July 25, 2021

US evaluates reported leak at Chinese nuclear facility

(CNN) — The US government spent last week assessing a report on a leak at a Chinese nuclear power plant, after a French company that owns and helps operate it warned of an “imminent radiological threat,” according to US officials and documents. reviewed by CNN.The warning included an accusation that the Chinese security authority was raising acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province to avoid having to shut it down, according to a letter from the company. French to the US Department of Energy obtained by CNN.

Despite the alarming notification from the French company Framatome, Biden’s management believes the facility is not yet at a “crisis level,” one of the sources said.

While US officials have considered that the situation does not currently pose a serious threat to the safety of the plant workers or the Chinese people, it is unusual for a foreign company to unilaterally approach the US government for help when its state partner Chinese still does not recognize that there is a problem. The scenario could put the US in a difficult situation if the leak continues or worsens without being repaired.

However, the concern was significant enough that the National Security Council (NSC) held multiple meetings last week while monitoring the situation, including two at the deputy level and another meeting at the undersecretary level. on Friday, which was led by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Arms Control Director Mallory Stewart, according to US officials.

The Biden administration has discussed the situation with the French government and its own experts at the Department of Energy, the sources said. The United States has also been in contact with the Chinese government, US officials said, though the extent of that contact is unclear.

The U.S. government declined to explain the assessment, but officials from the NSC, the State Department, and the Department of Energy insisted that if there is any risk to the Chinese people, Washington should disclose it under the current treaties related to nuclear accidents.

Framatome had contacted the US to obtain a waiver that would allow them to share US technical assistance to resolve the problem at the Chinese plant. There are only two reasons this waiver would be granted and one is an “imminent radiological threat,” the same term used in the June 8 memo.

The memorandum claims that the Chinese limits had been increased to exceed French standards, however, it is unclear how that compares to the US limits.

“It’s not surprising that the French came close,” according to Cheryl Rofer, a nuclear scientist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001. “In general, this sort of thing isn’t extraordinary, especially if you think the country you’re in contacting him has a special ability to help ».

“But China likes to project that everything is fine, all the time,” he added.

The United States could give permission to provide Framatome with technical assistance or support to help resolve the problem, but it is up to the Chinese government if the incident requires shutting down the plant completely, documents obtained by CNN indicate.

Ultimately, Framatome’s request for assistance on June 8 is the only reason the United States became involved in the situation, multiple sources told CNN.

CNN has contacted Chinese authorities in Beijing and Guangdong province, where the plant is located, the Chinese embassy in Washington, as well as the state energy group that operates the plant together with the French company. None have responded, though China is in the middle of a three-day national holiday that runs through the end of Monday.

In a statement on Friday, hours after CNN first reached out for comment, Framatome acknowledged that the company “is supporting the resolution of a performance problem with the Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province, China. ».

“According to available data, 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 problems, ”the statement added.

Framatome did not directly address the content of the letter to the Department of Energy when requested by CNN.

The letter comes as tensions between Beijing and Washington remain high and when G7 leaders met this weekend in the UK with China being a major topic of discussion. There is no indication that the reports of a leak were discussed at a high level at the summit.

A warning from a French nuclear company

The problem first arose when Framatome, a French designer and supplier of nuclear equipment and services who was hired to help build and operate the Sino-French plant, contacted the US Department of Energy a month ago informing them. of a potential problem at the Chinese nuclear plant.

The company, primarily owned by Électricité de France (EDF), a French utility company, submitted a request for operational safety assistance on June 3, formally requesting a waiver that would allow them to address an urgent safety matter to the Department of Energy. , warning US officials that the nuclear reactor is leaking fission gas.

The company followed up with the DOE on June 8 requesting an expedited review of its application, according to a memo obtained by CNN.

“The situation is an imminent radiological threat to the site and the public and Framatome urgently requests permission to transfer technical data and assistance as necessary to bring the plant back to normal operation,” the June 8 memorandum reads. to the Department of Energy.

Framatome approached the US government for help, the document says, because a Chinese government agency continued to increase its limits on the amount of gas that could be safely released from the facility without shutting it down, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

When asked by CNN for comment, the Department of Energy did not directly address the memorandum’s claim that China was raising the limits.

In the June 8 memo, Framatome informed the DOE that the Chinese safety authority has continued to increase regulatory “off-site dose limits.” He also says the company suspects the limit could be raised again to keep the leaking reactor running despite safety concerns for the surrounding population.

“To ensure that off-site dose limits are kept within acceptable limits so as not to cause undue harm to the surrounding population, TNPJVC (Taishan-1 operator) is required to comply with a regulatory limit and shut down the reactor if such limit is exceeded ”, reads the memorandum of June 8.

It notes that this limit was set at a level consistent with what the French security authority dictates, but “due to the increasing number of failures,” China’s security authority, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), has revised the Limit since then to more than double the initial version, “which in turn increases the risk outside the installation for the public and workers on site.”

As of May 30, the Taishan reactor had reached 90% of the supposedly revised limit, the memo adds, noting concerns that the plant operator may be “requesting the NNSA to further increase the closure limit of demanding manner in an effort to continue operating which in turn would continue to increase the risk to the population outside the facility and workers at the plant.

The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency in China responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear and radiation science.

The US State Department received the letter on June 8 and immediately began interacting with interagency partners and the French government, State Department officials said.

Over the course of 48 to 72 hours, the U.S. government has been in repeated contact with French officials and U.S. technical experts at the DOE, State Department officials said, noting that this surge in activity was due to the June 8 letter.

Subsequently, there were several pressing questions for the French government and Framatome, they added. CNN has reached out to the French embassy in Washington for comment.

Still, Rofer, the retired nuclear scientist, warns that a gas leak could indicate bigger problems.

“If they have a gas leak, that indicates that part of their containment is broken,” Rofer said. “He also argues that maybe some of the fuel elements could break, which would be a more serious problem.”

“That would be a reason to shut down the reactor and then it would require the reactor to be refueled,” Rofer told CNN, adding that the removal of fuel elements must be done carefully.

For now, US officials do not believe the leak is at a “crisis level,” but acknowledge that it is increasing and deserves to be monitored, the source familiar with the situation told CNN.

While there is a possibility that the situation will turn into a disaster, US officials currently believe it is more likely not to, the source added.

China has expanded its use of nuclear energy in recent years and accounts for around 5% of all energy generated in the country. According to the China Nuclear Energy Association, in March 2021 there were 16 operational nuclear plants with 49 nuclear reactors in China, with a total generating capacity of 51,000 megawatts.

The Taishan plant is a prestigious project built after China signed a nuclear electricity generation agreement with Électricité de France, which is owned primarily by the French government. Construction of the plant began in 2009 and the two units began generating electricity in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The city of Taishan has a population of 950,000 inhabitants and is located in the southeast of the country in the province of Guangdong, which is home to 126 million inhabitants and has a GDP of US $ 1.6 trillion, comparable to that of Russia and South Korea.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Kristen Holmes, Yong Xiong, and Shanshan Wang contributed to this report.