Hong Kong watching nearby Chinese nuclear power plant after report of possible leak

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2013, file photo, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, left, chats with Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co. Ltd. General Manager Guo Liming as he inspects a nuclear reactor under construction at the nuclear power plant in Taishan, southeastern China's Guangdong province. The French joint operator of the Chinese nuclear plant near Hong Kong said Monday it is dealing with a “performance issue” but is currently operating within safety limits, following a report of a potential radioactive leak. (AP Photo/Bobby Yip, Pool, File).

Hong Kong’s leader said Tuesday her government is closely watching a nearby Chinese nuclear power plant following a news report that it might be leaking.

The plant’s operators have released few details, but nuclear experts say based on their brief public statement, the facility might be suffering a leak of gas from fuel rods inside a reactor.

Government data showed radiation levels in Hong Kong were normal Monday night, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said. Data on Tuesday from the Hong Kong Observatory showed radiation still normal.

A French company that helps manage the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province said Monday it was dealing with a “performance issue.” It said the facility was operating within safe limits.

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That followed a report by CNN that Framatome told U.S. authorities the power plant 135 kilometers (85 miles) west of Hong Kong might be leaking.

“With regards to foreign media reports about a nuclear plant in Taishan, Guangzhou, the Hong Kong government attaches a high degree of importance to this,” Lam said.

Lam said her government would ask authorities in Guangdong for information and tell the public about any developments.

The Taishan plant, which began commercial operation in December 2018, is owned by China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and Electricite de France, the majority owner of Framatome. A second reactor began operating in September 2019.

They are the first of a new type called European Pressurized Reactors. Two more are being built in Finland and France.

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CNN reported Framatome wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy warning of an “imminent radiological threat” and accusing Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid having to shut it down.

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U.S. officials believed there was no severe safety threat, CNN said.

The Department of Energy did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press that it was aware of the issue and was awaiting information from contacts in China.

Electricite de France said Monday that it had been informed of the increase in concentration of “certain rare gases” in Taishan’s reactor No. 1.

That suggests fuel rods are leaking noble gases, a byproduct of nuclear fission, according to Luk Bing-lam, an expert on nuclear engineering at the City University of Hong Kong.

“If the leakage is more severe, then you will start seeing more radioactive material like cesium, rather than gas,” said Lam, who also is chairman of the Hong Kong Nuclear Society.

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Such leaks “happen every so often” in China and plants “usually can handle it themselves,” Lam said. But he said this incident might be complicated by the fact that the Taishan plant might use U.S. technology that is covered by export restrictions.

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China’s major state-owned nuclear power companies are on Washington’s “entity list” of companies that are barred from obtaining U.S. technology without government approval.

The French partner might be asking for U.S. approval because Framatome previously licensed technology from Westinghouse, Lam said.

“With the situation now, that becomes difficult,” said Lam. “For even a small problem, they need U.S. government approval.”

Lam, who has worked with Chinese nuclear power plant operators, said he asked the company for information about the leak but managers won’t talk about it.

“I suspect the leakage is far more widespread than just a single assembly,” said Lam. “Because of that, they probably need some special technology to resolve this leakage problem.”

Previously, the Taishan facility leaked a “small amount” of radioactive gas on April 9, the National Nuclear Safety Administration said on its website. It said the event rated “Level 0” on its safety scale, meaning it was “without safety significance.”

AP Business writer McDonald contributed from Beijing.

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