costly in the future. Coal may seem cheap, but its real price includes a human toll. Mining accidents, air pollution, radiation from coal plants and coal ash are seldom taken into account. While natural gas is a cleaner fuel, the added costs of processing, storage and transport make it a relatively expensive energy source. Nuclear power is not cheap, but it is the only energy sector that has to deal with its waste and therefore costs its waste management into the price. The government has to help the public to understand the relative advantages and disadvantages of the new energy mix. The main gripe of green groups is over the treatment of nuclear waste, and this is an issue that needs to be better understood and addressed to allay concerns.