A Question of Trust

Does Taipower have the proper safety culture to manage nuclear power?

As Taiwan debates the merits of nuclear power and the prospects of reviving the Lungman Nuclear Power Plant (NPP4) project, safety is of topmost concern. Like flying an airplane, there is no room for error while operating a nuclear power plant and no second chances if something goes wrong. Trust in the system and the operator are essential.

A couple of news reports released last week, however, raise questions over the safety culture of nuclear operator, Taiwan Power Company.

On April 8, a United Daily News (UDN) headline trumpeted a major incident at the decommissioned Chinshan NPP1. According to the report, a critical seawater (ESW-A) pipeline was ruptured by contractors working at the site on December 21 last year, creating the risk of catastrophic fire and radiation plume.

ESW pipelines bring seawater to the plant to absorb heat generated by the decaying spent fuel in Chinshan’s twin cooling pools and transferring it out to sea.  Without this cooling system, water in the cooling pools would gradually heat up until it boiled off. Exposed fuel could then ignite and cause an explosion and cataclysmic release of radioactivity, as is suspected to have happened during the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

That same day, April 8, more bad news broke for Taipower as a worker was struck by a falling pipe at the Maanshan NPP3 in Pingtung and needed to be treated at hospital.

Neither of these incidents resulted in serious consequences. The AEC reports that the ESW system has two lines, and the ESW-B line continued to be operational. The ESW-A pipeline was repaired within a week and the spent fuel was never in any danger. Meanwhile, the injured Maanshan worker was back on the job the next day.  

Spent fuel pool, courtesy of United States NRC

Yet both point to worrying lapses in safety awareness and judgement. While the AEC considered the damaged pipeline at Chinshan a minor event, the fact that it was revealed only months later and through a whistleblower raises questions of transparency at Taipower and the AEC.

More pressingly, how could such an incident have happened at all? National Tsing-Hua University Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Science Yeh Tsung-kuang, speaking on his own behalf but based on his extensive familiarity with the plant and its operations, said that the contractor at Chinshan deployed all the necessary geotechnical tools, including site maps and ground penetrating sonar. Groundwater literally muddied the findings and obscured the presence of the pipeline, however. Regarding the Maanshan injury, the AEC chided Taipower to maintain a safe working environment for all crewmembers, while stating the incident did not affect other crew members.

Neither incident would have made it on the 7-level International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), created by the International Atomic Energy Agency to evaluate the consequences of a nuclear incident. The partial meltdown at Three-Mile Island in 1979 rated a 5, while both Chernobyl and Fukushima earned the top level, 7, a major release of radiation with widespread and long-lasting consequences. According to INES, an incident at a spent fuel cooling in which redundant systems were in place and the temperature in the cooling pools was unaffected is considered Level 0 — Below Scale. Industrial accidents such as at Maanshan are not covered by INES.

Still, Taiwan has a history of poor safety awareness, and the recent railway accident is only the latest example of how a disregard for safety standards can take a horrific toll on society. A similar safety lapse at a nuclear plant would be far more devastating.

Nuclear proponents highlight Taipower’s excellent performance record. The state-utility has been lauded internationally for its safe and efficient operations of Taiwan’s nuclear fleet. Further, nuclear power plants are built to include layers of protection and safety features that are “idiot-proof,” enhancing their safe operation.

Nevertheless, if Taiwan’s nuclear proponents wish to see Taiwan to remain powered by nuclear, then Taipower must go further to reassure the public that both it’s safety systems and its safety culture are equal to the task of powering and protecting Taiwan.   These two incidents suggest that Taipower has room for improvement.

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