Issues at China Nuclear Plant Point to Long-Term Concerns: Experts

China is applying its own safety protocols to imported nuclear technology despite safety concerns from the manufacturer, according to a Hong Kong-based engineer.
2021-06-16
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Issues at China Nuclear Plant Point to Long-Term Concerns: Experts Workers wait for then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to arrive at the joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station outside the city of Taishan in Guangdong province, Dec. 8, 2013.
Photo: RFA

Reports of a potential radioactive leak at a French-built nuclear reactor at Taishan in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong point to longer-term safety concerns, but aren't a cause for immediate alarm, experts told RFA.

The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, operated by China General Nuclear (CGN) and joint-venture partner Framatome, controlled by EDF, has moved to reassure the public after CNN reported on Monday that the U.S. government had spent the past week assessing a report of a leak at the plant.

Framatome and EDF are working with experts to propose solutions to "any potential issue" after a build-up of noble, or inert, gases inside one of the reactors, but said the plant is operating within safety parameters.

EDF said the build-up of noble gases had affected the primary circuit of Unit 1 of the Taishan plant, was a "known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures."

Li Min, dean of the Institute of Atomic Sciences at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University, said the leakage of inert gases from nuclear power plants suggests defective fuel rod sheaths.

"I don't think there is any need to panic at all," Li told RFA. "There is really no need to panic because the amounts of inert gas that leak [in this situation] is always very small."

"It really isn't that serious," he said.

But he said it was possible that Framatome had written to the U.S. Department of Energy about the issue, as reported by CNN on Monday, because it would need U.S. approval for the use of certain technologies to locate any defective fuel rods.

Safety protocol concerns

The U.S. Department of Commerce included four CGN-affiliated companies on a list of companies suspected of intending to obtain U.S. advanced nuclear technology and apply it for military use in China.

The move meant that no nuclear power industry technology bought from the U.S. can be transferred to CGN without a special exemption.

Engineer Albert Lai, who runs campaign group the Hong Kong Professional Commons, and who has followed technical developments since construction began on the Taishan plant in 2009, also said the available information suggests that there isn't a major crisis brewing at the plant.

"Theoretically, [the inert gases] won't leak out into the atmosphere, but if this issue isn't properly handled, then an accumulation of gas could lead to bigger technical problems in future," Lai said.

He said there are long-running concerns over homegrown safety protocols that China is using at the U.S.$8.3 billion Taishan plant, which is the first in the world to use European pressurized reactors (EPR) designed by French nuclear firm Areva, and which has been plagued by delays and technical problems.

In April 2016, tests in France found that excessive carbon in the steel that formed the EPR reactor’s top and bottom could lead to unexpected cracks that could later spread, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper reported at the time.

The plant’s two advanced 1.75GW pressurized water reactors are the largest single-piece electric generators in the world, and have a strong safety reputation, it said.

But France's nuclear safety authority, the ASN, raised concerns over the EPR reactors destined for the Taishan plant, saying the reactors hadn't been subjected to the most rigorous form of testing. It said some mechanical properties can be measured only by destructive tests, which had not been carried out on the Taishan reactors.

Problems with the design of the reactors were also cited by Areva's parent company, energy giant Electricite de France (EDF) in a recommendation to the U.K. parliament that it postpone the Chinese-invested Hinkley Point nuclear plant, which will also use EPR technology.

'Lower standards'

Lai said China had used the French technology despite safety concerns.

"France gives them this technology, but they don't apply its safety standards, but instead apply a different set of lower standards," Lai said. "If this situation continues, then who knows when the next problem could occur."

He said CGN could choose to delay replacing the rods to save the huge costs involved in doing so, and that the Chinese nuclear safety agency was unlikely to have the clout to insist.

Gamma radiation levels in Hong Kong, 135 kilometers (85 miles) from the plant were within normal range on Wednesday, data displayed on the Hong Kong Observatory website showed.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters on Tuesday that the city authorities are closely following developments, but that that "relevant data" in Hong Kong are currently in the normal range.

The meteorological bureau in neighboring Macau also reported gamma radiation levels within normal range.

Macau police cited the Guangdong Nuclear Emergency Committee as saying that all environmental indicators in the vicinity of Taishan were also normal.

Reported by Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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