About a week and a half has passed since CNN reported the U.S. government spent a week assessing a report of a leak at a Chinese nuclear power plant, after a French company that part owns and helps operate it warned of an “imminent radiological threat.” The good news is that so far, nothing has blown up and radiation detectors in Hong Kong and other places nearby have not shown any unusual readings.
The bad news is, no one outside of the plant operators and the China Atomic Energy Authority really seems to know precisely what happened or how bad the problem was or is. Right now, the public assessment from Chinese authorities is that about five of the uranium fuel rods were damaged, which by itself is not particularly rare, and safety measures and precautions are in place to deal with that problem. But it is unusual for a French company to go to the U.S. government to warn about their concerns at a Chinese plant, and Japanese authorities said the concentration of the gases indicated something significant and concerning was happening within the plant. As nuclear energy experts noted, no entity in China publicly communicated anything about any problems at the plant until CNN reported about the French company’s worries and warnings to the U.S. government. And even after word of the relatively small problem emerged, the Chinese line was that everything was fine.
At a press conference June 15, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s spin was that nothing was really wrong or out of the ordinary: “According to the competent authorities, the Taishan nuclear power plant performs to the requirements of the technical specifications with normal level of environmental radiation in the surrounding areas of the nuclear power plant, the safety of which is guaranteed.”
But the seemingly final word from the International Atomic Energy Agency on this incident is not all that different from the assessments of the World Health Organization in the opening weeks of the coronavirus pandemic: The Chinese government tells us everything is fine, but we haven’t been able to independently verify their assessments. The one-paragraph IAEA statement just repeats a series of statements from the China Atomic Energy Authority and concludes, “The IAEA remains in contact with CAEA.” Is everything really “in normal condition and that operational safety is guaranteed,” as the Chinese government claims? The IAEA and the world will just have to take the Chinese government’s word for it. But hey, those guys would never lie about a massive, life-threatening problem, right?