Nuclear safety is of utmost importance and priority in the world for which international standards have been established by the International Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEA) and the International Red Cross. Depending on the severity, a nuclear accident or incident consists of the unintentional release of radioactive materials or a level of radioactivity that could be considered hazardous to health and the environment. This was the case with Three Mile Island (United States, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) and Fukushima (Japan, 2011).
China's Taishan power plant, built by Framatome of France and operated by Electricité de France (EDF), does not appear to have suffered any effects that could technically qualify as a nuclear incident. Radiation levels, according to the IAEA, have been normal and stable around the nuclear power plant and surrounding areas. With 38 nuclear reactors in operation and 19 under construction, China has so far maintained a good radiation safety record. No incidents or anomalies have been reported.
The French company Framatome, which is the majority owner of Taishan, recognized a higher level of radioactivity in the primary circuit of one of the two reactors (unit 2) due to damaged fuel rods (5 bars of 60 thousand) without any risk of radiation leakage into the environment. A joint statement from the Chinese and French co-owners confirms this. They have also confirmed that the reactor was connected to the power grid on June 10, which shows that Taishan was not facing the risk of a nuclear incident.
However, the episode had a wide global public diffusion, which exceeded a situation technically considered uncomplicated. Doubt is the reason for the overreaction, which came to the description of an imminent threat to the population and the environment and therefore caused global concern, particularly in the wake of the painful consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
One reason may be the fact that the Fukushima accident, recent in time, maintains a justified level of alert in public opinion fearful that a nuclear incident such as the one in Japan could repeat itself. Another possibility could be understood as related to the power competition between the United States and China, which shows a bilateral climate willing to overact diplomatically. An issue, which, although framed in the current geopolitical context of tension, should have been approached by both sides with greater caution and responsibility because they are, at the same time, two powers with nuclear arsenals and with significant naval movements in the South China Sea.
The fact that a nuclear power plant generating electricity was chosen as the scenario for divergence is regrettable, as it affects the trust of world public opinion in a safe and reliable source that does not emit greenhouse gases into the environment. The nuclear industry is one of the most responsible and demanding in the world, in the construction and operation of nuclear plants, and the IAEA provides a solid and sustainable framework for nuclear safety and security.
Perhaps the rationale for the emphasis on Taishan is the fact that China is the fastest growing nuclear power generator in the world. It is expected to increase its nuclear capacity to between 120 and 150 gigawatts by 2030, compared to 38 gigawatts today. This shows that China will be able to achieve full energy autonomy thanks to nuclear energy.
The energy issue may be a concern for Washington even in terms of the implications for China's future economic growth by having its own energy supply sources. It was the presence of French technicians from Framatome and Electricité de France in Taishan that did not allow the verbal escalation between the two superpowers to be greater. A sign that both Washington and Beijing must lower the decibels of confrontation, particularly on issues unrelated to military concerns. The international community cannot continue being held hostage to a diplomatic atmosphere that affects international security, reliable energy sources, and the well-being and tranquility of the planet.
Roberto García Moritán is a career diplomat. He was Undersecretary of Latin American Affairs, Undersecretary of Foreign Policy and Vice Chancellor of Argentina from 2005 to 2009.