Framatome said on 14 June that China’s Taishan Nuclear Power Plant was operating safely. “Framatome is supporting resolution of a performance issue with the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province, China,” a statement said. “According to the data available, the plant is operating within the safety parameters. Our team is working with relevant experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to address any potential issue.”

The same day, EDF said it had “been informed of the increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit of reactor 1 of the Taishan nuclear power plant, belonging to and operated by TNPJVC, a joint-venture of CGN (70%) and EDF (30%)”. It added: “The presence of certain noble gases in the primary circuit is a known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures. EDF has made contact with the TNPJVC teams and provides its expertise. EDF, as shareholder of TNPJVC, has requested the holding of an extraordinary TNPJVC board of directors meeting for management to present all the data and the necessary decisions.” An EDF spokesman told Reuters that the build-up of inert gases at EPR reactor seemed to be due to issue with some fuel rods but that measurements of inert gases were below maximum levels authorised in China.

These statements followed a CNN report that Framatome had contacted the US Department of Energy (DOE) in late May concerning a "potential issue" at the Taishan plant. The two 1750MWe EPR units at the Taishan plant (1&2) are the first two reactors based on the EPR design to begin operation. Their construction followed a €8.0 billion ($9.7bn) contract signed by Areva and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) in November 2007. The Taishan project is owned by TNPJVC and Chinese utility Guangdong Energy Group (19%). Unit 1 began construction in 2009, and unit 2 in 2010. They entered commercial operation in December 2018 and September 2019, respectively. The EPR design used in Taishan was developed by Framatome.

The CNN report is confusing and raises a number of questions. The report says Framatome had “reached out” to the US Department of Energy (DOE) in late May “informing them of a potential issue” at Taishan plant. Then on 3 June Framatome “submitted an operational safety assistance request” to DOE “formally asking for a waiver that would allow them to address an urgent safety matter” that the nuclear reactor was leaking fission gas. CGN is currently on the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List, restricting it from buying American technology without a waiver.

According to a memo reportedly obtained by CNN, Framatome “followed up” with DOE on 8 June “asking for an expedited review of their request”. CNN cites the memo as follows: "The situation is an imminent radiological threat to the site and to the public and Framatome urgently requests permission to transfer technical data and assistance as may be necessary to return the plant to normal operation." Framatome had asked for assistance, CNN said, because China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) “was continuing to increase its limits on the amount of gas that could safely be released from the facility without shutting it down”.

CNN said the Framatome memo informed DOE that NNSA had continued to raise regulatory "off-site dose limits”. TNPJVC (plant operator) is required to comply with an regulatory limit and otherwise shut the reactor down if such a limit is exceeded," the memo reads. CNN said it notes that this limit was established at a level consistent with what is dictated by the French safety authority, but "due to the increasing number of failures”, NNSA has since revised the limit to more than double the initial release, "which in turn increases off-site risk to the public and on-site workers”. By 30 May, the Taishan reactor had reached 90% of the allegedly revised limit, CNN cites the memo as saying, noting concerns the plant operator may be "petitioning the NNSA to further increase the shutdown limit on an exigent basis in an effort to keep running which in turn would continue to increase the risk to the off-site population and the workers at the plant site”.

CNN said that, when the US State Department came into possession of the 8 June memo, it “immediately began engaging with interagency partners and with the French government”. State Department officials told CNN that, over the course of 48-72 hours, the US government had been in repeated contact with French officials and US technical experts at DOE. However, CNN noted that “for now, US officials do not think the leak is at crisis level, but acknowledge it is increasing and bears monitoring, citing a “source familiar with the situation”. 

CNN concluded: “While there is a chance the situation could become a disaster, US officials currently believe it is more likely that it will not become one, the source added.”

All indicators at the Taishan NPP and its surrounding environment are normal, according to continued monitoring data, CGN said in a statement sent to Global Times on 14 June. Since operation began, the plant has operated the reactors strictly in compliance with business licence documents and technical procedures, CGN said. The statement also added that unit 2 at the Taishan plant had completed a scheduled outage and that all safety, quality and project period indicators of the overhaul had fulfilled their set goals.

Lin Boqiang, director of the China Centre for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told Global Times that China's third generation nuclear reactors, represented by the Taishan NPP and the Hualong One technology, have higher safety standards than second generation reactors such as those currently in use in Europe and the USA. He added that, given the Chinese government's focus on nuclear development, it would be "fatal" for any developers that failed to carefully implement the country's nuclear safety standards.

While overall, the CNN report appears to have provoked a storm in a teacup, a number of questions remain unanswered. Why would Framatome appeal to the US for assistance related to and EPR reactor, of which the US has no experience? More generally, why would Framatome approach the US at all over an issue related to China which was bound to have political ramifications?

Image: Taishan nuclear power plant (Credit: EDF)