Crisis At Chinese Nuclear Power Plant
Reports came out roughly 12 hours ago when CNN reported leaked information about a problem at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant’s unit 1.
Framatome, a French nuclear services company owned by French EDF took over maintenance and engineering duties at Taishan in April of 2020. Around June 8rd the company reached out to the US NRC asking for a exemption to share US nuclear information with parties in China. In asking for the exemption Framatome cited an “imminent radiological threat“. When questioned by the press after the CNN story, Framatome tried to dismiss the problem as a “performance issue“.
From the Framatome memo:
“The situation is an imminent radiological threat to the site and to the public and Framatome urgently requests permission to transfer technical data and assistance as may be necessary to return the plant to normal operation,”
This kicked off a flurry of meetings among the US Department of Energy and the US National Security Council. The US has also reached out the the French and Chinese governments to discuss the issue. Framatome has scheduled an emergency meeting of their corporate board to discuss the technical data around this problem at the plant. EDF has also called for a meeting with their Chinese counterpart to discuss the problem. This level of behind the scenes action isn’t typical for “performance issues” at a nuclear power plant.
Speculation about the problem had assumed there is a problem with the fuel assemblies in the reactor. That they are cracked (aka as leakers) or in the worst case scenario, heavily damaged. Cracked fuel assemblies can leak noble gasses including xenon into the reactor core. Heavily damaged fuel assemblies can create power excursions, fuel melting and the inability to fully insert control rods in the reactor core. Leakers where there are cracks allowing noble gasses out of the fuel assemblies are a frequent problem in existing nuclear power plants. Framatome further admitted there is a build up of noble gasses in the reactor system, one report cited it as the primary circuit. The primacy circuit usually includes the reactor vessel and the pumps and pipes that route cooling water through the reactor. By today, a clear admission that xenon and krypton gasses have been leaking out of damaged fuel and are being purposely vented by the plant operator to the environment.
A quote from EDF:
“The gas leaked after the coating on some fuel rods had deteriorated, said an EDF spokesman”
Fuel rods do not have a “coating” they are encased in metal cladding, metal tubes that house the fuel pellets. How deteriorated? Right now it is anyone’s guess.
The image below shows an unused fuel assembly at Fukushima Daiichi being inspected. The long metal tubes are the fuel rods that contain nuclear fuel pellets.
EDF earlier made this statement:
EDF, France’s main power utility and part owner of the power plant, said in a statement that certain gases had accumulated in the water and steam surrounding the uranium fuel rods at the heart of the reactor. But it said that the reactor had procedures for dealing with such a buildup of gases, which it described as a “known phenomenon.”
This is not the kind of thing that causes the National Security Council to get involved, or a power company to hold an emergency board meeting. Typically leaking fuel rods are cause for a reactor to be shut down and the damaged fuel replaced. Why Framatome and CGN have not done this raises questions about the severity of the situation and if that is preventing a simple shut down of the reactor to solve the problem.
Xenon build up in a reactor is a significant concern as xenon can impact the reactivity in the reactor core and can cause xenon poisoning where the gas suppresses reactor power production. When the gasses die off, this can cause sometimes uncontrollable surges in power. The explosion of the reactor at Chernobyl was caused by xenon poisoning combined with removing control rods to try to keep the rector running. This went tragically wrong with the xenon died off and caused a power excursion.
China and CGN, the government owned company that runs China’s nuclear power plants made various statements denying there is any problem at all:
“In China, the power plant said in a statement on Sunday night that no leak into the environment had been detected.”
“China’s Taishan Nuclear Power Plant said accusations of dangerous levels of radiation leakage at the facility were untrue, claiming its two reactors were operating normally as its French partner said it called for a meeting with its Chinese counterpart to resolve a “performance issue” at the plant.”
“All operating indicators of the two units have met the requirements of nuclear safety regulations and technical requirements for power plants,” it said. CGN said it had not detected unusual amounts of radiation inside or outside the plant, adding “environmental indicators at present are within their normal range for both the Taishan plant and its surrounding environment.”
“On Weibo, Wang Yigang, member of the Institute of Industrial Economics, affiliated with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the accusations were the doing of the “American imperialism hyping up opposition to nuclear power and forcing China to develop wind and solar power only.”
The blanket denials coming out of China sound similar to the denials at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
In the leaked report to CNN, Framatome told the US Department of Energy that China’s nuclear regulator had increased the acceptable level of radiation at the plant site to compensate for the increased radioactive leaks from unit 1. An incident took place on April 5th according to Hong Kong officials where radioactive gasses were vented from the unit 1 reactor at low but detectable levels found in Hong Kong. Hong Kong based CLP owns a nuclear plant in Shenzhen, close to Taishan. That plant did not detect any increased radiation over the time frame in question. It was discovered today that the plant has been purposely venting the reactor to release xenon and krypton gasses. This problem may have started as far back as April due to the finding of releases in Hong Kong.
From the Washington Post:
CNN reported that Framatome warned U.S. officials in early June that the plant was leaking fission gas. According to a memo seen by CNN, the plant operator is meant to comply with regulatory limits to “ensure off-site dose limits are maintained” to “not cause undue harm to the surrounding population.” China’s National Nuclear Security Administration instead revised the limit to more than double its initial release, increasing “off-site risk to the public and on-site workers,” the memo said, according to CNN. The safety authority was not immediately available to comment because of a public holiday in China on Monday.
Taishan unit 1 went into service in 2018. Taishan unit 2 just finished a refueling outage and went back online June 10th. Taishan units 1 and 2 are the only operating EPR reactors in the world. Other units under construction around the world by EDF have been plagued with problems and have yet to begin operations. The actual refueling date for unit 1 is not known. Nuclear power plants are typically refueled in the spring to assure they are available during peak summer energy usage. Multi unit nuclear plants typically have one unit go into refueling then the subsequent units to maximize efficiency of the work.
The plant sits in a densely population region of south China. 80 miles from Hong Kong and near both Shenzhen and Gaungzhou, these are population, manufacturing and export centers that deal with most of the world’s consumer goods. Reuters cites that the current heat wave and dry conditions that have reduced available hydropower may be adding to whatever motivations to keep the plant operating. 20 cities have already been rationing power in the region.
We are working on finding more information about the actual conditions of the fuel and the severity of the problem at the plant. Additional reports will be posted as more information comes out.
Details of the EPR technology can be found here, here and here
Image credit: EDF
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One thought on “Crisis At Chinese Nuclear Power Plant”
Thank you for your reporting on the topic. I have been following some of the popular news accounts. It is clear that various nuclear entities are attempting to downplay the incident. One popular news source stated that krypton and xenon were found in the primary cooling system and then it said they are noble gases which are not harmful. It failed to report that the detected gases are fission products that are radioactive. It also didn’t make it clear that the finding of such gases, in the primary cooling system, indicates degraded sealing of the zirconium alloy fuel rods.