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US assesses Chinese nuclear plant after reports of leak, China says no radiation release or environmental concern

17 June 2021

The US government has been assessing reports of a leak at the Taishan nuclear power plant in China after a French company that helped design the plant’s reactor warned of an "imminent radiological threat". The company, which is also involved in the plant’s operations, also accused the Chinese safety authority of raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the plant in order to avoid having to shut it down.

Taishan nuclear power plant - Image: EDF
Taishan nuclear power plant - Image: EDF

CNN reported on June 14 that it had obtained a letter sent from the French company Framatome, an EDF business which helped design the Taishan plant’s reactor and continues to be involved in operations, to the US Department of Energy which included the warning and accusation. The Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province is a joint venture between EDF and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN).

The letter was in relation to an operational safety assistance request to the US Department of Energy which was formally asking for a waiver that would allow them to address an urgent safety matter. The memo warned that the nuclear reactor is leaking fission gas. CNN reports that despite the alarming letter from Framatome, the Biden administration decided the situation was not severe and that there was no immediate threat to workers at the plant or the wider Chinese public. However, the US was concerned enough to hold several National Security Council meetings and continued to monitor the situation.

According to CNN, Framatome reached out to the US in order to obtain the waiver that would allow them to share technical assistance in order to fix issues at the Taishan plant. The memo said a Chinese government agency was increasing radiation detection limits to prevent the facility from having to shut down. The limits were increased to exceed French standards, although it is unclear how those compare with US limits.

Framatome told the Department of Energy that the Chinese safety authority could keep increasing limits in order to keep the leaking reactor running despite safety concerns. The US discussed the situation with the French government and reached out to the Chinese government, although the extent of the contact is unknown. CNN says that the documents it obtained said that the US could give permission for Framatome to provide technical assistance to help resolve issues at the plant, although it would ultimately be the Chinese government’s decision whether the incident requires the plant to be shut down.

Following CNN’s reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that radiation levels in the surrounding area of the Taishan plant were not abnormal and guaranteed the safety of the local population. Lijian made the statement on June 15 and said that the current situation of the plant “meets the requirements for the technical specifications,” adding that China has yet to have any nuclear incidents affecting the environment or public health.

On June 16, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) had provided an update about issues at the Taishan nuclear power plant. CAEA said the plant is in normal condition and that operational safety is guaranteed. Unit 1 of the plant recently experienced a minor fuel rod cladding failure, which resulted in increased radioactivity in the unit’s primary reactor coolant, it said. CAEA said that this situation, as a common phenomenon in operations at the plant, is dealt with in accordance with accepted standards and procedures.

According to on-site monitoring and an expert assessment, the unit’s performance indicators, including the radioactivity of the primary reactor coolant, remain within the range of normal conditions and technical specifications, CAEA said. It also said the reactor unit’s coolant system pressure boundary is intact and that containment integrity is maintained. Continuous environmental radiation monitoring confirms that there has been no radiation release and that there is no environmental concern, CAEA said. The IAEA remains in contact with CAEA.

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