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Sun, Mar 25, 2001 - Page 2 News List

Nuclear stewardship taken to task

MELTADOWNThe recent mishap at the Third Nuclear Power Plant has brought to light a history of carelessness and lack of transparency at Taiwan's nuclear facilities


The recent incident at the Third Nuclear Power Plant (核三廠) in Pingtung County has caused high-ranking officials, including Premier Chang Chun-hsiung (張俊雄), to question the care taken by Taiwan Power Company (Taipower, 台電) at the nation's nuclear plants.

While no less than four separate groups from Taipower, the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) and the Cabinet search for answers, the premier lashed out at Taipower, saying that the company has a responsibility to the lives and property of Taiwan's 23 million citizens.

As the nation closely watches the investigation into Taiwan's worst-ever nuclear mishap, environmental activists are whispering about a separate, unexposed incident at another nuclear plant which might well have led to a far more dangerous conclusion.

Unexposed incident

On March 2, workers installing fuel rod assemblies into one of the two reactors at the First Nuclear Power Plant (核一廠) located in Chinshan township (金山), attempted to install a damaged fuel rod, according to sources who spoke on condition that they remain anonymous.

At the time, the plant had stopped operation for routine maintenance. Operators must replace one fourth of the more than 400 fuel rod assemblies in the boiling water reactor (沸水式反應爐) every 18 months.

Both the reactor and the fuel rod assemblies are supplied by a General Electric (GE) plant in North Carolina.

Sources said that one of the fuel rod assemblies, which had just been shipped to Taiwan from the GE plant, was damaged after it collided with part of the water pool in which the fuel rod assemblies sit.

Sources said that workers had installed all the fuel rods and were about to start the reactor when someone noticed the damaged rod assembly and abruptly stopped the process.

Anti-nuclear activists told the Taipei Times that if workers had started the reactor under such a delicate situation, it might well have caused the reactor to malfunction.

"A damaged fuel rod assembly might create difficulties ... for inserting the control rods into the reactor to control heat production," Shih Shin-min (施信民), chairman of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU), told the Taipei Times.

Control rods are placed in the water pool with the fuel rod assemblies in order to control the rate of the nuclear reaction, to prevent the fuel rods from getting so hot that they melt down.

"The accident reveals a lack of attention to detail," said Shih, who also teaches chemical engineering at National Taiwan University.

Taipower's supervising body, the Atomic Energy Council (AEC), however, said the mishap was not a big deal.

"The mistake was only a minor problem [with moving the fuel rod assemblies], which is far from any so-called accident," Shen Li (沈禮), director of the AEC's department of nuclear regulation, told the Taipei Times.

After receiving Taipower's report, the AEC immediately began an investigation into the March 2 incident.

Shen confirmed that the cause of the problem was a collision of the fuel rod assemblies when they hit part of the water pool during maintenance.

"Workers removed the damaged one immediately and replaced it with a new one," Shen said, adding that all the fuel rod assemblies now installed in the reactor were in an acceptable condition.

However, Shen said that the plant has experienced similar problems in the past.

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