Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported

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China’s government has said no abnormal radiation was detected outside a nuclear power plant near Hong Kong following a news report of a leak, while Hong Kong’s leader said her administration was closely watching the facility.

The operators released few details, but nuclear experts said that based on their brief statement, gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside the reactor in Taishan, 85 miles west of Hong Kong.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gave no confirmation of a leak or other details. He responded to reporters’ questions by saying, “there is nothing abnormal detected in the radiation level surrounding the plant”.

In Hong Kong, radiation levels on Tuesday were normal, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.

Framatome, the French company that helps manage the plant in Guangdong province, said on Monday it was dealing with a “performance issue”, adding that the facility is operating within safe limits.

That followed a report by CNN that Framatome told US authorities about a possible leak.

Carrie Lam
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam (AP)

She said her government would ask authorities in Guangdong for information and tell the public about any developments.

The Taishan plant, which began commercial operation in December 2018, is owned by China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and Electricite de France, the majority owner of Framatome.

A second reactor began operating in September 2019.

Taishan plant
The nuclear power plant in Taishan, south-eastern Guangdong province (AP)

CNN reported Framatome wrote to the US department of energy warning of an “imminent radiological threat” and accusing Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid having to shut it down.

However, US officials believe there was no severe safety threat, CNN said.

The Department of Energy did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press that it is aware of the issue and is awaiting information from contacts in China.

Electricite de France said it had been informed of the increase in concentration of “certain rare gases” in Taishan’s reactor number one.

That suggests fuel rods are leaking noble gases, a by-product of nuclear fission, according to Luk Bing-lam, an expert on nuclear engineering at the City University of Hong Kong and chairman of the Hong Kong Nuclear Society.

“If the leakage is more severe, then you will start seeing more radioactive material like caesium, rather than gas,” he said.

Such leaks “happen every so often” in China and plants “usually can handle it themselves”, he said.

But the expert added this incident might be complicated by the fact that the Taishan plant might use US technology that is covered by export restrictions.

China’s major state-owned nuclear power companies are on Washington’s “entity list” of companies that are barred from obtaining US technology without government approval.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam (AP)

“With the situation now, that becomes difficult,” he said. “For even a small problem, they need US government approval.”

Luk, who has worked with Chinese nuclear power plant operators, said he asked the company for information about the leak, but managers will not talk about it.

“I suspect the leakage is far more widespread than just a single assembly,” he said. “Because of that, they probably need some special technology to resolve this leakage problem.”

Previously, the Taishan facility leaked a “small amount” of radioactive gas on April 9, the National Nuclear Safety Administration said on its website.

It said the event rated Level 0 on its safety scale, meaning it was “without safety significance”.

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