China's nuclear drama may be less alarming than the politics behind it

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Problems at a Chinese nuclear power plant near Hong Kong probably aren’t cause for any concern, experts said. Some of the politics behind the situation just might be.

An issue discovered inside China General Nuclear Power Corp’s Taishan Unit 1 reactor, in which presumably damaged fuel rod casings leaked inert gas, has happened enough times in the industry that operators know how to manage it and it’s usually “not any kind of threat,” according to Jeff Merrifield, a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner.

What’s perhaps more disquieting is the seeming lack of communication between state-owned CGN and Electricite de France SA, the designer and minority owner of the plant. An EDF unit alerted the US government on the issue, and on Monday (June 14) the parent firm called for CGN to provide more information and to meet to discuss the operation’s issues.

“It raises questions about the information culture, about procedures and about the interface between Chinese and foreign governments, experts and industries in making decisions in the wake of findings like this,” said Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Programme.

A CGN spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, referring to a Sunday statement that the plant is operating safely and environmental indicators in and around it are normal. EDF didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on information flow between the partners.

The Taishan plant, about 130km west of Hong Kong, is 30 per cent owned by EDF, with 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 Monday.

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

During a refuelling, it’s possible that a stray item, something as small as a wire filament from a brush, can be left behind in the reactor, said Merrifield, an NRC commissioner from 1998 to 2007 who is now an attorney at Washington DC’s Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

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,” Merrifield said.

Nuclear experts said they’re 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 the UK’s Hinkley Point C, it’s 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 Hibbs at Carnegie’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,” Hibbs said.

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