Early reports of an accident at China’s Taishan Nuclear Power Plant played down the potential dangers, with authorities saying there had been no leak at the facility and the incident had not raised the allowed radiation levels near the plant.
But Chinese officials have now admitted that some of the reactor’s nuclear fuel rods are damaged and that radioactive gases are building up inside one of its reactors.
French nuclear energy company Framatome, a subsidiary of EDF, helps operate and jointly owns the facility.
A letter from the company requesting help from the US Department of Energy warned that the build-up of radiation presents an “imminent radiological threat,” reports CNN.
“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,” the letter reads.
Radioactivity has been detected in cooling liquid around the fuel rods in a sealed-off area of the plant, about 80 miles west of Hong Kong.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian insisted to reporters that “there is nothing abnormal detected in the radiation level surrounding the plant”.
Official sources say that “about five” of the fuel rods are damaged, but the plant is specified to be capable of operating safely with damage to up to a quarter of its 60,000 fuel rods.
“The presence of certain noble gases in the primary circuit is a known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures,” according to an EDF statement.
Despite the worrying letter to the US government an EDF spokesman, who asked not to be named, insisted that the problem was under control.
He said: “We are not in a scenario of an accident with a melting core.
“We are not talking about contamination, we are talking about controlled emissions.”
However, a report in The New York Times sounds a note of caution, citing experts who say that build-ups of radioactive gases of this kind are often caused by “poor design, manufacturing, or management”.
The fact that elements of Framatome have reached out to the American government for help while China steadfastly maintains that there is no problem is highly unusual.
At the moment, White House sources say the facility is not yet at a “crisis level”, but with the plant situated in the densely populated Guangdong province any significant leak of radiative gases could present a major public health crisis.
The plant, which opened in 2018, uses the same reactor design as the long-delayed Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, and EDF is in negotiations with Government about building a further nuclear plant in Suffolk.