No one outside China knows if two new nuclear reactors under construction serve a dual civilian-military use.
A Chinese nuclear power plant is raising concerns on Monday after the facility’s minority French owner said it had been informed of a leak in one of the power station’s reactors and has called a meeting with its Chinese partner to discuss it.
French energy giant EDF owns 30 percent of the joint venture that owns and operates Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province north of Hong Kong. State-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp owns the other 70 percent.
“EDF has been informed of the increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit of reactor n°1 [number one] of the Taishan nuclear power plant,” the company said in a statement on its website. “The presence of certain noble gases in the primary circuit is a known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures.”
It is unclear exactly where the build-up of gases has happened, leaving experts scratching their heads as to how severe the problem may be.
“It’s clear that some gas leaked from the fuel rod, but did the pressure vessel that contains the fuel rods also fail?” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said to Al Jazeera. “And if you’re really unlucky, did the containment building fail? Because when a containment building fails, radioactivity can be released into the atmosphere and that is not good.”
United States news outlet CNN on Monday, citing US officials and documents it had reviewed, reported that the US government has spent the past week assessing a report of a leak at Taishan nuclear power plant after EDF subsidiary Framatome warned of an “imminent radiological threat”.
US officials do not currently believe the situation poses a severe safety threat, said CNN.
China General Nuclear Power Corp said in a statement on Sunday that data showed “the Taishan station and its surrounding environment meet normal parameters”, according to a translation by Reuters News Agency.
But CNN reported that a letter it had seen to the US Department of Energy from Framatome – which designed the reactors at Taishan and continues to help operate them – included allegations that China was raising the acceptable limit for radiation detection outside the nuclear facility in order to avoid shutting it down.
Framatome said in a public statement on its website on Monday: “According to the data available, the plant is operating within safety parameters. Our team is working with relevant experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to address any potential issues.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ atomic watchdog, said it was in contact with officials in China about the issue and said in a statement that “at this stage, the agency has no indication that a radiological incident occurred”, Reuters reported.
The Taishan reactor went online in 2018 and was the first French-designed third-generation so-called “evolutionary power reactor” (EPR) to become operational.
The reactor builds on previous designs with the aim of using less uranium and operating more safely.
EPR reactors are also under construction in France, Finland and the United Kingdom.
Guangdong province is China’s main manufacturing hub and has been beset by power shortages in recent weeks that have led to energy rationing.