(CNN)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.
Despite the alarming notification from Framatome, the French company, the Biden administration believes the facility is not yet at a “crisis level,” one of the sources said.
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 Biden administration has discussed the situation with the French government and their own experts at the Department of Energy, sources said. The US has also been in contact with the Chinese government, US officials said, though the extent of that contact is unclear.
The US government declined to explain the assessment but officials at the NSC, State Department and the Department of Energy insisted that if there were any risk to the Chinese public, the US would be required to make it known under current treaties related to nuclear accidents.
Framatome had reached out to the US in order to obtain a waiver that would allow them to share American technical assistance in order to resolve the issue at the Chinese plant. There are only two reasons why this waiver would be granted, and one is an “imminent radiological threat,” the same verbiage used in the June 8 memo.
The memo claims the Chinese limit was increased to exceed French standards, yet it remains unclear how that compares to US limits.
“It is not surprising that the French would reach out,” according to Cheryl Rofer, a nuclear scientist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001. “In general, this sort of thing is not extraordinary, particularly if they think the country they are contacting has some special ability to help.”
“But China likes to project that everything is just fine, all the time,” she added.
The US could give permission for Framatome to provide the technical assistance or support to help resolve the issue, but it is the Chinese government’s decision whether the incident requires shutting down the plant completely, the documents obtained by CNN indicate.
Ultimately, the June 8 request for assistance from Framatome is the only reason why the US became involved in the situation at all, multiple sources told CNN.
CNN has reached out to the Chinese authorities in Beijing and Guangdong province, where the plant is located, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, as well as the state-owned energy group that operates the plant along with the French company. None have responded directly, though China is amidst a three-day national holiday that runs through the end of Monday.
However, the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant published a statement on its website Sunday night local time, maintaining that environmental readings for both the plant and its surrounding area were “normal.”
The two nuclear reactors in Taishan are both operational, the statement said, adding that Unit 2 had recently completed an “overhaul” and “successfully connected to the grid on June 10, 2021.” The statement did not define why or how the plant was overhauled.
“Since it was put into commercial operation, the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant has strictly controlled the operation of the units in accordance with operating license documents and technical procedures. All operating indicators of the two units have met the requirements of nuclear safety regulations and power plant technical specifications,” the statement n
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