Nuclear power plant in China: US assesses reported leak at plant in Taishan, Guangdong

The warning included allegations that the Chinese security agency was raising acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province to avoid shutdown, according to a letter from the French company to the U.S. Department of Energy received from CNN .

Despite the alarming notification from Framatome, the French company, the Biden government believes the facility is not yet at “crisis levels,” one of the sources said.

While US officials believe the situation does not present a serious safety threat to factory workers or the Chinese public right now, it is uncommon for a foreign company to unilaterally seek help from the US government when its Chinese state partner is absent is to acknowledge that there is a problem. The scenario could put the US in a complicated position if the leak persists or becomes more severe without being addressed.

But the concern was so great that the National Security Council held several meetings last week to oversee the situation, including two at the deputy level and one more meeting at the deputy secretary level on Friday by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart, according to US officials.

The Biden government discussed the situation with the French government and its own experts from the energy ministry, it said. The US has also been in contact with the Chinese government, US officials said, although the extent of that contact is unclear.

The US government declined to elaborate on the assessment, but officials from the NSC, State Department and Department of Energy insisted that if there was a risk to the Chinese public, the US would be required to do so under applicable treaties related to nuclear accidents Report.

Framatome had reached out to the US to obtain a waiver that would allow them to share American technical assistance to solve the problem at the Chinese plant. There are only two reasons why this waiver is granted and one is an “imminent radiological threat,” the same wording used in the June 8th memo.

The memo claims that the Chinese border was raised to exceed French standards, but it remains unclear how this compares with US borders.

“It’s not surprising that the French shake hands,” says Cheryl Rofer, a nuclear scientist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001. “In general, this is not exceptional, especially if you think the country you are in” contact has a special ability to help. “

“But China likes to project that everything will be fine all the time,” she added.

The US could give Framatome permission to provide technical assistance or assistance to resolve the problem, but it is up to the Chinese government to decide whether the incident will require a complete shutdown of the plant, according to documents received from CNN.

Ultimately, Framatome’s June 8 request for help is the only reason the US got involved in the situation in the first place, multiple sources told CNN.

CNN has reached out to the Chinese authorities in Beijing and Guangdong Province, where the plant is located, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, and the state-owned energy company that operates the plant together with the French company. Nobody responded even though China has a three-day national holiday until the end of Monday.

In a statement Friday, hours after CNN first asked for comment, Framatome confirmed that it is “supporting the resolution of a performance problem with the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province, China.”

“According to the available data, the system works within the safety parameters. Our team works with relevant experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to potential problems, ”the statement reads.

Framatome would not direct the contents of the letter to the Department of Energy at the request of CNN.

The letter comes as tensions between Beijing and Washington remain high and G7 leaders met with China on an important topic of discussion this weekend in the UK. There is no evidence that the leak reports were discussed at high level at the summit.

A warning from a French nuclear company

The problem first emerged when Framatome, a French developer and supplier of nuclear equipment and services tasked with building and operating the Sino-French facility, reached out to the U.S. Department of Energy late last month to inform them about a potential problem at the Chinese nuclear power plant.

The company, mainly owned by Électricité de France (EDF), a French utility company, then filed on the 3rd, warning American officials that cracked gas is leaking from the nuclear reactor.

The company reached out to DOE on June 8 for an expedited review of their application, according to a memo received from CNN.

“The situation poses an immediate radiological threat to the site and the public and Framatome is urgently requesting permission to transfer technical data and support that may be required to restore normal operation of the facility,” said the expert’s statement of the company from the 8th to the energy office.

Framatome has sought help from the U.S. government, the document says, as a Chinese government agency further increased its limits on the amount of gas that could be safely released from the facility without closing it, according to documents verified by CNN.

When CNN asked for comment, the Department of Energy did not respond directly to the memo’s claim that China had raised the limits.

In the June 8 announcement, Framatome informed the DOE that the Chinese safety agency had further raised the regulatory “limit values ​​for the dose outside the site”. The company also suspects that the limit could be raised again to keep the leaky reactor running despite safety concerns for the surrounding population.

“To ensure that the dose limits outside the site are kept within acceptable limits so as not to cause undue damage to the surrounding population, TNPJVC (operator of Taishan-1) must comply with an official limit value and otherwise shut down the reactor if such a limit value is exceeded exceeded, “says the June 8th memo.

It notes that this limit has been set at a level that is in line with the requirements of the French security agency, but “due to the increasing number of failures” the Chinese security agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), has now raised the limit to more than double the original release, “which in turn increases the risk to the public and local workers”.

May the Taishan reactor had reached 90% of the allegedly revised limit, the memo adds, noting concerns that the plant operator “could ask the NNSA to urgently raise the shutdown limit further in order to keep operations going, which would reduce the risk to the outside world Continue to increase population and workers on the factory premises. ”

The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency in China responsible for improving national security through the military application of nuclear and radiation science.

The U.S. State Department received the June 8 letter and immediately began working with inter-agency partners and the French government, State Department officials said.

Over the course of 48-72 hours, the US government was in repeated contact with French officials and US technical experts at the DOE, State Department officials said, noting that the excitement was due to the June 8 letter.

There were then several urgent questions for the French government and Framatome, they added. CNN has asked the French embassy in Washington for an opinion.

Still, Rofer, the retired nuclear scientist, warns that a gas leak could indicate bigger problems.

“If they have a gas leak, it indicates that part of their containment is defective,” said Rofer. “It also argues that maybe some of the fuel assemblies could break, which would be a more serious problem.”

“That would be a reason for the reactor to be shut down and would then require the reactor to be refueled,” Rofer told CNN, adding that the removal of the fuel elements must be done carefully.

At the moment, US officials do not believe the leak is at “crisis levels” but admit it is increasing and being monitored, the source familiar with the situation told CNN.

While there is a chance the situation could turn into a catastrophe, US officials currently believe the more likely it won’t, the source added.

China has expanded its use of nuclear energy in recent years and accounts for about 5% of all electricity generated in the country. According to the China Nuclear Energy Association, China had 16 nuclear power plants with 49 nuclear reactors with a total generating capacity of 51,000 megawatts in March 2021. The Taishan Power Plant is a prestigious project that was built after China signed a nuclear power generation contract with the Lectricité de France, which is mainly owned by the French government. Construction of the facility began in 2009 and the two blocks began generating electricity in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The city of Taishan has 950,000 inhabitants and is located in the southeast of the country in the province of Guangdong with 126 million inhabitants and a GDP of 1.6 trillion US dollars, comparable to that of Russia and South Korea.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Kristen Holmes, Yong Xiong and Shanshan Wang contributed to this report.

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