A massive Chinese nuclear power plant a mere 130 kilometers from Hong Kong that has been dogged by controversy over safety and other issues went online last week after a five-year delay.

The plant is in China’s southern Guangdong province, an economic dynamo whose annual gross domestic product is now on par with that of Russia and South Korea. The province has been intent on harnessing nuclear power to feed more electricity into its grid for its sprawling cities and manufacturing clusters.

Four nuclear plants along Guangdong’s coastline are already up and running and now a colossal new reactor at the Taishan Power Plant quietly went online last week. The plant has been plagued by bickering between technicians and Chinese officials as well as their French counterparts concerning safety and contingency measures, controversies that resulted in a five-year delay.

A joint venture by the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN) and Électricité de France, the Taishan plant is a mere 130 kilometers west of Hong Kong. It is home to the world’s first operational reactor of the novel third-generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) configuration, arguably the world’s largest electrical generator as measured by nameplate capacity.

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An overview of the Taishan Plant, with the domes of its two reactors visible on the left. Photo: Handout
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Taishan base is on the peripheral of the populous Pearl River Delta that also includes Hong Kong and Macau. Photo: Google Maps

Of the 1,750 MWe gross delivered by the Taishan reactor, about 90 MWe will be used by plant systems such as the large pumps to circulate cooling water, leaving 1,660 MWe net for supply to the grid, according to CGN.

A second EPR at the same plant is slated to go live early next year.

Meanwhile, France’s Flamanville EPR project is still years behind its original commission target, the same as another plant in Finland.

Xinhua notes that the generator stator – the stationary part of a rotary system – at the Taishan reactor weighs almost 500 tonnes, and its double layer concrete dome is said to be strong enough to withstand a direct hit by a plane and can contain the fallout in a Chernobyl-like scenario, with improvements also made in light of the 2011 Fukushima incident.

CGN admitted that the Taishan reactor was “challenging to construct.” Environmentalists were also fuming at the elusive nature of the plant’s planning and project supervision, amid widespread skepticism about its safety and system redundancy.

Many opposed to the new EPR design demanded that the new reactor remain off the grid before every part could be checked by a third party, to which CGN and China’s National Energy Administration never  acceded.

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A file photo shows a dome being placed on its concrete drum at the Taishan Plant. Photo: Xinhua

In 2015, France’s Nuclear Safety Authority admitted there were safety concerns about an EPR being built in Flamanville. The watchdog also warned that Taishan, which shared the same design and whose pressure vessels were procured from the same supplier, could also suffer from the same safety issues.

There were also reports alleging that the Taishan rector “did not receive the latest safety tests before installation,” as the French manufacturer said its tests detected faults that could lead to cracks in the reactor shell.

In December 2017, Hong Kong media blew the lid on a cover-up involving a cracked boiler found during test runs.

But CGN insisted that all design and quality issues had been ironed out throughout the years of delays and the pair of reactors in Taishan were indeed safer than the old units at the Daya Bay Plant built in Shenzhen in the late 1980s.

The Daya Bay project once triggered a massive outcry in Hong Kong when many rallied and petitioned against having a nuclear plant on the city’s doorstep.

Read more: China to build 60 nuclear plants in coming decade