Nuclear Watchdog's Direct China Statement Comes Amid Post-Wuhan Skepticism

The world's atomic watchdog issued a succinct statement amid speculation of a crisis brewing at the Taishan nuclear plant in southern China, relaying the Chinese Communist Party's report of performance issues at the facility.

Speculation about Taishan in Guangdong province, just over 100 miles from Hong Kong, comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) is under fire for its role early on in the outbreak of COVID-19.

Critics accuse the U.N. body of abetting an alleged Chinese cover-up, which WHO denies. U.S. intelligence is, at the direction of President Joe Biden, reviewing evidence of a lab breach in Wuhan as the potential genesis of the pandemic. China denies a leak.

Officials are yet to reach a firm conclusion as to the pandemic's origins, though China hawks in the U.S.—including former President Donald Trump and his top officials—and abroad began pressing the lab theory soon after the Wuhan outbreak.

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) statement on Wednesday was characteristically direct and made no assessment of the validity of the Chinese version of events about its Taishan nuclear power plant. It was similar to past statements regarding alerts at other sites in other nations.

"The China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) updated the IAEA today about an issue at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant (NPP)," said the Vienna-based agency.

"CAEA said the plant is in normal condition and that operational safety is guaranteed. Unit 1 of the plant recently experienced a minor fuel rod cladding failure, which resulted in increased radioactivity in the unit's primary reactor coolant, it said.

"CAEA said that this situation, as a common phenomenon in NPP operations, is dealt with in accordance with accepted standards and procedures.

"According to on-site monitoring and an expert assessment, the unit's performance indicators, including the radioactivity of the primary reactor coolant, remain within the range of normal conditions and technical specifications, CAEA said.

"It also said the reactor unit's coolant system pressure boundary is intact and that containment integrity is maintained.

"Continuous environmental radiation monitoring confirms that there has been no radiation release and that there is no environmental concern, CAEA said. The IAEA remains in contact with CAEA."

Newsweek has asked the IAEA for additional comment.

China admitted an issue with damaged fuel rod housing on Wednesday. Chinese officials have dismissed concerns that Taishan is at risk of a serious radiological incident.

CNN reported this week that the White House has been reviewing the situation after Framatome—a unit of the French EDF Energy company which is one of the project owners—warned of an "imminent radiological threat" at Taishan due to a build-up of krypton and xenon.

Framatome also reportedly told the U.S. Department of Energy that Chinese officials were "raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province in order to avoid having to shut it down."

On Wednesday, China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment said: "There is no problem of radioactive leakage to the environment," adding that increased radiation in the reactor coolant remained within the "allowable range."

Regulators will now oversee measures to control the radiation levels, the ministry said.

The National Nuclear Safety Administration of China said that "certain rare gases" in the primary circuit of Taishan's No. 1 reactor increased "due to a small number of damaged fuel rods."

The administration said five of No. 1 reactor's 60,000 rods were damaged, and that subsequent radiation was "contained by barriers."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said the region's monitoring sites have been monitoring radiation levels and have not detected anything abnormal. There is currently no indication that the situation at Taishan is deteriorating, though some experts have raised concerns.

Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, for example, told Reuters on Tuesday: "Under normal operating conditions it is true some gases like krypton and xenon will escape and be detected but in this case the concentrations are much higher, so something is happening.

"Once radioactive gas is leaking to the environment it is a serious issue. It could get worse. I think there could be problems with the fuel. It is unusual."

A spokesperson for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization—which monitors signs of nuclear weapons tests around the world—told Newsweek: "The CTBTO's International Monitoring System is up and running and no unusual radionuclide detection has been reported as of now."

The spokesperson added: "It's not our mandate to monitor or investigate incidents other than nuclear tests, although there are circumstances where we may share other monitoring information more publicly; for example, CTBTO is part of the UN system's Inter-Agency Committee on Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies (IACRNE).

"In general, it's worth bearing in mind that unlike data from our other three monitoring technologies (seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound), radionuclides typically don't show up immediately, as particles and gases must travel through the air."

Karine Herviou, the deputy director-general in charge of the Nuclear Safety Division at France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), told Newsweek the organization was "informed few days ago about the increase of the main coolant activity in Taishan 1."

The IRSN has previously published studies on nuclear accidents, including those at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Herviou told Newsweek: "From the information we have, the situation is not an emergency situation. Therefore, we did not activate our emergency center."

"Main IRSN concern relates to the fact that the first reactor of Taishan is a first-of-kind EPR [reactor] and that we have an EPR reactor under construction in Flamanville, in France," Herviou said.

"Therefore, we are looking to get feedback for the licensing of the EPR in Flamanville. Some discussions have just started between French and Chinese safety authorities to share information regarding this issue."

Update 06/17/21, 8:25: a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include comment from the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety.

Taishan nuclear power plant pictured in 2013
This file photo shows the Taishan Nuclear Power Station being built outside the city of Taishan in Guangdong province, China on December 8, 2013. PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images