Chemical industry reconstruction and new nuclear build could be put on hold


Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

China has begun to count the environmental costs of the earthquake that hit the southwestern province of Sichuan on 12 May. 

On 9 June, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released a special statute to regulate reconstruction in the region, which includes the requirement that environmental impact and the quality of drinking water be assessed.

However, environmental concerns have already emerged. Liu Wenkui, vice-president of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, told a reconstruction forum held in early June in Beijing that large amounts of insulating foam have been used in temporary housing for earthquake victims. How to reprocess this foam once residents are re-housed could be a big problem, he says.

Meanwhile, there are suggestions that Sichuan’s chemicals sector could decide to relocate rather than rebuild in the earthquake-stricken areas.

Zhou Houyun, editor-in-chief of the journal Chemical Safety and Environment, says that if the government’s building rules for new plants push up the costs of reconstruction and equipment installation, some firms could pull out of the region.

But according to Shi Xuesong, a petrochemical analyst at Shanghai-based China International Capital Corp, relocation may not be an option for the region’s phosphorus fertilizer sector - which accounted for 7 per cent of China’s total fertiliser production in 2007. Shi believes that transporting phosphorous from the numerous mines close to the earthquake’s epicentre to plants further away could be prohibitively expensive.

The earthquake has also thrown into doubt plans to develop Sichuan’s nuclear industry. The province had planned to build by 2010 a 40 billion yuan (US$5.7 billion) nuclear power station in Nanchong, 200 kilometres east of the epicentre. But the move is reportedly been reconsidered by the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main planning agency.

’Geological studies to assess the risks of earthquakes must take place before deciding on whether to build a nuclear power station,’ Ma Xuquan, a professor of nuclear research at Tsinghua, told Chemistry World.

The parts of the province worst affected by the earthquake are mostly poor, agricultural areas and so are not home to any universities or research institutions. Sichuan’s key universities, along with six Chinese Academy of Sciences institutes, are located in Chengdu, the province’s capital - but escaped major damage. 

Military nuclear research and bomb making facilities based in the city of Mianyang were in the earthquake zone. Officials from both the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the army have said there was no leakage of radioactive materials from the site.