China’s Taishan-1, which was shut down last summer due to damaged fuel rods, resumed operations on August 15.
The plant briefly made headlines last summer—as much for the damage inside the reactor as for the media fallout. In June 2020, plant operators found damage to the cladding on about five of the 60,000 fuel rods in Taishan-1, one of the plant’s two 1,660-MW EPRs. What happened next seemed like a bad game of “telephone.”
Taishan-1 and -2 were the first ever Generation III EPR designed-reactors to start operating, entering commercial service in December 2018 and September 2019, respectively. The plant is owned and operated by Taishan Nuclear Power, a joint venture of CGN, as well as France’s EDF, which is majority owner of Framatome.
At the time, global experience operating EPRs was limited. Framatome, in a short memo sent on June 8, 2021, asked the U.S. Department of Energy for help with the issue at the plant. Amid this activity, Taishan Nuclear Power was reticent to provide detailed information on what was happening within the reactor, leading to confusion and concerns about a cover-up.
CNN then reported erroneously on the situation based on what was disclosed in Framatome’s memo about an “imminent radiological threat.” What followed was a three-day frenzy of media speculation in the absence of information on the situation. It turned out that the concerns were overblown—the reactor was experiencing a “well-understood and manageable” condition, according to Craig Piercy, ANS executive director/chief executive officer. Once it was clear the issue posed no public health risk, the news cycle moved on, and on July 30, China General Nuclear, majority owner of Taishan Nuclear Power, took the reactor off line to look for the cause of the damage and perform maintenance.
Taishan-1 is once again generating always-available electricity for China’s Guangdong Province, which has a population of 113 million people. With the unit now operating along with Taishan-2, the two EPRs at the plant deliver a combined 3,320 MW of electricity to the grid, making them the most powerful reactors in the world. The closure equated to about 14,500 GWh of clean electricity foregone.
Last year, ANS’s Nuclear Newswire reported on how the lack of available information in this case led to media outlets filling in the blanks to generate headlines and clicks, and urged the industry to learn from this PR fumble to prevent similar communication mistakes in the future. The incident also spoke to the continued existence of public fear surrounding nuclear and underscored the importance of industry transparency, even when an event seems too minor to merit a public-facing response.
Europe’s first EPR, Olkiluoto-3 in Finland, was connected to the grid in March this year, and it is scheduled to begin commercial operation in December. EPRs are also under construction in France and the United Kingdom. France’s Flamanville-3 is slated to start commercial operation in 2023. In England, operation of the two EPR units at Hinkley Point C is expected to commence in 2026 and 2027.
As countries gain experience building new reactor designs like the EPR, it is crucial that their nuclear industries set the tone going forward. As ANS past president Steve Nesbit said last year following the Taishan media maelstrom, “In the nuclear field, it is always best when the responsible authority is accessible and forthcoming with information. Then organizations like ANS don't have to fill in the gaps with explanations of what might or might not be happening. This was one of the many lessons learned from the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. in 1979. It's second nature now for U.S. utilities, but much more challenging for plant operators in countries like China with more centralized control and less media freedom.”
Fuel rod damage happens, as seen from these events, but is far less common than in the past, and the chances of radioactive material leaking from a nuclear power plant into the environment are almost inconceivable. The leak would need to break through three barriers, the first being the cladding on reactor fuel rods. If fission products were to escape this cladding, they could still be contained and monitored in the reactor’s primary coolant system. The chances that anything would escape a three-meter-wide containment dome designed to withstand airplane collisions is vanishingly slim.
During the incident at Taishan, media assumed the worst and provided the sound bites to match, even making comparisons to Chernobyl and Fukushima. As the nuclear industry attempts to expand its fleet of nuclear reactors while also gaining and keeping public trust, incidents like these show the need for the industry to take control of the narrative as honestly and rapidly as possible, so the public will understand that nuclear power plants get shut down sometimes, and there is no need to panic.