Daya Bay beefs up safety measures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am


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The operator of the Daya Bay nuclear power station is completing the steps needed to strengthen its ability to cope with a natural disaster, its general manager says.

The station, just 50 kilometres north of urban Hong Kong, has been the focus of the concern in the city since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that sparked nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, Japan.

But its boss, Lu Changshen, says steps are already being taken to ensure the plant's safety, including the addition of extra standby power supplies and more provision for cooling water.

Beijing ordered a review of safety at all nuclear power plants after the tragedy in Japan, while new nuclear projects are on hold until the review is completed. The State Council is expected to approve the review soon.

But Lu (pictured), general manager of Daya Bay Nuclear Power Operations and Management, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that only minor changes would be needed at the plant. 'We have done whatever we can [to improve safety], like [adding] extra water and power backup, and even flood water barriers,' said Lu, who has run the plant since 2008 after being involved in its construction in the 1980s.

'We know some [of the extra facilities] might never be used in our lifetime, but still we just do it,' said Lu, who is in charge of the two reactors in Daya Bay that send about 10 billion kilowatt hours of power to Hong Kong each year, and four others in nearby Ling Ao that supply Guangdong only.

Maintaining the emergency power supply is crucial, Lu says. One of the problems at Fukushima was that the emergency power supply was not sufficient to keep pumping in water to cool the reactors.

An extra diesel-generated power backup is being added to each of the two reactor units in a separate location, on top of the two existing two backup generators each unit has. Another priority is a source of cooling water, and Lu says building an extra, manually operated water tank at a level higher than the nuclear power station, which would be used as a last resort, was still being considered. He says there is no need to increase the height of the 17-metre tall breakwater at the site, as it could withstand a 'once in a thousand years' storm surge and a typhoon with wind speed above 220km/h. Based on the low seismic activity in the area and the coastal geography, Lu believes a tsunami is highly unlikely.

Lu acknowledges that anxiety about nuclear power among some people is 'normal', adding: 'There is risk in everything. The issue is whether you accept it or not.'

But Lu, given an excellence award by the World Association of Nuclear Operators for his commitment to safety, is confident in his plant, which he describes as the safest of 400 reactors built to similar designs worldwide.

While Daya Bay's two reactors have not had an unplanned shutdown in a decade, half of all such reactors worldwide had a shutdown last year.

Lu said a problem detected in 2010, when a tiny crack in one of the plant's 40,000 fuel rods led to a slight increase in radioactivity in the cooling water, was well within acceptable limits and was addressed by a fuel change at the end of last year.

And Lu warned that there was no turning back from nuclear development as the nation could not afford blackouts, nor the environmental consequences of using fossil fuels instead.

Daya Bay was the first commercial nuclear reactor on the mainland when it came online in 1994.