China Nuclear Power Plant Incidents Highlight 'Systemic' Safety Concerns

china-taishan-nuclear-sept-2012.jpg A containment structure is shown under construction at the Taishan nuclear power plant in a file photo.

A string of mishaps at Chinese nuclear power plants last year has raised concerns about the safety of the rapidly growing industry, especially given the country's overall industrial safety record, experts told RFA.

By 2020, China will be the second-biggest producer of nuclear power after France, with 35 generators currently in operation and 21 more in the pipeline.

But last October, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (CNNSA) made public 16 safety failures that occurred in China's nuclear plants in 2016, all involving mistakes made by staff members, official media reported.

A total of 16 errors and incidents took place at eight nuclear power stations, including Ningde, Yangjiang, Fangchenggang, and Tianwanhe, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.

Six incidents involved staff members breaching operational guidelines, and four were caused by a lack of internal communication, it said.

More worryingly, six were caused by staff members "pressing the wrong buttons," the report said.

While none of the errors is believed to have resulted in leakage of radioactive material, nor posed any threat to the public, the report comes against the backdrop of a litany of industrial accidents and public health and safety disasters in recent years.

Links to political culture

Experts say China's poor public safety record has roots that are system-wide and closely linked to the country's political culture, meaning that a more serious accident could happen in future.

In a commentary published in Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily on Nov. 14, Beijing University nuclear expert Wang Jing said that part of the problem stems from the fact that officials in the nuclear safety inspection department are lower in rank than the officials in the state-owned nuclear enterprises whom they are supposed to be inspecting.

Former nuclear power plant engineer Liang Taiping said the relatively high incidence of man-made incidents in China's nuclear industry is a product of the political system.

"The system that operates in China at the moment ... has created a whole layer of trained technical staff who are under huge amounts of pressure," Liang said.

"[This means that] not many people want to train in the technical professions; they all want to be party officials, so accidents and malfunctions are more likely," he said.

"Also, the people who really get the work done are paid much less than the officials and managers who don't get things done," Liang said.

"I worked in that industry for seven years, and the front-line technicians worked incredibly hard, and they're very dissatisfied," he said.

Liang said China is only now beginning to emerge from a culture of absolute secrecy around its nuclear power industry.

"All nuclear industry enterprises were designated secret ... and so nobody would dare to speak freely or publicly about anything," Liang said.

"Nuclear power plants have a very high security clearance, and they have to go through a high-level vetting procedure annually," he said.

Transparency concerns

Jiang Ming, who has previous experience of China's nuclear industry, agreed that transparency is also an issue, as China has traditionally treated any information about its nuclear power stations as highly confidential.

"This sort of operation generally takes place behind closed doors, as far as the rest of the world is concerned," Jiang told RFA in a recent interview.

"The only reason the National Nuclear Safety Administration has published these figures is international pressure operating behind the scenes," Jiang said.

"And it's not just nuclear power plants; look at the [2015] Tianjin explosion, what a huge cover-up had gone on there."

"Most people who understand safety and risk management would have known about this, but was it ever made public? That's just the way the system works."

Jiang said managers and local leaders are likely to turn a blind eye when corners are cut, as long as the bottom line looks good.

"If they do take responsibility and start dealing with the issues, they just run into even bigger networks of vested interests," he said.

China has formal risk assessment and safety procedures to cover every possible incident or accident, he said.

But he said that the overall attitude to health and safety seems to be that such procedures are just for show; and that such laxity is commonplace across the entire workforce.

"These risk assessments and contingency plans are formed according to unified guidelines issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency," Jiang said.

"But I have been in Chinese companies where they are just things ... that you stick on the wall."

Offshore floating plant

The concerns come as China began building an offshore floating nuclear power plant destined for disputed waters in the South China Sea.

China has officially begun construction of its first offshore nuclear power plant, a demonstration project that will employ a homegrown small modular reactor, according to the industry website Power.

State-run China General Nuclear Power announced the project at a Nov. 4 news conference, calling it a "top priority" for the company.

The plant is an integral part of China's "strong marine power strategy," and will power oilfield exploration operations in the Bohai Sea, as well as deep-water oil and gas development in the South China Sea, it said.

"An offshore small modular reactor adopting a decentralized energy system could be a good solution for providing a steady supply of energy on islands, in coastal or far offshore areas," the company said in a statement.

Floating reactors will power offshore oil and gas drilling, as well as "island development," as well as providing electricity for desalination plants, the English-language state-run China Daily reported.

Reported by Wong Siu-san for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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