Nuclear regulators ‘overwhelmed’ as China races to launch world's most powerful reactor

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The dome of a containment structure is being hoisted at the Taishan Unit 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Taishan, China. Photograph: Imaginechina via AP Images The dome of a containment structure is being hoisted at the Taishan Unit 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Taishan, China. Photograph: Imaginechina via AP Images
China is moving quickly to become the first country to operate the world’s most powerful atomic reactor even as France’s nuclear regulator says communication and cooperation on safety measures with its Chinese counterparts are lacking.
In the coastal city of Taishan, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the financial hub of Hong Kong, Chinese builders are entering the final construction stages for two state-of-the-art European Pressurized Reactors. Each will produce about twice as much electricity as the average reactor worldwide.
France has a lot riding on a smooth roll out of China’s EPRs. The country is home to Areva SA (AREVA), which developed the next-generation reactor, and utility Electricite de France SA, which oversees the project. The two companies, controlled by the French state, need a safe, trouble-free debut in China to ensure a future for their biggest new product in a generation. And French authorities have not hidden their concerns.
“It’s not always easy to know what is happening at the Taishan site,” Stephane Pailler, head of international relations at France’s Autorite de Surete Nucleaire regulator, said in an interview. “We don’t have a regular relationship with the Chinese on EPR control like we have with the Finnish,” said Pailler referring to another EPR plant under construction in Finland.
Calls and faxes to China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration regulator seeking comment went unanswered. China General Nuclear Power Corp., the atomic operator that is building the reactor with the French, didn’t responded to queries.
First indications
The first indications of French unease came when Philippe Jamet, one of the regulator’s five governing commissioners, testified before French Parliament in February.
“Unfortunately, collaboration isn’t at a level we would wish it to be” with China, Jamet said. “One of the explanations for the difficulties in our relations is that the Chinese safety authorities lack means. They are overwhelmed.”
Then, in March, EDF’s internal safety inspector Jean Tandonnet published his annual report to the utility’s chief executive that detailed a mid-2013 visit to the Taishan building site. He wrote that “the state of conservation” of large components like pumps and steam generators at Taishan “was not at an adequate level” and was “far” from the standards of the two other EPR plants, one in Finland and the other in Flamanville, France. Tandonnet urged corrective measures and wrote that studies “are under way on tsunami and flooding risks.”
Safety procedures
Tandonnet’s report notwithstanding, Herve Machenaud, EDF senior executive vice-president in charge of generation said EDF is satisfied with China’s safety procedures. In China, “there is real, independent control that works at least as well as in most countries,” Machenaud said.
At Areva, Chief Operating Officer Philippe Knoche said China’s regulator “is extremely demanding,” in an interview. He said Taishan’s builder is now “getting questions we haven’t faced elsewhere” because it’s so advanced.
Some 28 reactors of various models are currently under construction in China. That’s more building than any other nation on the planet, and the country hasn’t reported a serious nuclear accident in the 22 years it has operated nuclear plants for commercial use.
Still, the international nuclear industry and its regulators have remained skittish following the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan. In that catastrophe, radiation spread well beyond Tokyo, 135 miles from the wrecked power plant, in a disaster that rallied regulators worldwide to be more vigilant.
And in a rare public comment about safety concerns, China’s own State Council Research Office three years ago warned that the development of the country’s power plants may be accelerating too quickly.
‘Current momentum’
“If the current momentum of development continues, if too many nuclear power projects are started too quickly, it could jeopardize the healthy, long-term development of nuclear power,” Fan Bi, a deputy director at the State Council Research Office, wrote in an article for Outlook Magazine, published by the official Xinhua news agency, two months before the Fukushima disaster.
China General, the country’s biggest atomic operator is forging ahead with EDF. It will begin critical tests on the most advanced of the 1,650-megawatt Taishan EPRs before start-up in 2015, Machenaud said last month. Fuel will be loaded and the plant will “undoubtedly” start up before the European models, he said in the interview, the first time an executive has publicly described the plan.
Taishan Safety
While Pailler said the ASN doesn’t have specific “worries” about safety at Taishan, the French regulator’s comments go beyond the diplomatic language generally used by atomic authorities when speaking about other countries. European regulators mostly “steer a line” between stating concerns clearly and softening language to ensure continued engagement with local authorities, said Tony Roulstone, an atomic engineer who directs the University of Cambridge’s nuclear energy masters program in the U.K.
The French regulatory agency has published hundreds of letters, reports and references on its own website about the Flamanville EPR, in Normandy. It has carried out 140 inspections since 2007 on building quality such as concrete, welding and cables, a regulatory spokeswoman said. Other probes were carried out on equipment suppliers, storage and design. The authority has ordered at least two construction halts after finding faults.
Few details
By contrast, the Chinese regulator’s website contains relatively little information about safety issues. The most recent post on Taishan is a 2009 report on the start of cement work at the reactor referring to “problems left over from early-stage construction.” It said all current work was up to standards, without elaborating. In total just nine posts on the website mention Taishan, and many are blank apart from the title.
Critics of China’s nuclear safety regime, including Albert Lai, chairman of The Professional Commons, a Hong Kong think tank, says that lack of information risks eroding confidence in safety controls in what’s set to be a 14-fold increase of atomic capacity by 2030.
“The workings of China’s atomic safety authority are a ‘‘total black box,’’ said Lai. ‘‘China has no transparency whatsoever.’’

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