Only five of the 60,000 fuel rods at a nuclear plant in southern China have been damaged, the country’s safety regulator said on Wednesday, insisting there was no danger to the public or environment.
Concerns over the Taishan plant in Guangdong province mounted this week after CNN reported that the French nuclear company, Framatome, which helps operate the plant, had warned of an “imminent radiological threat” and reached out to the US government over a gas leak at the plant.
CNN also reported that safety regulators had increased the radiation detection levels allowed near the plant to keep it running.
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“Due to the influence of uncontrollable factors in fuel manufacturing, transportation, loading and other links, a small amount of fuel rod damage is inevitable,” the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) said in a statement, pointing out that the ratio of damaged rods is “less than 0.01 per cent” and such incident was a “common phenomenon”.
“There is no problem of radioactive leakage to the environment,” the statement said, adding that radiation detected in the reactor coolant had increased but that the rise was within the permitted range.
The statement also denied the CNN report, saying: “The NNSA has only approved [higher] radioactivity limits concerning certain noble gases within the nuclear power units, which is only for operations management, not radiation detection outside the plant.”
Industry analysts agreed that cracked fuel rods are commonplace.
“Cracked fuel rods are undesirable but not uncommon phenomena in the nuclear industry,” said David Fishman, manager at energy-focused consultants The Lantau Group.
Fishman said that damaged or cracked fuel rods are not considered to be especially dangerous, but create headaches for plant operators.
The Taishan nuclear plant is owned by China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, which has a 70 per cent stake in the plant, and the energy conglomerate Électricité de France (EDF), which holds the remainder.
The two units at the plant, with a combined capacity of 3.3 gigawatts, entered commercial operation in 2018 and 2019 respectively. They were the first to use the third-generation European Pressurised Reactors designed by Framatome, a subsidiary of EDF.
According to real-time data published by the Chinese regulator, radiation levels in the Taishan area were within the normal levels. Gamma radiation levels in Hong Kong, roughly 140km (just under 90 miles) from the plant, were also within normal range, according to data published by the Hong Kong Observatory.
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu told the media on Wednesday that the city authorities had received information from the Guangdong response team and NNSA showing the plant was “operating within all the requirements regarding nuclear power safety”.
The secretary said all information about nuclear plant safety released by the mainland accorded to international standards.
Nuclear power has become increasingly important to China and will play a key role in its move away from fossil fuels as part of a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
The country currently has 50 operable reactors and is building 18 more, making it the most active builder of nuclear reactors in the world, according to the World Nuclear Association, which said it has shown unprecedented eagerness to achieve the highest possible safety standards.
China established a national nuclear incident reporting system in the 1990s but it mainly consisted of annual nuclear safety reports published by different power operators.
In 2015 the NNSA started to build an online platform to report incidents, even those deemed Level 0 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Scale, meaning they have no safety significance.
Experts said the latest incident in the Taishan nuclear plant would have little impact on the country’s nuclear industry as it is focusing on Hualong One and CAP1400, the third-generation reactors it has developed based on French designs.
“China’s nuclear power is no longer dependent on foreign countries. We have mastered the design, manufacturing, operation and maintenance [of reactors],” said Wang Yingsu, secretary general of the nuclear power branch of the China Electric Power Promotion Council.
“[This incident] will not impact China’s nuclear power development. Most of the new nuclear projects in the future [in China] will use Hualong One technology,” he said.
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