One week after the French company that co-owns the Taishan nuclear power plant in China issued a letter warning about an “imminent radiological threat,” Chinese authorities have declared that all is well.
Earlier this month, nuclear equipment design and servicing company Framatome contacted the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), noting a possible problem involving a radiation leak at Taishan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, writes CNN. In its memo, Framatome also warned that the responsible Chinese authority “was raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection” outside the plant, rather than shutting it down.
CNN writes that a spokesperson for Électricité de France (EDF), a French utility company and part-owner of Framatome, said the increased radiation levels were caused by a “degradation of the housing of the fuel rods.” The representative added reassurances that “the affected housings are the first of three containment barriers between the rods and the atmosphere.”
The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment said today that the allegation of higher radiation levels outside the plant was “erroneous”, Reuters reports. “Environmental monitoring in the vicinity of the Taishan plant found no abnormal parameters…showing no leak has occurred at all,” said the ministry, which oversees the country’s National Nuclear Safety Administration.
It estimated that five of the plant’s 60,000 nuclear fuel rods had been damaged, far below the maximum design allowance of 0.25%, or 150 rods.
“The ministry said it will closely monitor radioactivity levels at the reactor and also maintain communications with the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as France’s nuclear safety watchdog,” Reuters writes.
In its coverage of the incident, Al Jazeera writes that the reactor, which has been in operation since 2018, is the “first French-designed third-generation so-called ‘evolutionary power reactor’ (EPR) to become operational.” Al Jazeera says EPRs, promoted for their economical use of uranium and higher operational safety, are under construction in Finland, France, and the United Kingdom. One of those plants is the UK’s controversial, £22-billion Hinkley Point C reactor at Sizewell.
Mapping out the sequence of events, CNN says Framatome delivered a submission to the DOE on June 3, “formally asking for a waiver that would allow them to address an urgent safety matter.” (The New York Times explains that the Chinese company that has a majority share of Taishan is “on the U.S. Commerce Department’s so-called Entity List of foreign enterprises with which American companies are forbidden to do business,” hence the need for a waiver.)
In a follow-up memo to the DOE sent five days later, Framatome declared the leak to be “an imminent radiological threat to the site and to the public.” Describing the situation as “urgent,” the company requested “permission to transfer technical data and assistance as may be necessary to return the plant to normal operation.”
According to Framatome, the Taishan reactor had “reached 90% of the allegedly revised limit” on May 30—a limit that had already been more than doubled by the Chinese nuclear safety authority “due to the increasing number of failures.” CNN writes that Framatome further expressed concern that the Chinese company that co-owns and operates the plant may be petitioning the authority “to further increase the shutdown limit on an exigent basis in an effort to keep running, which in turn would continue to increase the risk to the off-site population and the workers at the plant site.”
Michael Friedlander, a former operator at three nuclear power plants in the United States, told the Times the decision by the Chinese firm to keep the plant running in the face of an apparent fuel rod leak flies against what many countries now consider good operating procedures. While “many nuclear utilities around the world used to keep operating with leaking fuel rods and occasional venting of xenon gases,” he explained, that practice started disappearing in the West in the 1990s as the public lost any tolerance for trace releases of radiation.
“The global best practice is to shut down and change out the leaking fuel rods as soon as is practical,” Friedlander said. “This normally would occur way, way, way before you approach a regulatory limit.”
Both Al Jazeera and the Times report that Guangdong, a hub for China’s industrial activity, has recently seen recurring power shortages.
Al Jazeera says the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has been in touch with Chinese officials. It issued a statement saying that, “at this stage, the agency has no indication that a radiological incident occurred.”
And “for now, U.S. officials do not think the leak is at ‘crisis level,’ but acknowledge it is increasing and bears monitoring,” CNN writes.
The Taishan plant released a statement early this week saying the two nuclear reactors in the facility “are both operational,” and that one of the units in the three-year-old facility had recently undergone an overhaul.
“The statement did not define why or how the plant was overhauled,” CNN notes.