Nuclear power: Tensions between EDF and China after the Taishan incident

Located in Chixi Town, Taishan City, Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province, China, the Taishan nuclear power plant has a planned installed capacity of four 1.75 million-kilowatt-class pressurized water reactor nuclear units, to be built in two phases, and is a large nuclear power plant in cooperation with France and China. Recently, the radiation suspicion of Taishan No.1 has aroused great concern worldwide. An investigative article on the French website “Figaro” revealed that China, which operates the world’s only two operating pressurized water reactor (PWR) nuclear power plants, did not follow the advice of its French partner.

According to Wiki, the first phase of the Taishan nuclear power plant, which is building two European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) nuclear units with a single capacity of 1,750 MW, was established as a joint investment by China Guanghuang Nuclear Corporation and EDF to build and operate. The Taishan nuclear power plant is owned by the Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co., Ltd. joint venture, with CGNPC accounting for 70% and EDF for 30%, with technical support for the pressurized water reactor provided by the latter’s company, Framatome.

Expert: “The Chinese are not very respectful of Framatome’s proposal”

“According to an investigative article in Figaro, the latest news about the Taishan nuclear power plant is that five fuel rods leaked radioactive noble gas from the center of the Taishan-1 reactor. The incident itself should not have caused a serious nuclear accident. However, both EDF and its subsidiary Famatron, which produces the fuel rods, have expressed concern about the problem. Their Chinese partner, CGN, has not heeded their advice to fix the problem and has scoffed at their requests for information.

In fact if CNN had not mentioned the incident in alarmist fashion on Monday, June 14, it might have remained confined to the small Sino-French nuclear industry. cited in CNN’s report that day was a document submitted by Famatron to the US authorities on June 3, referring to a problem at the Taishan nuclear plant, a new proof of US extraterritoriality: French companies must get Biden’s administration to authorize its U.S. experts to work on nuclear plants in China – especially since CGNPC is on the U.S. blacklist of Chinese companies. The leaked news damaged the image of France’s pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant (EPR).

A week after Famatron was forced to contact Washington, on Thursday, June 10, EDF decided to inform the French authorities. Although the situation was judged to be of low risk from a safety point of view, an administration insider stressed that “this is a diplomatic, industrial and environmental issue”. In particular, rumors then began to circulate that CNN was investigating the issue. Two days later, EDF received new data from Taishan. These data are protected by confidentiality clauses. However, according to Figaro, the radioactivity in the primary circuit is between 250 and 300 gigabecquerels per ton of water. This is just below Tarzan’s regulatory threshold of 324 gigabecquerels. Since last December, the operator, Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Company Limited (TNPJVC), has been subject to an upward revision of the threshold following consultations with the Chinese authorities, which is an industrial secret. And the latter did notice fuel rod leaks as of October. China admits to the problem of broken nuclear fuel rods but denies that nuclear radiation is leaking.

On June 12, EDF requested an extraordinary meeting of the board of directors of its Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co. with CGN to assess the situation, a source close to EDF said, “which means EDF does not have all the information, which raises questions about the Chinese side’s transparency” . But the Chinese side has still not answered the French request after nearly a week, showing its disdain for the French request.

Another source close to the case revealed that “the Chinese are not very respectful of Famatron’s advice” and that “normally, in the rare event of a gas leak in the primary circuit, the reactor would be stopped or its power reduced.” In the event of radioactivity levels observed at Taishan, a French reactor would be shut down within 48 hours. It is not that the danger is imminent, but rather that the problem needs to be accurately identified, which can only be done by removing the fuel from the vessel. Moreover, although the experts at Famatron are not overly concerned about the situation, the rate of rod leakage at Taishan-1 is five times higher than usual, with a rate of 80 per million instead of 15 per million. The Chinese are doing what we did in the 1980s and 1990s and continuing to keep the reactor running,” said one industry source. On the Chinese side, nuclear safety authorities have assured that the five broken fuel rods in the cladding are not threatening the normal operation of the plant.”

“Figaro notes that it is not so much the gravity of the situation as the Chinese attitude that worries the French. “The incident actually caused an uproar within EDF,” admitted a source within the company. In addition to not following French advice, Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Ltd. “does not follow the rules of transparency,” explains another source, adding that “there are concerns about the quality of the information and the analysis that can be done on it.”

Eroded trust

The Taishan incident only reveals the deteriorating level of confidence between the two sides. “The deterioration in the relationship between France and its Chinese partners is worrying,” says a former nuclear industry chief. For example, the systematic exchange of data related to operational accidents has stopped. The databases built up over decades of cooperation are invaluable to both sides, as older Chinese reactors were designed on the model of France’s Gravelines nuclear plant. Meanwhile, construction of EDF’s project with CGNPC, a pair of pressurized water reactor nuclear generators at Hinkley Point in the UK (Hinkley Point C nuclear power station), is experiencing delays and cost overruns, and the situation is now tricky. A number of issues related to governance and budget votes have created tensions between the two companies.

The increasingly tense geopolitical environment between China and the West will not help the situation to ease. Theoretically, EDF should also build two Hualong-1 reactors with Chinese nuclear technology at Bradwell, also in the United Kingdom. For the Chinese, this is a key project to be recognized in the West. But in late April, the British government warned that “the future of the project is far from assured. Chinese official media had reported that China’s independent third-generation nuclear power technology, Hualong-1, would be built at the Bradwell B project (BRB project) after passing the UK’s universal design review, the first time China’s independent nuclear power technology has landed in a developed Western country. The report highlights that the BRB project is China’s largest investment in the UK and Europe, and has been hailed as “the flagship project that launched the golden era of Sino-British cooperation.

In this context, the Taishan nuclear plant may continue to stir up disputes. The analysis of this incident, and the resulting sharing of responsibilities from Famatron to the Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture, could create new friction between the two sides and further strain relations. So far, EDF experts have not ruled out any hypothesis about the cause of the rod leak: it could have been a problem during manufacturing or a shock during transport that caused damage, nor can they rule out mechanical or chemical problems related to reactor operation, such as components in the primary circuit being forgotten or the reactor restarting too quickly. Some are even concerned about design flaws in the pressurized water reactor.

The article concludes by noting that the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) opened a dialogue with its Chinese counterparts last Wednesday (June 16) via video conference to discuss the incident. Julien Collet, deputy director of the French Nuclear Safety Authority, concluded: “As part of the investigation of the nuclear power machine file of the Flamanville pressurized water reactor (in France), we are interested in this because we do not know whether the problem with the fuel rods comes from the fuel, the design of the reactor or the way it is operated. Even with the in-depth study in France, the feedback from Taishan was very useful to us.”