China says no leak at nuclear plant, no change to detection standards

The higher radioactivity level was caused by damage to a small number of fuel rods, which is usual during production, transportation and loading of the fuel.
The higher radioactivity level was caused by damage to a small number of fuel rods, which is usual during production, transportation and loading of the fuel.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - China said on Wednesday (June 16) that there was no radiation leak at the Taishan nuclear power station and it had not raised acceptable limits for radiation levels around the plant, responding to a CNN report earlier this week.

CNN reported on Monday that Framatome, the French company which designed the plant, had warned that China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration had raised acceptable radiation limits outside the plant in the southeastern province of Guangdong to avoid having to shut it down.

China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment said on Wednesday an increase in radiation levels had been detected in the primary circuit at Taishan’s Unit 1 reactor, but they were within the parameters for safe operations.

The higher radioactivity level was caused by damage to a small number of fuel rods, which is usual during production, transportation and loading of the fuel, the ministry said on its WeChat social media account.

“Environmental monitoring in the vicinity of the Taishan plant found no abnormal parameters...showing no leak has occurred at all,” it said.

About five out of more than 60,000 fuel rods at the Unit 1 reactor were estimated to have been damaged, or less than 0.01 per cent, far below a designed allowance of 0.25 per cent, it said.

It said the National Nuclear Safety Administration had approved radiation limits for noble gases inside the reactor coolant, but this had nothing to do with the detection of radiation outside the plant, adding that “the idea in the CNN report was erroneous”.

The ministry said it will continue to closely monitor radioactivity levels at the Unit 1 reactor and would also maintain communications with the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as France’s nuclear safety watchdog.

The Taishan plant, about 130km west of Hong Kong, is 30 per cent owned by French energy company EDF, with Chinese state-owned CGN holding the majority stake.

In September, China's National Nuclear Safety Administration inspected and gave clearance for the refuelling of Unit 1. Issues with a gas buildup at the reactor were first detected in October, EDF said on Monday.

EDF says it appears that coating on some fuel rods has deteriorated, leading to an increased concentration of some noble gases. China's National Nuclear Safety Administration said in April the plant's Unit 1 had experienced an operational incident that was categorised as minor, and not of safety significance.

Mr Jeff Merrifield, a former US Nuclear Regulatory commissioner, said that during a refuelling, it is possible that a stray item, something as small as a wire filament from a brush, can be left behind in the reactor.

That filament could then get picked up by the water that circulates in the closed loop of the reactor, and rub up against the external coating of uranium fuel rods, potentially releasing radiation and gases. If the concentrations remain low enough, the plant can keep operating safely so long as it monitors radiation carefully to keep workers safe, he said.

"It's not common, but it's something that's happened a sufficient number of times that it's a well-understood phenomenon and relatively easy to manage," Mr Merrifield said.

Nuclear experts said they are hoping for more transparency in the future. They see the carbon-free power source as key to the world's fight against climate change, but have raised concern over public sentiment after a handful of high-profile accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Also complicating the issue is that CGN is among 59 Chinese companies blacklisted by US 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 US authorities because some of its nuclear fuel experts are in the US.

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 Britain's Hinkley Point C - it is 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.

Prospective customers for China's technology are likely watching developments at Taishan, said Mr Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based non-resident senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Programme.

"While it may have no impact on the ground right now, for countries considering importing Chinese technology for nuclear power, this event may raise questions for them about how they would want to manage information disclosure," Mr Hibbs said.