SNAPSHOT: Potential nuclear power plant leak in Guangdong province raises radiation risks

SNAPSHOT: Potential nuclear power plant leak in Guangdong province raises radiation risks

OVERVIEW


  • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her government is ‘highly concerned’ about the situation at the nearby Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in mainland China’s Guangdong province. Lam’s remarks came after media reports claimed that the plant could be experiencing a leak.
  • On Monday (14 June), Framatome, the France-headquartered joint operator of the plant, said that it was dealing with a ‘performance issue’ at the site, but that it was running within safety parameters. The majority owner of the plant is China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), China’s largest state-owned nuclear firm.
  • Despite her government’s concern, Lam said data on 14 June from the Hong Kong Observatory and other departments indicated that radiation levels in the territory were normal. Observatory data from 15 June continued to indicate normal levels.
  • Framatome had warned the US Department of Energy of an ‘imminent radiological threat’ and accused Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid its closure, according to a CNN report on 14 June, which also said that US officials believed that the situation did not pose a severe safety threat.
  • Framatome, which has operations in the US, would need a waiver from Washington to assist CGN in fixing technical issues. The US in August 2019 blacklisted CGN for allegedly attempting to obtain advanced US technology and material for diversion to military uses in China.
  • Taishan has a history of frequent minor safety issues. EDF, the majority owner of Framatome, says that gas was purposefully released to allow operators to fix the current issue, which stems from damaged fuel rods.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had contacted its Chinese counterpart regarding the situation but that it ‘has no indication that a radiological incident occurred.’

 

ANALYSIS

 

  • Lam’s remarks noting the Hong Kong government’s concern are likely to spur wider scepticism by the international community around reassurances by China’s ruling communist party on 15 June that there are no irregularities in the plant’s radiation levels.
  • The plant is situated approximately 135 km west of Hong Kong. Any leak could affect public health in the city; however, with the prevailing winds moving from south to north, there is limited risk of exposure to Hong Kong of any leaked radiation at this time. Nonetheless, the city of Guangzhou lies northwards from the plant at a similar distance and could be affected by leaked radiation. 
  • Health conditions associated with a leak would depend on intensity and protraction of exposure to radiation as well as the physical conditions of the individual.

 

ADVICE

 

  • Businesses should prioritise announcements by international monitoring agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy, which have a network of atmospheric monitors able to detect radiation level fluctuations globally, over Chinese state sources given transparency concerns.
  • Review and modify current health and safety policies and protocols to ensure they are fit-for-purpose against radiological disasters. This should include practical steps to protect workers during and after a radiation emergency.
  • In the event of a radiation emergency, employers and workers should follow shelter and evacuation guidance from local emergency response authorities.
  • It should be noted that iodine tablets help reduce the damage radiation does to the body after a nuclear accident. These were given to individuals living near the Fukushima nuclear plant after a tsunami caused a radiation leak in 2011. Companies should consider advance procurement of such tablets if determined to be at high risk of a radiological disaster to avoid situations such as a run on tablets during an emergency event.