According to US officials and documents reviewed by CNN, the US government has spent the past week assessing a report of a leak at a Chinese nuclear power plant after a French company that owns and operates it warned of a “imminent radiological threat.”
According to a letter from the French company to the US Department of Energy obtained by CNN, the warning included accusations that the Chinese safety authority was 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.
Despite the alarming notification from Framatome, the French company, one of the sources said the Biden administration believes the facility is not yet in “crisis mode.”
While US officials have determined that the situation does not currently pose a serious safety threat to plant workers or the general public in China, it is unusual for a foreign company to seek assistance from the US government on its own when its Chinese state-owned partner has yet to acknowledge a problem. Should the leak continue or worsen without being fixed, the US could find itself in a difficult situation.
According to US officials, the National Security Council held multiple meetings last week to monitor the situation, including two at the deputy level and another at the assistant secretary level on Friday, led by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart.
According to sources, the Biden administration has spoken with the French government and their own experts at the Department of Energy about the situation. According to US officials, the US has had contact with the Chinese government, though the extent of that contact is unknown.
The US government refused to explain its assessment, but officials from the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Energy insisted that if there was any risk to the Chinese public, the US would be required to disclose it under existing nuclear treaties.
Framatome had approached the United States in the hopes of obtaining a waiver that would allow them to share American technical assistance in order to resolve the problem at the Chinese plant. There are only two possible reasons for this waiver to be granted, one of which is a “imminent radiological threat,” as stated in the June 8 memo.
The Chinese limit was raised to exceed French standards, according to the memo, but it’s unclear how that compares to US limits.
“It is not surprising that the French would reach out,” according to Cheryl Rofer, a nuclear scientist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001. “In general, this sort of thing is not extraordinary, particularly if they think the country they are contacting has some special ability to help.”
“But China likes to project that everything is just fine, all the time,” she added.
According to documents obtained by CNN, the US could give Framatome permission to provide technical assistance or support to help resolve the issue, but it is up to the Chinese government to decide whether the incident necessitates shutting down the plant completely.
Multiple sources told CNN that Framatome’s request for assistance on June 8 is the only reason the US got involved in the situation at all.
The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, on the other hand, issued a statement on its website late Sunday night local time, claiming that environmental readings for the plant and its environs were “normal.”
According to the statement, Taishan’s two nuclear reactors are both operational, with Unit 2 having recently completed a “overhaul” and “successfully connected to the grid on June 10, 2021.” The statement didn’t say why or how the plant was redesigned.
“Since it was put into commercial operation, the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant has strictly controlled the operation of the units in accordance with operating license documents and technical procedures. All operating indicators of the two units have met the requirements of nuclear safety regulations and power plant technical specifications,” the statement noted.
Framatome acknowledged in a separate statement Friday that it “is supporting resolution of a performance issue with the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province, China,” hours after CNN first reached out for comment.
“According to the data available, the plant is operating within the safety parameters. Our team is working with relevant experts to assess the situation and propose solutions to address any potential issue,” the statement added.
When asked about the content of the letter to the Department of Energy, Framatome declined to comment.