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Another Facility Leak in China, This Time with the Threat of Radiation

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (L) chats with Taishan Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co Ltd General Manager Guo Liming in front of a nuclear reactor under construction at a nuclear power plant in Taishan, China, October 17, 2013. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

On the menu today, a completely new and different potential threat from China that is being obscured by secrecy and implausible denials; “Bat Woman” Shi Zhengli has a very curious definition of dangerous; and Jon Stewart offers us all a hilarious and much-needed application of Occam’s Razor.

Finally, a Completely Different Threat from China Obscured by Secrecy and Denials

Paraphrasing Allahpundit, we feared that “China’s Chernobyl” could be the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead China’s Chernobyl might be . . . just another nuclear-power-plant accident.

On Monday, CNN reported what could be an enormously consequential scoop:

The US government has spent the past 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,” according to US officials and documents reviewed by CNN.

The warning included an accusation that the Chinese safety authority was raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province in order to avoid having to shut it down, according to a letter from the French company to the US Department of Energy obtained by CNN.

While US officials have deemed the situation does not currently pose a severe safety threat to workers at the plant or Chinese public, it is unusual that a foreign company would unilaterally reach out to the American government for help when its Chinese state-owned partner is yet to acknowledge a problem exists. The scenario could put the US in a complicated situation should the leak continue or become more severe without being fixed.

However, concern was significant enough that the National Security Council held multiple meetings last week as they monitored the situation, including two at the deputy level and another gathering at the assistant secretary level on Friday, which was led by NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart, according to US officials.

The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong Province is right next to Macau, which is right across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. The whole area is effectively one sprawling mega-city that houses an astounding 65 million people, which makes it a particularly terrible place to have any kind of nuclear accident or radiation leak.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that the Chinese government insists everything is fine. “China’s nuclear power plants have maintained a good operating record and no incidents affecting the environment or public health have occurred,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Japanese nuclear authorities, who know a thing or two about nuclear-power-plant accidents after Fukushima, are not quite so sanguine. “Under normal operating conditions it is true some gases like krypton and xenon will escape and be detected but in this case the concentrations are much higher, so something is happening,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. “Once radioactive gas is leaking to the environment it is a serious issue. It could get worse. I think there could be problems with the fuel. It is unusual.”

The Hong Kong Observatory offers hourly updates to its radiation readings, and in the past 24 hours, everything appears low and normal. But the Times article on the French operator’s concerns notes that, “The Hong Kong government, which stays in close contact with the management of nearby reactors, said on April 8 that there had been an incident three days earlier with the exhaust gas system at the same reactor. The incident resulted in a tiny release of a gas, but the details of which gas were not disclosed. The release was equal to only 0.00044 percent of the annual limit for the power plant’s releases of that gas.”

This analysis from Bloomberg running in an Indian publication, The Print, offers a concise description of what is probably happening, which aspects are worrisome and which ones aren’t:

The scant information we have already gives several clues about what’s happened. Noble gases, particularly helium, xenon and krypton, are normal products of radioactive decay. The gas was coming from the deterioration of “a few fuel rods” and levels were in line with international standards, EDF said. If rods deteriorate, they’ll release fission products like xenon into the water flowing past them and on to the turbines that generate electricity. Detecting these gases is an early warning that one of the plant’s multiple safety systems isn’t working properly.

Such incidents aren’t particularly rare, or overly concerning. More than 2 percent of fuel rod assemblies failed in this way in the U.S. between 1994 and 2006, according to a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rates in most of Europe were not much better. Nuclear power plants have numerous redundant safety systems, and as long as any leak remains within the fortress-like reactor building, it should largely mean that plant staff have to temporarily take a few extra precautions, refueling becomes trickier, and maintenance spending goes up.

. . . Throughout this, the [China’s regulator, the National Nuclear Safety Administration itself has remained silent. A nuclear safety monitoring website run by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment has no records of any problems with Taishan. The plant’s operator, China General Nuclear Power Corp., only said that “environmental indicators” at and around the plant are normal — a wording that doesn’t quite address the within-plant issues that EDF and Framatome are looking at.

That silence and careful choice of words is the real problem. Nuclear safety, like aviation safety, is generally pretty good — but to get that way, it depends on a paranoid regulatory culture that addresses the smallest problem with the maximum of attention and transparency. That doesn’t appear to be happening in this instance.

Oh, a lack of transparency, you say? Concerns about safety standards? The government in Beijing insisting nothing is wrong, while those who are much closer to the situation are warning of an imminent threat?

Do you ever feel like the news is in reruns?

As of this writing, nothing has blown up. But the worries about the nuclear-power plant echo the concerns about China’s research on contagious viruses, other lab accidents before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the risk assessments of the Chinese space program. You may recall the concerns last month about the Chinese rocket and the past Chinese-space-program debris landing in the Ivory Coast. China’s space program is the only one that has “lifted rocket stages this big to orbit and left them to fall somewhere at random,” according to the New York Times.

This isn’t picking on China. This is a problem for any regime that turns acknowledging any problem or admitting any mistake into a major threat to careers, which turns those mistakes and problems into major threats to lives. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes realize that their legitimacy does not stem from popular support, so they rely on an image of being all-knowing and all-powerful. Any screw-up undermines that image of supremacy and all-encompassing hyper-competence. Reporting a problem becomes a dangerous move that could lead to damaging the reputation of everyone involved. Thus, when something goes wrong in an authoritarian regime, the first instinct is always to deny the problem exists, then downplay how severe the consequences could be and hope that somehow, people don’t notice. The Soviet Union covered up failed safety tests before the Chernobyl disaster and then downplayed the seriousness of the crisis for days.

‘Bat Woman’: We Never Did Research That Made Viruses More Dangerous

Shi Zhengli, the top Chinese virologist nicknamed “Bat Woman,” had a brief interview with New York Times reporters when they reached her cell phone, and responded to an emailed list of questions. The Times article about her offers this curious detail:

Dr. Shi, in an emailed response to questions, argued that her experiments differed from gain-of-function work because she did not set out to make a virus more dangerous, but to understand how it might jump across species.

“My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses,” she said.

But making a bat virus more likely to jump into human beings is making it more dangerous to human beings.

ADDENDUM: Appearing on Stephen Colbert’s program, Jon Stewart has a particularly hilarious application of Occam’s Razor to the origin of the pandemic. Needless to say, nothing in late-night television has made me laugh this hard in a long time.

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