When CNN in June broke the news of a reported “leak” at China’s Taishan nuclear power plant, it didn’t take long for the alarming headline to be politically instrumentalised. The mention of increased levels of radiation caused by a degradation of fuel rod cladding, as well as increased concentrations of noble gases and neutron poisons xenon and krypton in the reactors primary circuit, seemingly confirmed what anti-nuclear activists had been saying for years: that nuclear energy is inherently unsafe and needs to be stopped.
The report was only exacerbated by concerns that the Chinese nuclear regulator intended to raise the permissible levels of radiation around the plant to prevent the need for a shutdown. However, a closer look revealed that the concerns were overstated: not only was the claim about radiation limits unrelated to external radiation detection, but there was no leak at all. Damage to the fuel cladding had merely caused the radioactivity of the primary reactor coolant to rise, which in turn remained safely contained within the NPPs multiple containment barriers. In the end, what sounded like a severe accident was in reality a completely normal phenomenon, and a well-understood consequence of routine reactor operations.
While the NPP had always operated “within the safety parameters”, what was ultimately lost in the post-incident aftermath was one very important thing, namely the safety measures employed in modern NPPs are working effectively. No external contamination was found, nor was there any danger to human lives – something that even notorious anti-nuclear activist Mycle Schneider had to admit. Even so, Taishan still feeds the narrative that has become so dominant in the wake of the tsunami at the root of the infamous accident at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP in March 2011.
Eternally changed narrative
Said accident deeply changed Europe’s perception of nuclear plants, turning what should have been one of the most sustainable electricity generation sources into a lightning rod for criticism. It’s standard practice now to invoke Fukushima and Chernobyl in one breath whenever nuclear reactors, in operation or under construction, are discussed in public and political discourse, routinely by largely exaggerating the overall consequences from these accidents. This is proof of an increasingly ideologically tainted viewpoint entirely divorced from scientific facts.
As the most recent incident with profound consequences for the industry, Fukushima Daiichi is a prime example of this: although there is to date only one recognized death of a Tepco technician from radiation exposure, mainstream media reports conflate the 20,000 human losses caused by the tsunami with those of the nuclear accident, implying that this tragic loss of life is the direct result of the events that unfolded at the NPP. Worse, it conflates entirely different paths to disaster, since, as any nuclear scientist knows, Fukushima Daiichi will never be the reference case for severe nuclear accidents for most reactors (PWRs, VVERs, etc.) – that accolade belongs to the 1979 Three Miles Island (TMI) accident.
Why TMI? Because should an accident occur, nuclear reactors have a series of main safety systems to prevent radioactive aerosols from escaping into the environment. Because of containment systems, no radiation was released from TMI even though one third of the nuclear core had melted. The way the containment structure behaved during the nuclear core-melting phase, with water aspersion and hydrogen captures, is indicative of the effectiveness of this line of defence in case of an emergency.
Nevertheless, the effects of the prevailing narrative cannot be ignored. Constant referencing of real and hypothetical nuclear accidents has caused trust in nuclear technology in general, and pressurised water reactors in particular, to plummet, even if the overwhelming majority of these has operated in France for more than 40 years without incidents above level 2 on the INES scale. Furthermore, the spread of misleading information has shifted perceptions on all aspects of nuclear safety to the extent that technical safety evaluations carried out for new installations are routinely used as evidence to paint the reactors as inherently dangerous.
Tragically, the weaponization of nuclear safety itself has led to the shutdown of operational NPPs, the stopping of research on advanced reactors, and the increasing of the cost of NPPs under construction. For evidence of this, look no further than the EPR at Flamanville and the Astrovets NPP in Belarus, both of which have been making global headlines for years.
Raising the price at Flamanville
Construction on unit 3 of the French Flamanville plant, which houses a third-generation pressurised water reactor, began in 2007. Following a series of safety concerns, commercial operations have been pushed back from 2012 to late 2022. Although these delays are used to portray the project as a failure, a closer analysis reveals that the political pressure exerted on the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) is the primary culprit behind the delays. Given that time is money, each one-year delay in the EPR’s construction raised the project’s global cost by €1 billion and supplied campaigners with even more arguments against the NPP.
Nominally independent but answerable to the ministry of the environment, the ASN has greatly been hindered in fulfilling its original role since the 1980s, when a number of nuclear-sceptical French environment ministers took the post, which made the organisation a hostage of the political environment. Under their tutelage, France fell out of love with the technology, culminating in the 2015 Act on the energy transition for green growth that envisions the share of nuclear in France’s energy mix to fall to 50% (down from roughly 75%) by 2025 – goal slowly understood to be impossible to achieve.
That same year, pressure on the regulator forced it to halt construction at Flamanville because of “anomalies” in the cast steel of the primary reactor vessel’s lower and upper parts. The “anomalies” consisted of local carbon concentrations that some feared would adversely affect the steel’s mechanical durability. An exacerbating factor was that, since the beginning of that year, the ASN had also applied its own resilience criterion, which is stricter than the international standard criterion, and which Areva, the vessel’s producer, did not adhere to when the parts were cast in 2005. Thus, although the international standard was met and the vessel was deemed fit for purpose, the ASN ordered construction to stop.
The move was criticised by several experts who laid out a set of technical arguments against the assumption that the vessel posed a genuine safety risk. Among them is the fact that avoiding carbon accumulations in ferritic stainless steel components of such thickness is impossible under thermal gradients. In that kind of steel, carbon simply doesn’t bind with other atoms within the steel’s crystal morphology, making carbon a natural impurity that settles at the steel’s grain boundaries. If the local concentration of carbon atoms remains low, under a few percentage points – as was the case – a local accumulation of carbon poses no problem to the material’s integrity.
Even if international resilience norms were met, a series of tests with EDF and Areva were conducted to certify the mechanical resistance of the primary vessel. These shouldn’t have taken longer than nine months to complete – yet it was only in June 2017 that the ASN was finally able to confirm the vessel’s mechanical characteristics were sufficiently strong to bear the stresses exerted upon it, “including in the event of an accident.” In all, the mechanisations of the anti-nuclear establishment in the government had succeeded in dragging out the review period for two years to confirm what was already known, causing a standstill at reactor unit 3 that not only unnecessarily undermined trust in the EPR but came with price tag worth billions to boot.
Safety ping-pong with Astravets
Another example of how nuclear safety is leveraged to prevent NPPs from achieving full and timely operability is plainly illustrated by the events unfolding around the Astravets power plant in Belarus. Although not a member state of the European Union, several EU parliamentarians, at the urging of Lithuania, demanded in February 2021 that Belarus suspend the project over supposed safety concerns.
These demands continue to be voiced fervently, even after the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) concluded in a preliminary report adopted March 3 that the safety measures at Astravets are squarely in line with European standards. The peer reviewed report – published after extensive site visits and safety evaluations – confirms that the Russian-built VVER reactors as well as the NPP’s location are no cause for concern. Indeed, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated in an EU Parliament hearing that “We’ve been engaging with Belarus for a long time”, “we are present in the field all the time”, and the IAEA has found “good practices and things to improve but we have not found any reason for that plant not to operate.”
The Belarussian nuclear safety authorities granted Astravets Unit 1 the operational licence on 3 June, while the plant’s opponents continue to draw comparisons to Chernobyl. However, one of the fundamental lessons gleaned from Chernobyl was that complete core melt-throughs needed to be thoroughly contained. This is usually carried out with a device called a core-catcher, and every VVER-1200 reactor – two of which are in Astravets – is equipped with it. The core-catcher’s cooling system must be able to cool the core debris where a thermal power of about 50 MW is generated during the first days following the nuclear accident. No neutronic excursion occurs under these circumstances, in what is another fundamental difference to Chernobyl. Given that European safety experts have not raised these issues during their analyses of Astravets indicates that there are no problems with these measures.
Finally, talking about hypothetical accidents at Astravets, Vilnius and the European Parliament have often invoked the risk of earthquakes in a nod to Fukushima, arguing “the ground below the power station is unstable”. An earthquake’s biggest threat is to underestimate its energy and characteristics. This is what happened at Fukushima Daiichi, where Tepco erroneously dismissed the ancient warnings stemming from the Jogan earthquake and tsunami in the ninth century, with disastrous results. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for the Astravets NPP, whose design takes into account a safety margin based on seismic events two logarithmic levels above the historical seismic data of the site.
To be or not to be
If the past is a guide, it’s obvious that a severe accident can be triggered by what might appear as a minor incident at first. It is this uncertainty which necessitates stringent safety measures, but also makes it very easy for any safety concern to be weaponised to close a NPP or stall the construction of a reactor. The fate of Flamanville’s EPR, where safety analyses were continuously used to create disruptions, is just one example of this abuse of regulatory requirements to take any potential safety doubts seriously. The same applies to the Astravets saga, where Lithuania and EU officials have spent years criticising the plant’s safety measures despite the fact that they were never found to be seriously lacking.
In light of the increasingly aggressive tone of the nuclear debate, the fundamental question remains whether the importance of nuclear energy will be acknowledged in Europe, or if it will be rejected on political grounds.
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