A report of a possible radiological leak from China’s Taishan nuclear reactor, first reported by CNN, is raising questions about safety and transparency of information flow between China and its French partners in the nuclear plant located in Guangdong province against a backdrop of electricity shortages in China’s most important provincial economy.
China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and the Nuclear Safety Administration said in a June 16 statement that the level of radiation inside the reactor was increasing due to 5 damaged fuel rods. With more than 60,000 fuel rods in the core unit, the damaged rods comprise “less than 0.01 percent,” of the rods and that “many nuclear power plants in the world have experienced fuel rod damage and continue operation.”
The statement denied the earlier CNN report suggesting that the National Nuclear Safety Administration approved an increase in the acceptable limit of radiation levels outside the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant. The National Nuclear Safety Administration reviewed and approved the relevant limits “for the specific activity of the noble gas of the reactor coolant in the technical specifications of the primary circuit chemistry and radiochemistry of the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant. This limit is used for operation management and has nothing to do with the external radiation detection of the nuclear power plant,” the Ministry clarified.
The Ministry’s statement stressed, “The increase in the level of radioactivity in the primary circuit is completely different from a radiological leakage accident. The primary circuit is inside the reactor containment. As long as the pressure boundary of the reactor coolant system as a radioactive containment barrier and the containment tightness meet the requirements, there is no problem of radioactivity leaking to the environment, and the two physical barriers are safe.”
Still, concerns remain around CNN’s report that Framatome, a nuclear reactor specialist firm which designed and built the Taishan plant, and whose primary shareholder is Électricité de France SA, (EDF), reportedly reached out to the United States Department of Energy for help, citing “an imminent radiological threat,” from a buildup of inert gasses in one of the reactor’s primary circuits, part of the reactor’s cooling system.
As part of the outreach, Framatome reportedly requested the U.S. provide a waiver for U.S. companies to be able to work with China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), the plant’s majority owner, which the U.S. Department of Commerce placed on its Entity List in August of 2019. The Entity List is a list of companies that U.S. companies are forbidden to do business with.
Framatome issued a press release on June 14 stating its support for “a resolution of performance issues with the Taishan plant,” but that “according to the data available, the plant is operating within safety parameters” and that “our team is working with relevant experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to address any potential issue.”
Électricité de France SA, (EDF), the French power company that owns 30% of the Chinese Taishan nuclear reactor through a joint venture, TNPJVC, on June 14 released a statement on its website saying it had requested an “extraordinary” meeting of the board of directors to deal with an “increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit” of Taishan’s reactor number one. The major shareholder in the TNPJVC joint venture is China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN).
Construction on Taishan Unit 1 began in 2009 and it was connected to the grid in 2018. Its installed capacity is 1.6 gigawatts, enough to power 4 million homes. Framatome, on its website, boasts a 30-plus year history of partnership with China on its national nuclear buildout, including the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant which supplies power to Hong Kong, and the assembly and installation of the tokamak machine (TAC1) at the heart of China’s participation in the ITER nuclear fusion project (the world’s largest nuclear fusion project). It is also supplying equipment and technological bricks and fuel for the Hua Long project. Hua Long reactors are part of China’s plan to go global by exporting nuclear technology to countries like Pakistan and Argentina.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a press briefing on June 15 that China maintains close cooperation with its foreign counterparts with regard to nuclear safety and that the Taishan nuclear power plant “performs to the requirements of the technical specifications with normal level of environmental radiation in the surrounding areas of the nuclear power plant.”
The Taishan reactor was the first EPR reactor, a so-called “third-generation” reactor design meant to improve safety, fuel technology and thermal efficiency. (Fourth generation reactor design is still a work in progress.) The safety features of the EPR reactor should bring the reactor to a safe shutdown in case of overheating, and rely on passive systems rather than human intervention to prevent meltdowns.
CNN’s report cited a memo from Framatome to the U.S. Department of Energy that stated China’s National Nuclear Security Administration was increasing its limits on the amount of gas that could be safely released into the atmosphere from the facility (a point that was refuted by the MEE).
Venting gases is a potential alternative to completely shutting the reactor down to replace faulty parts if the radioactive gas levels get too high, and one that some speculate Guangdong province may favor, given the importance of the output of the Taishan plant in the face of ongoing power shortages and power rationing due to a severe drought that is limiting hydropower availability. Neither the Hong Kong Observatory nor Macau (which is about 40 miles away) have reported abnormal radiation.
Guangdong province includes Shenzhen and other cities that together comprise a sprawling supply chain for everything from cars to consumer electronics and more, earning it the nickname “the workshop of the world.” Its GDP is the largest of China’s provinces, surpassing those of Canada and South Korea, at $1.7 trillion in 2020.
Nuclear power plants supply huge and steady amounts of zero-emission baseload power to electricity grids, and the Taishan plant, located in coastal Guangdong about 80 miles southwest of Hong Kong, is one of the world’s largest.
Guangdong had plans to have 26 nuclear reactors, in a megaproject overseen by CGN. This dovetails nicely with China’s overall plan to peak carbon emissions in 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. At the end of 2020, Chinese nuclear capacity reached 51 gigawatts, supplying about 2% of its power, and the draft of the 14th 5-Year Plan calls for 70 gigawatts of generation before 2025. China’s nuclear buildout is currently the most ambitious in the world. Luo Qi, a member of China’s Atomic Energy Research Initiative was quoted as saying: “By 2035, nuclear plants in operation should reach around 180GW, amounting to 5% of total capacity.”
Given the tense relations between the U.S. and China, the fact that Framatome, a firm with such a strong nuclear pedigree reached out to the U.S. implies to some, a very serious situation in need of international collaboration and expertise. It is unlikely the Chinese government would wish to openly ask the U.S. for help.
The situation raises questions about whether the province of Guangdong will put safety first in dealing with the issues at the Taishan plant. This is clearly an instance where Chinese information transparency is essential, both to build trust and, in a worst-case scenario, to mitigate a dangerous situation at a nuclear plant. In its statement the Chinese MEE said it will “maintain communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the French nuclear safety regulatory authority.”