The United States government is assessing reports of a leak at a Chinese nuclear power plant, after warnings of an “imminent radiological threat” by a French company that helps operate it, CNN reported on Monday.
Framatome, the French construction engineering company, sent a letter to the US Department of Energy warning that the Chinese safety authority was raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan Nuclear Power
Plant in the Chinese Guangdong province in order to avoid needing to shut it down, according to the report.
The letter warned that the nuclear reactor is leaking fission gas, adding that the Chinese safety authority has raised regulator “off-site dose limits.”
EDF said the build-up of noble gases, which it said had affected the primary circuit of reactor no 1 of the Taishan plant, was a “known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures.”
EDF said it had called an extraordinary meeting of Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co.’s (TNPJVC) board of directors “to present all the data and the necessary decisions.” TNPJVC is 70% owned by CGN and 30% by EDF.
A source told CNN that the Biden administration believes that the power plant is not yet at a “crisis level.”
The National Security Council (NSC) held multiple meetings in the last week to monitor the situation, according to the report. The US government has discussed the situation with the French government as well as with experts at the US Department of Energy.
The US has also contacted the Chinese government on the matter, but the extent of that contact is unclear, US officials told CNN. If there is any risk to the Chinese public, the US would be required to make it known under current treaties related to nuclear accidents.
Framatome reached out to the US in order to obtain a waiver that would let them share American technical assistance in order to resolve the issue. The waiver can only be granted for two reasons, one of which is an “imminent radiological threat
Cheryl Rofer, a nuclear scientist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001, told CNN that the letter by the French company was “not surprising,” as “this sort of thing is not extraordinary, particularly if they think the country they are contacting has some special ability to help.”
Rofer warned that a gas leak indicated that some of the containment at the plant is broken, which could mean that some of the fuel elements could be broken, which “would be a more serious problem.”
“That would be a reason for shutting down the reactor and would then require the reactor to be refueled,” said Rofer to CNN.
The China General Nuclear Power Group stressed in a statement in response to the report that environmental indicators at the plant and its surroundings are “normal.”
Framatome told CNN that the company “is supporting resolution of a performance issue with the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province, China.” The company did not directly address the letter sent to the US Department of Energy.
This isn’t the first time that concerns surrounding the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant have been raised.
Electricite de France (EDF), the company which owns Framatome, warned in 2016 that design flaws emerged during testing of the European pressurized reactors (EPR) designed by French nuclear firm Areva, which are used at the Taishan plant, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA). The amount of radioactive nuclear fuel stored at Taishan is three times that of the amount that was stored at the Fukushima plant in Japan, according to RFA.
“There have been so many trust issues, that a lot of people now believe that quality control at this nuclear power plant is below standard,” said engineer and sustainability campaigner Albert Lai to RFA in 2016. “What’s more, the problems are much more serious than we thought they were.”
EPRs in other countries suffered from numerous delays due to a slew of defects, including concerns that they could crack during operation.
The EPR at Taishan was the first EPR to enter commercial operation. Just a week before it entered operation, however, China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) identified “six major issues” in the reactor, according to a report by the Hong Kong Free Press in 2018.
A number of other issues were reported with the reactor before it began operation, with the NNSA pointing to 20 areas for improvement at Taishan, including pipelines that required frequent repairs due to welding defects, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.