Technician shortage in China ‘threatens nuclear plant safety’

Cover-up of a mishap in a nuclear power plant west of Hong Kong triggers concerns over a shortage of nuclear technicians, experts say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 11:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

A recently discovered cover-up of a mishap in a nuclear power plant about 200km west of Hong Kong has triggered concerns over a shortage of nuclear technicians that may threaten the safety of the plants, industry insiders said.

There was a pressing need in China to train more nuclear engineers and other technicians as the nation spearheads efforts to build more reactors to meet its energy needs and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

The cover-up of a pump failure in March 2015 at the Yang­jiang nuclear power station in Guangdong province was only made public in May this year when the environment ministry announced that was holding four operators responsible. The team leader lost his senior operator’s licence and was moved to a less sensitive post, while the remaining three received warnings.

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In a statement to the South China Morning Post on Thursday, China General Nuclear, which owns the Yangjiang plant said they had been kept in the dark for nearly a year about the pump failure. The company only found out the incident in February during a “self-inspection, self-correction campaign,” it said.

Experts and industry insiders said a cover-up or a delay in reporting an incident should technically not happen because of strict safeguards and the fact that a pump failure could potentially lead to a shutdown of the power plant – making it more difficult to keep it at the dark.

But the shortage of nuclear professionals may push plant operators to cover up incidents because imposing disciplinary action on professionals would mean means there would be fewer workers to maintain operations.

“There is a shortage of skilled hands,” said a nuclear engineer with the China National Nuclear Corporation, a competitor of China General Nuclear in the domestic market.

A report by China Business News said the Yangjiang incident revealed the severity of China’s nuclear labour shortage and how it threatened the safety of nuclear reactors.

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Professor Ai Desheng, a nuclear expert at Tsinghua University, was quoted by the report as saying that China would need 30,000 to 40,000 additional nuclear professionals within the next decade, but the nation could only produce a few hundred nuclear power graduates each year.

He Yu, President of China General Nuclear, said earlier this year that China would need to build 100 new reactors by 2030 to meet its energy consumption and emission reduction goals. To maintain these reactors would need 50,000 to 80,000 operators.

To make matters worse, many experienced operators had been relocated to construction sites of new power plants, putting existing facilities like Daya Bay and Yangjiang under increasing pressure because they did not have enough senior operators. This would severely undermine the safety of nuclear energy in China, some experts warned.

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Nuclear technicians worked in a restricted environment, sometimes under high pressure, with incomes that were not comparable with technical jobs in new industries such as internet companies. Ordinary plant operator took home between 8,000 to 11,000 yuan (HK$9,300 - HK$12,800) per month.

Some nuclear operators told China Business News that they were considering leaving the industry due to high work pressure and too little time to spend with their families.