Taishan

The Taishan Nuclear Power Station outside the city of Taishan in Guangdong province. China said radiation levels around the plant are normal, but it has been accused of raising acceptable limits to avoid a shutdown
China said on Tuesday that radiation levels around the Taishan nuclear project in the southeastern province of Guangdong remained normal, following media reports of a leak at one of its reactors.

French utility EDF, one of the project's owners, said on Monday that it was investigating media reports that abnormal levels of radioactive gas had leaked from the plant.

CNN had reported that Framatome, the EDF unit that designed Taishan's reactors, was warning of an "imminent radiological threat" at the project following a build-up of krypton and xenon.

Taishan
© PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images
Workers at the joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station outside the city of Taishan in Guangdong province on December 8, 2013.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, told a news briefing that the plant was fully compliant with all requirements and there were no signs of abnormalities in its vicinity.

"So far China's nuclear power plants have maintained a good operating record, with no incidents affecting the environment and public health," Zhao said.

EDF said on Monday that the problem at the plant could have been caused by fuel rods supplied by Framatome.

"Under normal operating conditions it is true some gases like krypton and xenon will escape and be detected but in this case the concentrations are much higher, so something is happening," said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
Taishan
© PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images
This file photo taken on December 8, 2013 shows the Taishan Nuclear Power Station being built outside the city of Taishan in Guangdong province.
"Once radioactive gas is leaking to the environment it is a serious issue. It could get worse. I think there could be problems with the fuel. It is unusual."

The Taishan project, completed in 2019, consists of two French-designed reactors, and is located around 200 km (124 miles) from Hong Kong.

Earlier, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters that the Hong Kong Observatory and the Water Supplies Department have been monitoring radiation levels and have so far not detected anything abnormal.

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Here is what we know so far:

WHAT HAPPENED AT TAISHAN?

According to CNN, U.S. officials have been investigating the Framatome claims of a leak for the past week.


Comment: So far this is a lot of speculation, mostly coming from the US, known for its attempts to smear China at every turn, and there's not much in the way of evidence.


EDF, which has a minority stake in the plant, said a build-up of krypton and xenon - both inert gases - had affected the primary circuit of Taishan Unit 1, but added that it was a "known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures."


Comment: So, nothing unusual.


Majority owner CGN also said in a statement that operations at the plant met safety rules.

Radiation levels in the vicinity were still normal on Monday, according to real-time data from the China Nuclear Safety Administration (CNSA).

According to CNN, Framatome's warning included an accusation that CNSA was raising acceptable radiation limits outside the Taishan plant to avoid having to shut it down.


Comment: According to CNN? What do nuclear agencies, or other trusted sources, have to say?


The regulator did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in a regular briefing the plant was fully compliant with all requirements and operating normally.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

Nuclear experts have generally played down the risks. CNN cited U.S. officials as saying that the dangers to the public were currently minimal.

Li Ning, a Chinese nuclear scientist based in the United States, told Reuters that CNN was "making a mountain out of a molehill" and that it was unrealistic to expect "zero failure" in the fuel cladding of nuclear projects anywhere in the world.

Li said the media were "often unwilling to put risks into proper perspective," which he said had effectively killed off the nuclear industry in the west.

"Coal fired power plants can emit and discharge more radioactivity than nuclear power plants," Li said.

WHY IS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT INVOLVED?

CGN, China's largest state-owned nuclear company, was placed on a U.S. blacklist in Aug. 2019 for allegedly making efforts to acquire advanced U.S. technology and material for diversion to military uses in China.


Comment: Note that the US sanctions countries all the time and their reasons are more often based on twisted politics than anything else.


That means that Framatome, which has operations in the United States, would need a waiver from the U.S. government to allow it to help CGN fix technological problems, Li said.

China's foreign ministry has said the blacklist is a misuse of export control measures.

WHAT IS TAISHAN'S SAFETY RECORD?

Minor safety issues have been quite frequent at Taishan. In March, inspectors checking a faulty voltmeter in Unit 1 accidentally caused an electrical malfunction that triggered an automatic shutdown, according to CNSA incident records.

In April, a burst of radioactive gas unexpectedly entered a pipe at Unit 1's waste gas treatment system just as workers were trying to seal it, also triggering an alarm, CNSA said.


Comment: How does this compare with other nuclear plants?


WHAT IS AN "EPR"?

Formerly known as a "European Pressurised Reactor," the EPR is a "third-generation" nuclear technology that includes enhanced safety features as well as greater generation capacity.

It was designed by Framatome together with Germany's Siemens. Its third-generation rivals now include Westinghouse's AP1000, Russia's VVER-1200 and China's Hualong One.

In 2006, EDF and fellow French nuclear group Areva lost a bid to build four reactors on China's eastern coast, with China opting for Westinghouse's model after signing a deal to transfer core technology for use in its own projects.

In 2007, EDF agreed to build two EPRs at Taishan, which would be 70%-owned by CGN. Construction got underway in 2010. Originally scheduled to be connected to the grid within four years, the first unit wasn't completed until December 2018.

WHAT NEXT?

EDF did not provide a timeframe for completion of its investigation, nor did U.S. officials, according to the CNN report.

Problems at the Taishan project are unlikely to dent China's nuclear ambitions, but they underscore the challenges facing foreign reactor developers in a market increasingly dominated by domestic players.

China fell short on its 2020 nuclear capacity target. Many complained the sector's expansion was derailed not only by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, but also by the lengthy delays and spiraling costs at foreign-designed projects.

As it steps up the construction of new plants, China is now expected to depend primarily on its own third-generation Hualong One design, but it is also helping to finance the construction of an EPR project at Britain's Hinkley Point.