A nuclear overreaction?

Editorial | Mary Ma 17 Jun 2021

The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant is 130 kilometers away from Hong Kong, yet when CNN broke the news that the facility faced an "imminent radiological threat" it was portrayed as being so close to us.

For the first two days, the world had to rely on the Western media for most of the information - a reminder that it's of utmost importance for the authorities to provide full and timely information to the public with such incidents.

A statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tried to address the concern when he met the press the next day.

He stressed that radiation in the environment outside the plant was normal, but he didn't take a question on whether the power plant had raised the acceptable threshold of radioactivity inside or outside the plant.

It was only yesterday that the mainland's National Nuclear Safety Administration released more details to reassure that the nuclear facility was safe and there had been no leaks to the atmosphere.

Also for the first time since the CNN report, the Chinese regulator attempted to answer the particular question of whether the threshold had been relaxed, as reportedly stated by the plant's French partner Framatome in its letter to the US Department of Energy.

The NNSA said it "reviewed and approved the relevant limits of specific radioactivity of inert gases in the reactor coolant."

In other words, it confirmed the claim.

So it has taken three days to assemble the jigsaw puzzle to conclude that: first, there had been increased radioactivity due to a build-up of inert gases inside the multiple housings of one of the reactors; second, the cause was due to damaged housings of several fuel rods; and third, the incident did not reach a crisis level and did not constitute a threat to the public.

Based on the data available so far, CNN may have exaggerated the incident. However, if not for its report, the world may not have known what had been happening inside the Taishan facility. The French company was reportedly very concerned about the Chinese step of raising the radioactivity threshold.

Judging from what has been reported so far, the joint owners of the power plant may have differences over how to deal with the build-up of inert gases that is bound to increase the pressure on the housings of the reactor.

The plant is 70 percent owned by China General Power Group and 30 percent by Framatome.

In a different light, it's also probable that the two partners have no differences and are looking for a solution to the conditions that would involve the use of US technology to address.

Unfortunately, CGN is on Washington's sanction list that bars the transfer of US technology to entities named on the list.

CGN and Framatome may be acting out of an understanding that, if the chance was remote for CGN to secure a special green light from the US, Framatome would stand a better chance in making the request.

To the disappointment of both, Washington clearly is not prepared to grant special permission yet because the incident is not at crisis level and does not pose a threat to the public.

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