China Says Radiation Has Not Escaped Taishan Nuclear Plant: 'There Is No Leak'

"There is no leak" at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in southern China, the country's Environment Ministry said on Wednesday, following a CNN report that said the facility's French joint operator had warned of an "imminent radiological threat."

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment also denied allegations that its atomic agency, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, had raised acceptable standards of radioactivity outside the plant. In a statement on its public WeChat account, it said CNN's reporting included "erroneous concepts" of nuclear safety.

In the point-by-point rebuttal, the ministry said elevated levels of specific activity—radioactivity per unit volume or weight—were detected from the primary circuit coolant during the running of reactor Unit 1. The amount was within the acceptable range of the plant's operational requirements.

"The safe operation of the nuclear power plant is guaranteed," the ministry added.

The increase in radioactivity in the primary circuit was the result of damage to fuel rod housings, an "uncontrollable factor in the production, transportation and loading of fuel," the statement explained. A minimum amount of fuel rod damage is unavoidable, it said, noting that the phenomenon was common and has not affected nuclear plant operations in other parts of the world.

The clarification tallies with a statement provided by Électricité de France (EDF), the plant's minority owner, which told Agence France-Presse on Monday that the buildup of noble gases was a "known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures."

EDF also cited "degradation of the housing of the fuel rods" as the cause of the internal reactor leak, later reported as the inert gases krypton and xenon. The utility company is conducting an investigation into relevant reports, it said.

China's Environment Ministry said an increase in the level of radioactivity inside the primary circuit is "completely different" from an accidental radiation leak. As long as the cooling circuit's pressure barrier and the reactor's containment seal meet the necessary requirements, there will be no radioactive leakage into the environment, it noted.

Environmental indicators show "no abnormalities" around the Taishan nuclear plant, the statement said. "This demonstrates there is no leak at all."

The ministry appeared to suggest a misinterpretation of China's nuclear safety practices in CNN's report, which it called "not factual."

The country's nuclear agency did not revise acceptable radiation limits outside the Taishan plant, but rather reviewed and approved a relevant limit for the specific activity of insert gases from the reactor coolant of Unit 1, it said.

"The limit is used for operational management and is not related to radioactivity outside the nuclear power plant. The concept in CNN's report is erroneous," the statement added.

The ministry estimates around five of the reactor's 60,000 fuel rod housings are currently degraded. It said the ratio represents less than 0.01 percent and is "far lower" than the maximum 0.25 percent accounted for during the design process.

The Environment Ministry said it would continue to monitor levels of radioactivity inside the primary circuit of Unit 1 as well as outside the Taishan facility.

The authorities remain in communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency and French nuclear safety regulators, it said.

Monday's explosive CNN report said the U.S. government was assessing two memos by utility firm Framatome, which claimed one of the two nuclear reactors at the Taishan plant was "leaking fission gas," and that China's top nuclear authority was modifying safety standards to avoid a shutdown.

The French company—a subsidiary of EDF—designed and jointly operates the site in Guangdong, China's most populous province with around 115 million residents.

Framatome's contact with the U.S. government raised eyebrows and appeared to elevate the urgency of the matter. Subsequent reports revealed that the plant's majority owner, China General Nuclear Power Group, was on the U.S. entity list.

This means that Framatome required a U.S. waiver to provide technical assistance at the plant, where the reactors were connected to the grid in December 2018 and September 2019, respectively.

Reached by Newsweek on Monday, a Framatome spokesperson said it was "supporting resolution of a performance issue with the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province, China."

"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 statement added.

Framatome did not elaborate on the urgency of its requests sent to Washington, nor its use of the phrase "imminent radiological threat."

China-France Joint Nuclear Plant Under Scrutiny
The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong, China, while under construction on December 8, 2013. Peter PARKS/AFP via Getty Images