The Chinese government’s handling of the crisis has come under renewed scrutiny after the Taishan nuclear power plant in China’s Guangdong province was exposed by CNN on Monday as an “imminent radiological threat”.
CNN reported exclusively on June 13 that an inert gas leak occurred at the Taishan nuclear power plant, a joint venture between Chinese state-owned China Guangdong Nuclear Corporation (CGN) and Framatome, a subsidiary of French power giant Electricité de France (EDF). The French investor submitted a technical request for assistance report to the U.S. Department of Energy, which the U.S. government has been evaluating for the past week, stating that there is a possibility of an “immediate radiological threat” at the plant. More alarmingly, according to a letter from the French company to the U.S. Department of Energy obtained by CNN, the French warning also included accusations that China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration had raised the acceptable limits for radiation monitoring outside the Taishan plant, thus preventing it from being forced to shut down.
The Chinese side initially denied
The news sparked widespread interest in public opinion at home and abroad. But both the Taishan nuclear power plant, a party to the incident, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry were the first to deny that problems had occurred with the plant’s operation. In a press release issued in response to CNN’s report on the matter, Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co., Ltd. said that continuous monitoring of environmental data showed that the Taishan nuclear power plant was operating within safety parameters and that environmental indicators for the plant and its surroundings were normal. The press release also said that all operating indicators of the two units of the nuclear power plant meet the requirements of nuclear safety regulations and technical specifications of the plant.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference on June 15 that “the relevant conditions of the Taishan nuclear power plant currently meet the requirements of the technical specifications, and the level of the radiation environment around the plant has not seen any abnormalities, and safety is guaranteed.”
However, in a response to Voice of America on June 15 evening EDT about the status of the Taishan nuclear power plant, Famatron admitted that there were “performance problems” at the plant. In a written response sent to VOA, Famatron said, “We are supporting the resolution of a performance issue at the Taishan nuclear power plant in China’s Guangdong province. Based on available data, the plant is operating within safety parameters. Our team is continuing to work with experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to any potential problems.”
Famatron’s parent company, Electricité de France, also acknowledged on June 14 that there was a problem with Unit 1 of the Taishan nuclear plant. The company’s statement said EDF had been informed of the increased concentration of certain noble gases in the main circuit of reactor 1 at the Taishan nuclear power plant, and that the presence of certain noble gases in the main circuit is a known phenomenon that has been studied and specified in the reactor’s operating procedures.
“The failure is not a safety issue.”
Chinese officials acknowledged for the first time until June 16 Beijing time that a fuel rod breakage failure did occur at Unit 1 of the Taishan nuclear power plant, but denied that a radiation leak had occurred. In a statement released by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment on its official website and official WeChat account, the person in charge answered reporters’ questions about CNN’s report on the Taishan nuclear plant, saying, “The increased radioactivity level in Unit 1’s first circuit is mainly related to fuel rod breakage …… which is a common phenomenon …… There are more than 60,000 fuel rods in the core of Unit 1 of the Taishan nuclear power plant, and the number of broken fuel rod cladding is currently projected to be about five, with the proportion of broken fuel rods to the total being less than 0.01%, far below the maximum percentage of broken fuel assemblies assumed in the design (0.25%).”
Dr. Jonathan Cobb, senior public relations manager for the London-based World Nuclear Association (WNA), broadly supported the Chinese official account in an email interview with Voice of America about the status of operations at the Taishan plant. If the number of ‘leakers’ is low, the plant will continue to operate until the next planned replenishment of fuel rods,” he said in the e-mail. In the case of the Taishan EPR (European Pressurized Water Reactor), of the more than 60,000 fuel rods, an estimated five were damaged, well within the normal range.” Cobb said the problem at the Taishan plant was an operational issue, not a safety issue.
Lack of confidence in China’s information disclosure
Scott Harold, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank, argues that the Chinese system’s overemphasis on controlling information and narratives makes it difficult for outsiders to build trust in China.
I think the real challenge for China is to get [the outside world] to trust China’s handling of the event, or even its account of the event,” he told Voice of America. Maybe nothing happened. But unfortunately, the Chinese system places a lot of emphasis on controlling information and controlling the narrative, and there’s no independent voice, which really weakens the ability to determine what happened.”
Hecott said China has had many accidents, but the authorities have been highly opaque in their handling of accidents or crises, from the collapsed school buildings in the Wenchuan earthquake to the recent traceability of the New Coronavirus, which has left outsiders with a lack of confidence in the Chinese government.
China has unfortunately suffered a lot of industrial accidents and train derailments,” he said. The most recent problem is that there is a real lack of confidence that China will allow the WHO to visit Wuhan and release all the details of the new coronavirus outbreak.”
On the question of whether nuclear plants should be shut down to deal with fuel rod leaks, the New York Times quoted Michael Friedlander, a former operator who worked at three U.S. nuclear plants, as reporting that while nuclear plants in many other parts of the world had continued to operate with fuel rods leaking inert gas, Western countries had in the 1990s The reason for stopping the practice is that energy companies try to minimize the trace release of radiation.
According to CNN, Famatron contacted the U.S. Department of Energy as early as late May to report potential problems at the Taishan nuclear plant. The French side informed the U.S. again in June that the reactor was leaking inert gas caused by fission, and formally requested that the U.S. side agree to Farmatron sharing U.S. technology with the Chinese side for responding to accidents and safety emergencies. The main reason for this is that CGNPC, the Chinese partner of Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co. Ltd. that operates the Taishan nuclear power plant, is listed on the U.S. entity list.
According to RAND’s Heckert, the failure at the Taishan nuclear plant could deal a blow to China’s ambitions to export its nuclear power technology abroad. “I think the bigger impact conceivably is on places outside of China,” he said, “where China is looking to export its own nuclear technology or participate in nuclear energy (projects) development overseas.”