Question marks on nuclear safety hang over mainland reactor

Regulator in Paris says it is not being kept up to date on progress at the French-backed project

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:59am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:59am

The mainland is moving quickly to become the first place in the world to operate the world's most powerful atomic reactor even as France's nuclear regulator says communication and co-operation on safety measures with its mainland counterparts are lacking.

In the coastal city of Taishan, 160km from Hong Kong, mainland builders are entering the final construction stages for two state-of-the-art European pressurised reactors (EPRs). Each will produce about twice as much electricity as the average reactor.

France has a lot riding on a smooth roll out of the mainland's EPRs. French firm Areva developed the next-generation reactor and utility Electricite de France (EDF) is overseeing the project. The two companies, controlled by the French state, need a safe, trouble-free debut on the mainland 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," said Stephane Pailler, head of international relations at the French Nuclear Safety Authority. "We don't have a regular relationship with the Chinese on EPR control like we have with the Finnish," he said, referring to another EPR plant being built in Finland.

Calls to the mainland's National Nuclear Safety Administration seeking comment went unanswered, and China General Nuclear Power, which is building the reactor with the French, did not respond to queries.

China General Nuclear Power, the mainland's biggest atomic operator, is forging ahead with EDF.

Herve Machenaud, EDF senior executive vice-president in charge of generation, said last month it would begin critical tests on the most advanced of the 1,650-megawatt Taishan EPRs before start-up next year. Fuel would be loaded and the plant would "undoubtedly" start up before the European models, he said.

While Pailler said the French regulator did not have specific "worries" about safety at Taishan, its comments go beyond the diplomatic language used by atomic authorities when speaking about other countries.

The French regulatory agency has published hundreds of letters, reports and references on its website about the Flamanville EPR, in Normandy. By contrast, the mainland regulator's website contains relatively little information about safety issues.

Albert Lai, chairman of the Professional Commons, a Hong Kong think tank, said: "The workings of China's atomic safety authority are a total black box."