With the jet stream able to transport radioactive particles and gases far from their source, people around the world are keeping their eye on a suspected ongoing incident at a nuclear power plant in China, in which the operator of the plant described the situation as an “imminent radiological threat.”
Scientists are busy tracking wind movement for a potential cloud of suspicious gas rising from a presumed nuclear power plant incident in China. France-based EDF Energy, which partnered with China to build a nuclear power plant to generate electricity for the Guangzhou and Shenzhen areas there, has reached out to the United States for help in dealing with the situation there. The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant having issues is roughly 85 miles west of Hong Kong.
Due to the close proximity of the plant to its borders, Hong Kong officials have been carefully monitoring air and water for any excess radioactive readings. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters that the Hong Kong Observatory and the Water Supplies Department have been monitoring radiation levels and so far they have not detected anything abnormal.
“With regards to foreign media reports about a nuclear plant in Taishan, Guangzhou, the Hong Kong government attaches a high degree of importance to this,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters.
Sources with the White House say they have been aware of the situation for the last two weeks and that the emergency hasn’t yet reached a “crisis” level for them to be engaged with.
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.
Chinese media outlets continue to dismiss 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.
China’s state-owned nuclear power companies are banned from obtaining U.S. technology without government approval. Because Framatome previously licensed nuclear power technology from U.S.-based Westinghouse, it may need U.S. government approval to help with the situation unfolding in China.
Published reports say noble gases have leaked from the power plant in recent days. Rather than declare an emergency, authorities have apparently raised the limit of what’s an acceptable release of gas to prevent notices from being made public; by raising acceptable limits, the power plant can continue to run unencumbered. An unnamed spokesperson for EDF told reporters that the coating on some fuel rods used in the nuclear power plant’s Number One reactor deteriorated, leading to a build-up of xenon and krypton in the reactor’s cooling system.
On April 9, the Taishan facility also 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.
EDF said Chinese authorities doubled what they considered to be “acceptable limits” in this recent incident, raising red flags that the situation may be worse than what is being reported.
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.
The Framatome-designed plant in China is owned by the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and Electricite de France, the majority owner of Framatome. The plant began operating at the end of 2018 and its second reactor went on-line in September 2019.
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.
Luk Bing-lam, a nuclear engineering expert at the City University of Hong Kong, told reporters he believes fuel rods are leaking gases produced during nuclear fission. “If the leakage is more severe, then you will start seeing more radioactive material like cesium, rather than gas,” he said.
For now, there is no observation of radioactive gas or material beyond Chineses borders being reported, but scientists are keeping an eye on remote observation collection sites and the global weather pattern to analyze what is coming from the troubled nuclear power plant and where it’s headed.