• French partner accuses Chinese authorities of raising limits for radiation detection
  • Company reached out to US to obtain a waiver to share American technical assistance
  • Taishan recently overhauled one of its two reactors for unknown reasons

The U.S. government is busy assessing a suspected nuclear leak at a Chinese plant after a French company that partly owns the plant warned of an "imminent radiological threat" and sought permission to share American technical assistance to contain it, CNN reported.

The French company, Framatome, accused the Chinese safety board of raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection around the Taishan Nuclear Power plant in the southern Guangdong province to avoid a shutdown. The Chinese state-owned partner has not yet reported any such leak.

Framatome's letter to the U.S. Department of Energy, seen by CNN, warned that the nuclear reactor is leaking fission gas. The company's public statement, however, was less alarming: "Framatome is supporting resolution of a performance issue" with the plant and it was "operating within the safety parameters." The Taishan Nuclear Power Plant stated that environmental readings for both the plant and its surrounding area were "normal."

The Biden administration estimated that the facility is not yet at a "crisis level," but acknowledged that the leak is increasing. Senior officials CNN spoke to pointed out that the U.S. was treaty-bound to report any nuclear leaks if they posed any risk to the Chinese public.

The National Security Council is closely monitoring the situation. On Friday, NSC Senior Director for China Laura Rosenberger and Senior Director for Arms Control Mallory Stewart held multiple meetings regarding the situation at the deputy level and the assistant secretary level.

"If they do have a gas leak, that indicates some of their containment is broken," Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist, told CNN. "It also argues that maybe some of the fuel elements could be broken, which would be a more serious problem."

The Biden administration has reportedly discussed the situation with the French Government and has been in contact with the Chinese government, according to CNN.

Fantome had reached out to the US to obtain a waiver that would enable them to share American technical assistance to resolve the issue at the Chinese plant. The waiver is granted if a leak poses an “imminent radiological threat.” However, even if the U.S. allows technical assistance, it is up to the Chinese government to decide if the plant requires shutting down.

According to Fantome’s letter, the Chinese limit was increased to exceed French standards, but it remains unclear how the new standards compare to US limits.

"It is not surprising that the French would reach out. In general, this sort of thing is not extraordinary, particularly if they think the country they are contacting has some special ability to help," said Rofer.

Taishan has two nuclear reactors, one of which was recently overhauled. The reason behind the overhauled was not known.

The French reachout has the potential to add to the strained U.S.-China relations at a time when President Joe Biden pushes G7 allies to stand up to the Asian giant. There were no reports that the leak was discussed at the summit though.

The the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in China's southern Guangdong province
The the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in China's southern Guangdong province AFP / STAFF