What we know about safety concerns at a Chinese nuclear power plant

Taishan nuclear power plant, when it was still under construction.
Taishan nuclear power plant, when it was still under construction.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Earlier this week, CNN reported that the French partner of the Taishan nuclear plant in China had reached out to the US government to request safety assistance, warning of an “imminent radiological threat.”

The plant is located in Chixi, a town in China’s southern Guangdong province, home to the megalopolis of Guangzhou, and not far from Hong Kong.

Here’s what we know so far.

Is the Taishan nuclear plant safe?

Despite that warning, there doesn’t appear to be a leak at the plant at present, or a threat to plant personnel, and the US assessment appears to be that this isn’t a “crisis level” safety concern.

Who owns the Taishan plant?

It’s a joint venture between French energy company EDF, largely owned by the French government, and China General Nuclear Power Corporation, a Chinese state-owned energy group, which is the majority owner in the project.

EDF subsidiary Framatome, a nuclear equipment supplier formerly known as Areva NP, designed the two 1,750-megawatt reactors at the plant and continues to maintain them after they entered commercial operation in 2018 and 2019.

It’s one of a number of new nuclear plants built and commissioned in recent years as China tries to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

What safety problem did Framatome report?

According to CNN, Framatome first reached out to the US Department of Energy last month. In safety assistance request in early June it said that there was a buildup of noble—or inert—gases, a byproduct of fission in the reactor, in a part of the cooling system. It’s not clear why Framatome sought help from the US, but the French company reportedly also told the US that China’s nuclear safety regulator raised safety limits around the plant to avoid a shutdown.

In a statement yesterday (June 14) the French company said it was “supporting resolution of a performance issue” at the plant.

In a separate statement the same day, EDF said that it was informed of the build-up of gases in reactor 1 of the plant, and had asked the Chinese joint venture to call a board of directors meeting to study the data and take decisions.

Was there a nuclear leak risk at the Chinese plant?

Probably not.

A gas buildup is “known” issue, EDF has said, related to the degradation of fuel rod housing. It also said the buildup was a “controlled emission” and not a question of contamination. Nevertheless, while it’s not considered a major issue or one likely to lead to a reactor shutdown, it’s not desirable and needs to be addressed.

Nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had “no indication that a radiological event occurred.”

What has China said about Taishan?

Not long after the CNN report, China General Nuclear Power, the majority owner of the Taishan nuclear plant, issued a statement, saying that according to “continuous monitoring of environmental data,” the indicators related to the plant and its surroundings are normal. It didn’t, however, disclose the specific indicators it was referring to.

It also said reactor 1 had entered its second fuel cycle and is currently operating at full capacity. The second reactor, meanwhile, has been overhauled, and was connected to the grid on June 10. The overhaul was the first since that unit was put into use in 2019, and construction had met deadlines, and safety, and quality standards, the company said.

Earlier this year, on April 5, China’s Nuclear Safety Administration issued a statement that said a “level 0 operational event” had occurred at reactor 1 of the Taishan plant. Based on international standards, level 0 means the event does not have safety significance. The regulator said there was a short-term release of a very small amount of noble gas during a special operation, but the incident was resolved in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, online news portal Guancha, influential among Chinese nationalists, published a story that accused CNN of spreading “rumors” and exaggerating the severity of the issue. The story has been republished by several popular Chinese news portals such as Sina Finance, and has stirred discussions on Weibo, where users say CNN is pushing negative news about China intentionally due to China-US tensions.

Local and central Chinese government authorities have yet to issue statements on the matter.

While there may not be an imminent threat to public safety, it’s important to remember the backdrop in which this concern—and China’s reaction to it—is unfolding. Silence from the top authorities alongside dismissal of the report of a possible problem as a rumor could well evoke memories of early 2020, when Chinese doctors trying to share information of the coronavirus were targeted by Wuhan police for spreading rumors.