The French energy company EDF (EDF.PA) is investigating a potential problem linked to an accumulation of inert gases in its nuclear power plant in Guangdong province, in south-eastern China.
The investigation comes after CNN reported that the US government was evaluating a leak report at the Taishan power plant. The observation was made by Framatome, the activity of EDF which designed the plant’s reactor and remains involved in its operation. Read more
Framatome warned that the plant, a joint venture with China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) located about 200 kilometers from Hong Kong, faced an “imminent radiological threat.”
Here’s what we know so far.
WHAT HAPPENED IN TAISHAN?
According to CNN, U.S. officials investigated Framatome’s allegations of a leak over the past week.
EDF, which owns a minority stake in the plant, said a build-up of krypton and xenon – both inert gases – affected the primary circuit of Taishan Unit 1, but added that it was of a “phenomenon known, studied and foreseen in the operating procedures of the reactor.
Majority owner CGN also said in a statement that the plant’s operations were in compliance with safety regulations.
Radiation levels in the surrounding area were still normal on Monday, according to real-time data from the Chinese Nuclear Safety Administration (CNSA).
According to CNN, Framatome’s warning included an accusation that the CNSA was increasing the acceptable radiation limits outside the Taishan plant to avoid having to shut it down.
The regulator and the Chinese government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS ?
Nuclear experts have generally downplayed the risks. CNN quoted US officials as saying that the dangers to the public are currently minimal.
Li Ning, a US-based Chinese nuclear scientist, told Reuters that CNN “was making a mountain out of a molehill” and that it was unrealistic to expect “zero failures” in the fuel coating nuclear projects all over the world.
Li said the media were “often reluctant to put the risks into perspective,” which he said had effectively killed the nuclear industry in the West.
“Coal-fired power plants can emit and discharge more radioactivity than nuclear power plants,” Li said.
WHY IS THE US GOVERNMENT INVOLVED?
CGN, China’s largest state-owned nuclear company, was blacklisted by the United States in August 2019 for allegedly making efforts to acquire cutting-edge American technology and materials for the purpose of diversion to military purposes in China.
This means that Framatome, which operates in the United States, would need a waiver from the United States government to allow it to help CGN solve technological problems, Li said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the blacklist was an abuse of export control measures.
WHAT IS TAISHAN’S SAFETY RECORD?
Minor security concerns were quite common in Taishan. In March, inspectors checking a faulty voltmeter in Unit 1 accidentally caused an electrical malfunction that triggered an automatic shutdown, according to CNSA incident records.
In April, a radioactive gas explosion unexpectedly entered a pipeline in Unit 1’s waste gas treatment system as workers attempted to seal it, also setting off an alarm, CNSA said.
WHAT IS AN “EPR”?
Formerly known as the “European pressurized reactor”, the EPR is a “third generation” nuclear technology that includes enhanced safety features as well as increased production capacity.
It was designed by Framatome in collaboration with the German Siemens. Its third-generation competitors now include the AP1000 from Westinghouse, the VVER-1200 from Russia and the Hualong One from China.
In 2006, EDF and the French nuclear group Areva lost an offer to build four reactors on the east coast of China, as China opted for the Westinghouse model after signing an agreement to transfer the basic technology to be used in its own projects.
In 2007, EDF agreed to build two EPRs in Taishan, which would be 70% owned by CGN. Construction started in 2010. Initially scheduled to be connected to the grid within four years, the first unit was not completed until December 2018.
AND THE NEXT?
EDF did not provide a deadline for the completion of its investigation, nor did US officials, according to the CNN report.
The problems with the Taishan project are unlikely to shake China’s nuclear ambitions, but they underscore the challenges facing foreign reactor developers in a market increasingly dominated by domestic players.
China has failed to meet its nuclear capacity target for 2020. Many have complained that the expansion of the sector was hampered not only by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, but also by long delays and skyrocketing prices. costs of foreign-designed projects.
As it ramps up construction of new factories, China is now expected to rely primarily on its own third-generation Hualong One design, but it is also helping to finance the construction of an EPR project at Hinkley Point in Britain.
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