Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported

Nuclear experts say gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside a reactor in Taishan, which was built in 2013. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 15 June 2021

Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported

  • Experts say that gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside a reactor in Taishan, 135 kilometers west of Hong Kong
  • In Hong Kong, radiation levels Tuesday were normal, according to the Hong Kong Observatory

HONG KONG: China’s government said Tuesday no abnormal radiation was detected outside a nuclear power plant near Hong Kong following a news report of a leak, while Hong Kong’s leader said her administration was closely watching the facility.
The operators released few details, but nuclear experts say based on their brief statement, gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside a reactor in Taishan, 135 kilometers (85 miles) west of Hong Kong.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, gave no confirmation of a leak or other details. He responded to reporters’ questions by saying, “there is nothing abnormal detected in the radiation level surrounding the plant.”
In Hong Kong, radiation levels Tuesday were normal, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.
Framatome, a French company that helps manage the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province, said Monday it was dealing with a “performance issue.” It said the facility was operating within safe limits.
That followed a report by CNN that Framatome told US authorities about a possible leak.
“With regards to foreign media reports about a nuclear plant in Taishan, Guangzhou, the Hong Kong government attaches a high degree of importance to this,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lam said her government would ask authorities in Guangdong for information and tell the public about any developments.
China is one of the biggest users of nuclear power and is building more reactors at a time when few other governments have plans for new facilities because the cost of solar, wind and other alternatives is plunging.
Chinese leaders see nuclear as a way to reduce air pollution and demand for imports of oil and gas, which they deem a security risk. Government plans call for Hong Kong to use more mainland nuclear power to allow the closure of coal-fired power plants.
The Taishan plant, which began commercial operation in December 2018, is owned by China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and Electricite de France, the majority owner of Framatome. A second reactor began operating in September 2019.
They are the first of a new type called European Pressurized Reactors. Two more are being built in Finland and France.
CNN reported Framatome wrote to the US Department of Energy warning of an “imminent radiological threat” and accusing Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid having to shut it down.
US officials believed there was no severe safety threat, CNN said.
The Department of Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN body, told The Associated Press it was aware of the issue and awaiting information from China.
Electricite de France said Monday it was informed of the increase in concentration of “certain rare gases” in Taishan reactor No. 1.
That suggests fuel rods are leaking noble gases, a byproduct of nuclear fission, according to Luk Bing-lam, an expert on nuclear engineering at the City University of Hong Kong.
“If the leakage is more severe, then you will start seeing more radioactive material like cesium, rather than gas,” said Luk, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Nuclear Society.
Such leaks “happen every so often” in China and plants “usually can handle it themselves,” Luk said. But he said this incident might be complicated if the Taishan plant uses US technology that is covered by export restrictions.
China’s state-owned nuclear power companies are on Washington’s “entity list” that bars them from obtaining US technology without government approval.
The French partner might ask for permission because Framatome previously licensed technology from Westinghouse, Luk said.
“With the situation now, that becomes difficult,” he said. “For even a small problem, they need US government approval.”
China has 50 operable reactors and is building 18 more, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. It is largely self-sufficient in reactor design and construction but is “making full use of Western technology while adapting and improving it,” the association says on its website.
China has constructed reactors based on French, US, Russian and Canadian technology and has developed its own Hualong One reactor, based on Westinghouse technology, marketing it abroad since 2015.
Hong Kong gets as much as one-third of its power from the Daya Bay nuclear power plant east of the territory in Guangdong.
Luk, who has worked with Chinese nuclear power plant operators, said he asked the company for information about the leak but managers won’t talk about it.
“I suspect the leakage is far more widespread than just a single assembly,” he said. “Because of that, they probably need some special technology to resolve this leakage problem.”
Previously, the Taishan facility leaked a “small amount” of radioactive gas on April 9, the National Nuclear Safety Administration said on its website. It said the event was “Level 0,” or “without safety significance.”
Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, defended China’s nuclear safety record and said the nuclear agency works with regulators in other countries and the IAEA.
“China’s nuclear power plants have maintained a good record in operation and no incidents affecting the environment or public health have occurred,” Zhao said.


Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

Updated 11 min 3 sec ago

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

  • Top US diplomat to meet PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday

NEW DELHI: New Delhi is a priority for the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to India on Tuesday will provide an opportunity to deepen bilateral ties, explore COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, experts said.

“The visit is important in the larger context of the US-India relationship because it shows that there is a consistent engagement with India and India is a priority,” Harsh V. Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told Arab News.

On Wednesday, Blinken is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 23, announcing Blinken’s two-day visit.

It added that discussions would focus on “regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan, and cooperation in the UN.”

Analysts said the visit could also lay the groundwork for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries — comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US — likelyto be held in September and mainly aimed at drawing up measures to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region which, according to Pant, sent out a “larger message” about New Delhi’s role.

“We have seen the US secretary of defense coming to India earlier this year, we have seen (US President Joe) Biden calling the Quad leadership summit early on in his term, and now we have the secretary of state coming to India. I think there is a larger message about the Indo-US relationship and how important America sees India as a partner,” he said.

A virtual summit of the Quad group held in March created a working group on COVID-19 vaccine delivery, with India as the lead manufacturer committing to produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for southeast Asian and Pacific countries grappling with a spike in infections.

Blinken’s visit could create an opportunity to “bolster the global strategic partnership” between India and the US and focus on ways to support Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid territorial gains amid a drawdown of US-led foreign troops from the country after 20 years of occupation.

Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation saw India withdraw its staff from its consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif earlier this month.

“There are some apprehensions about the way things are moving in Afghanistan,” Pant added. “Therefore, from India’s perspective, it would be important to get a sense of what the American plan for Afghanistan is.”

Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director at the Takshashila Institution, said India’s primary concern would be to “deny space” in Afghanistan to “Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups” and that there might be some discussions toward this goal.

On Monday, India said that it was also “willing to discuss” its human rights record if Blinken raised it during the bilateral talks.

“India has a plural tradition and multicultural society,” and it is willing to “discuss any human rights issue,” a source in the Indian government, who could not be identified under government policy, told Arab News.

It comes after Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters in Washington D.C. on Friday that “the human rights and democracy question” would be part of the talks between Indian and US foreign ministers.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters, and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory.

India’s human rights record became even more pronounced after the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists, while awaiting bail.

Pant said that bringing up the issue for talks reflected the “pressures” that Biden’s administration was under from various US constituencies.

“I think those who deal with India and the US know that historically India is cagey about including outsiders on domestic issues,” he added.


Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

Updated 26 min 46 sec ago

Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

  • “The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt”

BANGKOK: A vast forest complex in Thailand has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, despite the UN’s own experts warning of human rights violations against indigenous people in the area.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in western Thailand is rich in biodiversity, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, UNESCO said Monday in its listing announcement.

But it is also home to an indigenous community of ethnic Karen people, who have long accused the Thai government of using violence and harassment to push them off their land.

Thailand had lobbied for years to get World Heritage status for the complex, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha praised UNESCO’s decision, vowing to protect the forest according to “international standards.”

“From now on, the government will ... restore the forest together and promote the livelihood development and human rights of locals,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“Everyone will be part of co-management so they will feel a sense of ownership.”

United Nations experts last week urged the UNESCO committee to defer a decision until independent monitors have visited the area and the concerns about the indigenous people have been addressed.

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the three experts said in a statement released Friday by the office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt.”

They also said the World Heritage nomination process did not have effective participation of indigenous people, calling for indigenous people to be treated as partners in protecting the forest, not threats.

The park’s listing dismayed activist Pongsak Tonnamphet, an indigenous resident of the area.

“The decision was not made based on basic human rights principles ... the minority had no chance to speak,” the 24-year-old told AFP on Tuesday.

The World Heritage Committee did not list the park in 2016 and 2019 because of rights concerns.

The dispute has been simmering for decades.

While many indigenous residents were allegedly driven out of the area, those remaining were not allowed to cultivate the land.

Authorities say their farming activities would damage the forest, but activists argue that traditional farming methods do not harm the environment.

Rights campaigners have accused Thai officials of using harassment and violence to force indigenous people out.

The charred bones of a high-profile ethnic Karen leader were found inside the park in 2019, five years after he disappeared, according to Thai investigators.

Park officials at the time were the last to see him alive, but serious charges including premeditated murder were dropped in early 2020, with authorities citing a lack of evidence.

Ahead of the decision, an indigenous rights group held a protest in front of the environment ministry in Bangkok on Monday, flinging red paint at its signage.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the Kaeng Krachan complex is spread over more than 480,000 hectares, and includes three national parks and a wildlife sanctuary.


Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

Updated 27 July 2021

Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

  • Boko Haram attack kills five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian
  • The attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said

YAOUNDE: An attack by Boko Haram killed five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian, according to a defense ministry statement on state radio Tuesday.
The attack took place on Monday night in the far north of the central African country near the border with Nigeria, where operations by the Islamist group have been on the rise, reported AFP.
Meanwhile, Reuters said the attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said on Tuesday, the second deadly raid in the area in the past week.
An army post in the village of Zigue was attacked at around 9 p.m. (20:00 GMT) on Monday, according to two officials who asked not to be identified.
The attack follows a raid that took place around 50 km (30 miles) north of Zigue on Saturday, which was claimed by Daesh. Eight soldiers were killed in that raid, according to the defense ministry.
Cameroon, alongside neighboring Nigeria and Chad, has been battling the Boko Haram militant group for years, but more recently has clashed with fighters who identify themselves as Daesh West African Province (DWAP).
In the aftermath of the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May, DWAP has sought to absorb Boko Haram fighters and unify the groups which had hitherto fought one another for control of territory.

With AFP and Reuters.


Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

Updated 27 July 2021

Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

  • Case against Hamid Noury, arrested in Sweden in 2019, concerns his alleged part in prisoners’ mass killings during 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq
  • Sweden's Prosecution Authority said prisoners had been linked to the "People's Mujahedin of Iran"

STOCKHOLM: Swedish prosecutors said Tuesday they were charging an Iranian man for “war crimes and murder” over the execution of more than 100 political prisoners in 1988 in Karaj, Iran.
The case against 60-year-old Hamid Noury, who was arrested in Sweden in 2019 when he came to visit relatives, concerns his alleged part in the mass killings of prisoners toward the end of the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq.
Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for justice for what they consider to be the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, across the country.
Sweden’s Prosecution Authority noted in a statement that the prisoners had been linked to the “People’s Mujahedin of Iran,” a political organization seeking to overthrow the clerical leadership whose armed branch had launched several attacks against Iran.
In the summer of 1988, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini “issued an order to execute all prisoners held in Iranian prisons who sympathized with and were loyal in their convictions to the Mujahedin,” the authority noted.
According to the authority, Noury held the position of “assistant to the deputy prosecutor at the Gohardasht prison,” on the outskirts of Karaj, west of Tehran.
“The accused is suspected of participating, together with other perpetrators, in these mass executions and, as such, intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners, who sympathized with the Mujahedin and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment,” the authority said.
In the charge sheet, seen by AFP, prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson noted that these actions constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Noury’s lawyer told AFP that he denies the charges against him.
Following the mass executions, and after a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq was enacted, the Iranian leadership also decided that other political prisoners “who sympathized with various left wing groups and were regarded as apostates by the Iranian leadership, should be executed.”
Prosecutors said Noury, in his role at the prison, was also complicit in the killings that followed.
“These acts are classified as murder according to the Swedish Penal Code since they are not considered to be related to an armed conflict,” the authority said.
In May, a group of more than 150 rights campaigners, including Nobel laureates, former heads of state or government and former UN officials, called for an international investigation into the 1988 killings.
The case remains sensitive in Iran as activists accuse officials now in government of being involved.


UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

Updated 27 July 2021

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

  • Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days
  • Despite the turnaround ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for caution Tuesday after Britain registered nearly a week of lower coronavirus case numbers, a decline that has surprised officials and experts.
Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days, with 24,950 new cases announced Monday compared to 46,558 last Tuesday — a fall of 46 percent.
The reversal after weeks of rising rates has coincided with the removal on July 19 of nearly all pandemic rules in England, including legal requirements for social distancing wearing a mask in public indoors.
It has confounded the government and scientists, who had previously warned cases would likely surge to 100,000 a day in the weeks ahead after the restrictions were eased.
Despite the turnaround, which comes after the start of summer school holidays, ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain.
“I have noticed that obviously we have six days of some better figures but it’s very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Johnson said during a visit to a police station in southeast England.
“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government,” he added.
Johnson ended 10 days in self-isolation late Monday after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The prime minister argued that Britain’s successful vaccination campaign — which has fully vaccinated 70 percent of adults — allowed for the relaxation of legal curbs last week.
But the move attracted widespread criticism, with fears the National Health Service could again come under severe strain from rising caseloads, even if many fewer people are now dying of Covid.
Experts have struggled to explain why infections appear to have declined so dramatically since early last week.
The end of the Euro 2020 football tournament — which was blamed for a spike in cases among younger men gathering to watch games — as well as the school holidays and a heatwave have all been mooted as factors.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine.
But, echoing Johnson’s call for caution, he added: “I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”