Concerns Over Taishan Nuclear Plant Highlight Official Secrecy

A radioactive gas leak at a nuclear power plant in southern China has been described by experts as a mundane issue with the cladding on fuel rods in one of the plant’s reactors. The episode has nevertheless highlighted the Chinese government’s culture of opacity, which can help fuel fears of a crisis even where none exists. At CNN, Zachary Cohen broke the news about troublesome reactor in the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, which only came to light after the leak of a letter sent to the United States Department of Energy by the French company that partly owns and operates the nuclear plant:

The warning included an accusation that the Chinese safety authority was raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province in order to avoid having to shut it down, according to a letter from the French company to the US Department of Energy obtained by CNN.

[…] While US officials have deemed the situation does not currently pose a severe safety threat to workers at the plant or Chinese public, it is unusual that a foreign company would unilaterally reach out to the American government for help when its Chinese state-owned partner is yet to acknowledge a problem exists. The scenario could put the US in a complicated situation should the leak continue or become more severe without being fixed.

[…] [The June 8 memo] notes that this limit was established at a level consistent with what is dictated by the French safety authority, but “due to the increasing number of failures,” China’s safety authority, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) has since revised the limit to more than double the initial release, “which in turn increases off-site risk to the public and on-site workers.” [Source]

At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher reported on the likely cause of the elevated radiation levels—xenon gas venting, in which gas contaminated by damaged fuel rods is released into the atmosphere:

Patrick H. Regan, a nuclear scientist at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory and at the University of Surrey, said the difficulty described by EDF appeared to be a leak of gases from one or more fuel rods into the water and steam that surround the rods in the heart of a reactor. The most likely gas to have been detected is a radioactive isotope of xenon, he said.

[…] Michael Friedlander, a former operator at three nuclear power plants in the United States, said many nuclear utilities around the world used to keep operating with leaking fuel rods and occasional venting of xenon gases. But that ended in the West in the 1990s as utilities sought to minimize even trace releases of radiation, partly to protect their own workers.

“The global best practice is to shut down and change out the leaking fuel rods as soon as practical,” he said. “This normally would occur way, way, way before you approach a regulatory limit.” [Source]

Although the leak is seemingly innocuous—one nuclear scientist said the CNN report was “making a mountain out of a molehill”—the opacity around the leak at the nuclear plant may itself be cause for concern. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment denied raising limits on permissible radiation around the plant and categorically rejected the existence of a leak: “Environmental monitoring in the vicinity of the Taishan plant found no abnormal parameters … showing no leak has occurred at all.” The Chinese government’s opacity was at least partially responsible for the attention the leak garnered in international media, according to Zhao Tong, a nuclear policy specialist based in Beijing: “If details of this incident at the Taishan plant had come directly from the Chinese government… rather than from the French company and later picked up by the Western media, it would have been easier to avoid unnecessary overestimation of the severity of the incident.” At Bloomberg, Dan Murtaugh similarly wrote that the Chinese plant’s opaque decision making process was more concerning than the elevated radiation levels:

“It raises questions about the information culture, about procedures and about the interface between Chinese and foreign governments, experts and industries in making decisions in the wake of findings like this,” said Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program.

[…] Also complicating the issue is that CGN is among 59 Chinese companies blacklisted by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration for purported ties to Chinese military or surveillance industries. EDF said its Framatome subsidiary had reached out and shared information with U.S. authorities because some of its nuclear fuel experts are in the U.S.

Information flow between the firms may also be hampered as a result of their competition in some regions. While CGN is a partner with EDF, the world’s largest operator of nuclear power stations, in projects like the U.K.’s Hinkley Point C, it’s increasingly also a rival. CGN and China National Nuclear Corp. are marketing the Chinese-designed Hualong One reactor and just completed the first overseas unit in Pakistan. [Source]

After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, Chinese policy makers temporarily abandoned plans published in 2010 to build over 100 nuclear power plants by 2030. Today, China has 49 nuclear reactors in operation, with 17 more under construction. This is a far cry from the heady ambitions of 2010—particularly as one plant can host many reactors—but nevertheless makes China the world’s third largest nuclear energy power behind the United States and France. Moreover, the building spree is only beginning. During the National People’s Congress this spring, China put forward plans to build approximately 20 new reactors by 2025. Lauri Myllyvirta, a leading expert on Chinese energy policy, told Bloomberg News that the plan is: “a surprisingly ambitious target given that there is much less capacity under construction currently than is needed … It can be read as a high level signal to speed up the initiation of new projects.”

Yet the Fukushima disaster still looms over Chinese policy. The Chinese government was infuriated with Japan after the latter approved a plan to release treated water, contaminated in the Fukushima meltdown, into the Pacific starting in two years. Zhao Lijian, the bombastic spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said, “The ocean is not Japan’s trash can,” and asked Japan’s deputy prime minister to drink the water himself after the minister claimed it was potable. At The Wall Street Journal, Chuin-Wei Yap reported on the changes the Fukushima disaster engendered in Chinese nuclear policy:

[…] “China has shown unprecedented eagerness to achieve the world’s best standards in nuclear safety,” the London-based World Nuclear Association said in a June report, pointing to Beijing hosting operational safety review missions from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and forming information exchange networks with neighboring nations.

Beijing slowed its approval process to review safety standards in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster. In a bid to improve the transparency of nuclear regulation, Chinese authorities conducted a rare invitation of public comment on its nuclear-safety plan, setting goals tailored to international standards to ensure no serious incident at its reactors.

[…] At some 154 nanograys per hour, a measure of gamma radiation, the level reported by China’s nuclear-safety association on Monday still is a tiny fraction of readings above 10,000 nGy/h around the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. [Source]


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