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How serious is the loss at China's nuclear power plant? 1

How serious is the loss at China’s nuclear power plant?

One of the companies involved in a new nuclear reactor at Taishan in Guangdong, China, has written to the US government warning of an “imminent radiological threat” at the plant. The memo from French firm Framatome to the U.S. Department of Energy, first reported by CNN, said Chinese authorities were raising acceptable radiation limits around the power plant, to avoid shutting down the reactor. How serious is the problem and should I be worried?

Do we know what’s causing the problem?

Framatome’s parent company, EDF, which has a 30 percent stake in the company that owns the plant, said yesterday that the problem appears to be a problem with one or more of the fuel rods. There appears to be a potential hole in the casing of the fuel rods, which contain the uranium used to create a fission reaction. In a statement, EDF said there had been an “increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit” at the plant’s number one reactor. The primary circuit is the part of the plant that transfers heat from the reactor to the water, generating steam and producing electricity. Noble gases include krypton and xenon.

Has there been a radiation leak?

Yes. New Scientist understands that there has been a radiation leak at the plant. However, it is solely within the primary circuit, which is within multiple layers of containment. The radiation leak does not extend beyond the circuit and no radioactive material has been detected outside the plant. “If the inert gases are in the primary coolant, it is unlikely that radioactivity will be released out of the reactor,” says Claire Corkhill of the University of Sheffield, UK.

How long has this been going on?

EDF first received reports of increases in pollution in the primary circuit in October 2020. The Hong Kong government, which is 130 kilometers from the plant, said on April 8 that there was an “operational event” at the plant on April 5, which involved the release of a “very small amount of gas.” Gas has no name.

Are people at risk?

Apparently not. Carrie Lam, leader of Hong Kong’s government, said today that monitoring radiation levels around the city shows that “everything is normal.” EDF maintains that the level of radioactivity observed at the plant is below the levels required by the Chinese authorities. Framatome described the problems at the plant as “a yield problem.” “Based on the available data, the plant is operating within safety parameters,” he said in a statement.

What do others say?

“This situation, in principle, does not pose any immediate danger,” says Mycle Schneider, a nuclear analyst in Paris and editor of the Report on the State of the Global Nuclear Industry. “Should we be worried? It is not clear that there are grounds for alarm at this time, but it is clear that the situation needs to be monitored,” says Corkhill.

What are the ramifications of this?

The Taishan plant has an unusually high profile, due to its reactor design, known as EPR. The plant has two such reactors, jointly designed by Germany’s Siemens and France’s EDF, and Taishan’s number one reactor was the world’s first EPR to come online when connected to the grid in 2018. EDF hopes to build nuclear plants in other parts of the world using the EPR design, which is the basis of a pair of reactors it is building at Hinkley Point in Somerset, UK.

What will the UK do?

Paul Dorfman of University College London says the UK’s nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, needs to receive significant details about the incident given Hinkey Point and EDF’s aspirations to build an EPR-based plant at Sizewell in Suffolk, UK. However, it seems that the problem is not the design of the reactor, but a phenomenon known as fuel failure, the possibility of a hole in a fuel rod, which has been widely observed in the UK and France.

What happens next?

Eventually, it will be necessary to replace the fuel rod. For now, the plant will continue to operate, as contamination in the primary circuit is not considered significant enough to shut down the reactor. Cleaning up the pollution could prove economically costly for the State-owned enterprises in China and France that own the plant, Schneider says.

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About the author: Eduardo Kando Verified Member WiseGroup Manager

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