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, 60km from Hong Kong, mainland builders are entering the final construction stages for two state-of-the-art European Pressurised Reactors (EPR). 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, which developed the next-generation reactor, and utility Electricite de France (EDF), 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 Corporation, the operator that is building the reactor with the French, didn't respond to queries.
The first indications of French unease came when Philippe Jamet, one of the French regulator's five governing commissioners, testified before the 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."
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 - the 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".
Tandonnet's report notwithstanding, Herve Machenaud, EDF senior executive vice-president in charge of generation, said EDF was 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".
The French regulatory agency has published hundreds of letters, reports and references on its own website about the Flamanville EPR, in Normandy.
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".