Issues at Taishan Nuclear Plant in China's Guangdong Spark Safety Fears

2016-06-23
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Workers at the joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station outside Taishan City in Guandong province in 2013 photo.
Workers at the joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station outside Taishan City in Guandong province in 2013 photo.
AFP

Design flaws in a French-built nuclear reactor currently being tested at a power station on the southern coast of China have sparked safety concerns in neighboring Hong Kong, experts and local media reports said.

The U.S.$8.3 billion Taishan plant is among the first in the world to use European pressurised reactors (EPR) designed by French nuclear firm Areva, which recently sold a majority stake to energy giant Electricite de France (EDF).

Problems with the design of the reactors have emerged during testing, however, and were cited by EDF in a recent recommendation to the U.K. parliament that it postpone the Chinese-invested Hinkley Point nuclear plant, which had also planned to use EPR technology.

In a letter to U.K. lawmakers earlier this month, EDF said there may be "identical flaws" in the Taishan power plant, which lies just 160 km (100 miles) from the densely populated Pearl River Delta region, which includes Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, prolonged delays to an EPR reactor at Olkiluoto in Finland have resulted in multibillion-euro litigation between Areva and the Finnish energy group TVO.

While Taishan has already postponed its scheduled opening by one year to 2018 after the discovery of too much carbon in the walls of the reactors, officials are still pushing for the plants to go ahead as planned, campaigners said in Hong Kong this week.

Last month, the concrete shells encasing the plant’s two pressure reactors were sealed, according to drone images gathered by Hong Kong's crowd funded investigative news agency FactWire, which means that the EPR units can't be removed or replaced now.

The amount of radioactive nuclear fuel stored at the Taishan plant is three times that of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, campaigner Albert Lai told the agency.

50 million people

Lai fears that some 50 million people would be affected in the event of a large-scale nuclear leak, across a 7,000 square km area.

"There have been so many trust issues, that a lot of people now believe that quality control at this nuclear power plant is below standard," engineer and sustainability campaigner Albert Lai, who convenes the Hong Kong think tank Professional Commons, told RFA on Thursday.

"What's more, the problems are much more serious than we thought they were," he said, citing a scandal over the falsification of parts forged at Areva’s Le Creusot facility that potentially put safety checks at risk.

He said that while majority shareholder China General Nuclear Power is doing everything it can to reassure the public and press ahead with the project, the level of overall transparency is still very low.

"We still haven't heard anything directly from the two independent nuclear safety regulators [in France and China]," Lai said.

"This doesn't really do anything at all to boost public confidence [in Taishan] ... and from the point of view of the general public, we don't see any evidence at all of independent regulation," he said.

China General Nuclear has already posponed the opening of Taishan Unit 1 and Taishan Unit 2 to the first and second half of 2017 respectively, but FactWire reported, citing French engineers, that Unit 1 still required a large amount of tests, and the earliest it could start was 2018.

Scott Chiang, chairman of the pan-democratic political party New Macau Association, said many in the former Portuguese enclave are also worried, as the Taishan plant lies just 60 km from their homes.

"There are a lot of technical details here that your average person has no way of grasping," Chiang said. "But from a confidence point of view, Macau has even more riding on this than Hong Kong does, because the threat to us is much more serious."

"The Macau Secretariat for Security assures us that there won't be fallout outside of a 20 km radius from the plant, but Macau is a tourist destination," Chiang said.

"If there was a serious nuclear accident at that sort of distance, even if there was no threat to human life, it would be a disastrous blow to our economy," he said.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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