French nuclear power company Framatome said on Monday it has detected a “performance issue” at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, which it operates in partnership with the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN).
Framatome took the highly unusual step of warning the U.S. government about an “imminent radiological threat” from the plant, located in Guangdong province near Hong Kong.
Framatome and its parent company EDF said on Monday that according to available data, “the plant is operating within safety parameters,” but a troubling “increase in the concentration of certain noble gases” was detected in the primary circuit of the cooling system at one of the plant’s two nuclear reactors.
CGN said on Sunday that both reactors at the plant are “operating according to nuclear safety rules and regulations,” and conditions in the surrounding environment “meet normal parameters.” Both CGN and the Chinese government resisted making any comments about the plant until persistent media inquiries prompted Sunday’s brief statement.
Framatome’s alleged message to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last week was somewhat more alarming than the statements released on Sunday and Monday.
According to left-wing American news agency CNN, which claimed to obtain the documents on Monday, Framatome accused Chinese safety officials of “raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province in order to avoid having to shut it down.”
CNN claimed, failing to cite on-the-record sources, that U.S. officials took the June 8 warning seriously but concluded the situation at the Taishan nuclear plant has not reached “crisis level” and decided to give Framatome, CGN, and Chinese authorities some time to resolve the problem:
Concern was significant enough that the National Security Council held multiple meetings last week as they monitored the situation, including two at the deputy level and another gathering at the assistant secretary level on Friday, which was led by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart, according to US officials.
The Biden administration has discussed the situation with the French government and their own experts at the Department of Energy, sources said. The US has also been in contact with the Chinese government, US officials said, though the extent of that contact is unclear.
The US government declined to explain the assessment but officials at the NSC, State Department and the Department of Energy insisted that if there were any risk to the Chinese public, the US would be required to make it known under current treaties related to nuclear accidents.
Analysts quoted by CNN said Framatome contacted DOE to request waivers that would let them share “American technical assistance” with staff at the plant to help them address the situation. Other analysts weighing on the story noted that CGN is a blacklisted entity in the United States, so Framatome could risk triggering secondary sanctions that would damage its U.S. business dealings by sharing American technology or expertise with Taishan staff unless it obtained exemptions in advance.
As of Monday, most outside experts agreed there was no indication of a serious environmental threat from the plant; the major topic of controversy are Chinese officials unilaterally raising the standards for radiation detection to a level that made the French company uncomfortable, and the Chinese government’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge any problems – an attitude unnervingly reminiscent of a certain previous crisis at a nuclear reactor run by Communists, and of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
Chinese state media has thus far avoided reporting on the situation at the nuclear reactor, while the few mentions of the situation on state-linked social media accounts have treated Western coverage of the story as a scurrilous attempt to slander the Chinese government.
Wang Yigang of China’s Institute of Industrial Economics complained about “American imperialism hyping up opposition to nuclear power and forcing China to develop wind and solar power only,” which is identical to the language Chinese officials employ to dismiss questions about the possible origins of Chinese coronavirus at a laboratory in Wuhan, and somewhat amusing given the traditional attitude of most Western environmental groups toward nuclear power in the U.S. and Europe.
EDF said on Monday that the buildup of noble gases in the Taishan reactor is a “known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures.”
The French energy giant, which owns 30 percent of the Taishan plant, said it has called an “extraordinary meeting” with its Chinese partners to review data from the reactor.
The Taishan power plant is located about 85 miles from Hong Kong. It provides power to the huge Chinese manufacturing hubs in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, areas which have been experiencing chronic power shortages over the past month due to hot weather and low production from nearby hydroelectric plants.
The No. 2 reactor at Taishan recently completed an “overhaul” for unspecified reasons and was reconnected to the power grid on June 10, two days after Framatome asked for help from the U.S. Department of Energy.