The French company that co-owns a nuclear power plant in China said yesterday that they would shut down a nuclear power plant if they could due to damage there, but the Chinese operator at the Taishan Nuclear Power plant doesn’t consider the incident, now underway for more than a month, to be critical enough to warrant a shut-down. In June, French company Framatome warned of an “imminent radiological threat”; that was followed up by a statement by the Chinese nuclear safety administration that said there was an “increased level of radioactivity in the primary circuit of the two reactors due to damaged fuel rods”, but added they didn’t see the issue as concerning. A spokesperson for Electricite de France (EDF) said yesterday that while it was “not an emergency situation” at the nuclear power plant yet, they did say it was a “serious situation that is evolving.” Framatome is a subsidiary of EDF. In June, EDF reached out to the United States to help in dealing with the situation there.
France-based EDF Energy, which partnered with China to build a nuclear power plant to generate electricity for the Guangzhou and Shenzhen areas there, said it was in their protocols to shut down the reactor to avoid the degradation of additional fuel rods. They said they would also use the pause to carry out an investigation to see what prompted the problem in the first place and develop a plan to avoid additional damage.
While there appears to be infighting between the owners/operators of the plant to halt/not halt operations there, scientists are keeping an eye on global weather forecasts. If any radioactive gas is released from the damaged facility, the jetstream would carry fallout north and east over the Pacific, to Alaska, over western Canada, and into the central and northeastern U.S. with time. According to the latest American GFS global computer forecast weather model, anything being emitted from the power plant would be transported across the Pacific into the United States and Canada over time due to the presence of the jet stream. If noble gases, or worse, radioactive emissions, are released at the plant, they could make their way to North America in a matter of days.
Official Chinese media outlets remain dismissive of the seriousness of the situation –or that anything is really wrong. China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, the entity responsible for the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, said through state media, The Global Times, that the “nuclear power plant has operated the reactors strictly in compliance with business license documents and technical procedures.” They added that two nuclear reactors at the facility have been operating in line with nuclear safety regulations and the technical requirements of electricity plants.
According to published media reports, Framatome, the French nuclear reactor business within Electricite de France (EDF), reached out to the United States for assistance in being able to share sensitive information with their Chinese counterparts to deal with whatever situation is unfolding there.
This ongoing incident at the nuclear power plant isn’t its first. China admitted that a leak of radioactive gas did make it into the environment in April. During the April 9 incident, the Taishan facility leaked what officials described as a “small amount” of radioactive gas. The Chinese National Nuclear Safety Administration said that event was a “Level 0” event that lacked safety significance.
Framatome designs, manufactures, and installs components, fuel and instrumentation and control systems for nuclear power plants and offers a full range of reactor services; they currently developed nuclear power plants in France, England, China, and have plans to deploy plants in India and Russia. When the Taishan facility was developed, it was one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world at the time.
Sources with the White House say they have been aware of the situation. In June, they said that the emergency hadn’t yet reached a “crisis” level yet. According to those sources, the White House National Security Council has convened multiple times in June to discuss the situation, led by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart. In addition, the White House said they’ve been in close communication with the Chinese and French governments and consulted with subject matter experts at the Department of Energy. No public statements about their findings have been made by the White House.
The Department of Energy, whom the White House said they met with, declined to comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a group within the United Nations, told the Associated Press it was aware of the issue and was awaiting information from China.
After initial reports of the incident were leaked to western media outlets in June, one of China’s leading nuclear scientist died in a suspicious event. Zhang Zhijian, former vice-president of Harbin Engineering University, and the Vice President of the Chinese Nuclear Society, died after somehow “falling off a building.”
“Harbin Engineering University announces with deep grief that Professor Zhang Zhijian regrettably fell off a building and died at 9.34 am on June 17, 2021,” the statement read. “The university expresses deep sorrow over the passing of comrade Zhang Zhijian and deep condolences to his family.”
Zhang was a professor at the College of Nuclear Science and Technology at the Harbin Engineering University while serving as Vice President of the Chinese Nuclear Society. He was also a member of the standing committee of the Communist Party committee at the university.