DAYA BAY, CHINA — AN international team of nuclear experts has urged China to take steps to improve safety at the nation's largest nuclear power station before fuel loading begins in 15 months. Concluding a three-week inspection, the team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts called for tighter enforcement of work procedures, faster recruitment of qualified technicians, and the creation of an off-site emergency strategy for the plant at Daya Bay in southern Guangdong Province.
``There is a lot of effort that needs to be put in to make up for where they are now'' in preparing to operate the station, IAEA team leader Ashley Erwin said in a report on Dec. 14.
The IAEA recommendations come amid concern in Hong Kong over news that Guangdong authorities are considering a major expansion of the controversial Daya Bay project, located just 40 miles northeast of the British colony of 5.6 million people.
Guangdong is eager to build a second nuclear power station either at Daya Bay or another site on the provincial coast, confirms He Jiacheng, at the state-run China Nuclear Industry Corp. But Beijing has not yet approved the plan, he says.
Statements by IAEA experts and Chinese and foreign managers at Daya Bay suggest some of the potential safety hazards arise from China's attempt to construct its first large nuclear plant in a six-to-seven-year period - a tight schedule, even for France, which has built dozens of reactors.
Yet government backers of the project, led by Premier Li Peng, see the expansion of nuclear power as essential for alleviating chronic energy shortages that are hindering China's economic modernization.
Chinese nuclear officials this year announced plans to boost the percentage of nuclear-generated electricity dramatically - from zero in 1990 to 2.5 percent in the year 2000 and up to 50 percent in the year 2050.
China's electricity today comes mainly from coal-fired thermal plants and hydropower. The production of coal, which supplies 70 percent of the country's energy needs, is lagging behind industrial growth, and Chinese experts predict a serious shortfall by mid-next century.
The worst power shortages are in dynamic coastal provinces such as Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Liaoning, which are vying for government funding for nuclear power plants, official press reports say.
Foreign companies are eager to supply nuclear technology and equipment to China, which remains an important market despite Beijing's 1986 decision to rely mainly on cheaper, home-designed plants.
Politically, Mr. Li has a major stake in the success of the plant. He has supported the plant since its initial feasibility study in 1980, visiting the site eight times. Li's wife, Zhu Lin, heads the Beijing office of the Guangdong Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co. (GNPJV), which is building the plant, and sits on its board of directors.
Energy policy is heavily politicized in China, and Li's high profile in recent months adds to the pressure on managers to complete the Daya Bay project smoothly and on schedule.
``Big problems would make him look bad,'' says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar at the University of Michigan who is coauthor of a book on Chinese energy policy.
Jutting from the rocky coast of Daya Bay on the South China Sea, the plant is rapidly nearing completion, with some construction two months ahead of schedule, says Zan Yunlong, general manager of the GNPJV.
Workers are installing twin, 900-megawatt pressurized water reactors imported from the French company Framatome and steam turbine generators made by the British company GEC.
The ambitious $3.5 billion Sino-Hong Kong joint venture is to produce 10 billion units of electricity annually when both reactors are operating in 1993. Seventy percent of the electricity will be sold to Hong Kong, with the remainder consumed in Guangdong. China controls 75 percent of the venture, and Hong Kong 25 percent.
MANAGERS assure visitors that the risk of leakage of radioactive material is minimal. The nuclear station can withstand an earthquake of 8 points on the Richter scale, floods, high winds, and the impact of an aircraft, they say.
Yet while the IAEA review this month documents an ``aggressive construction schedule'' with good quality controls, it says measures central to the plant's safe operation are lacking.
The IAEA team found that workers sometimes ``skipped procedures'' or performed jobs without them. Such laxness may explain a blunder in late 1987, when they omitted 316 bars from the concrete foundation of one reactor building, halting construction for a month.
The team also warned that preparations are ``behind schedule'' for the mid-1992 commissioning of the first reactor. It called for accelerating the recruitment and training of more than 400 technicians and craftsmen still needed to operate the plant.
Despite the accidental deaths of at least three workers on the site, the IAEA said poor industrial safety continues. Workers go unprotected by hard hats and ledges are left unbarricaded, reflecting low safety standards common in Chinese industry.
``This raises concern whether standards at Daya Bay will be any different. One would hope for very tight oversight so they don't create a catastrophe,'' says a Western source familiar with Chinese industry.
Yet foreign managers say they face difficulties in supervising construction at Daya Bay.
``The project is more complex than in France,'' says construction manager Alain Keramsi of 'Electricit'e de France, the French utility that has technical responsibility for the plant.
``We don't speak the same language. We have some problems of communication. We have to perform the job and train the Chinese at the same time,'' Mr. Keramsi says. France has only built four plants on such a rapid schedule, he added.
Foreign managers must also deal with the plant's powerful Communist Party committee to motivate the Chinese labor force and subcontractors.
The IAEA also expressed concern that Guangdong has no off-site emergency plan for responding to an accident at Daya Bay. The province faces little pressure from citizens, but has met stiff criticism from Hong Kong.
A million Hong Kong residents signed a petition in 1986 calling for the scrapping of the plant. Polls a year later showed that more than half the population sought to cancel or postpone it for safety reasons.
Yet the only formal channel for Hong Kong people to voice concern is a Sino-Hong Kong committee set up by Beijing in 1988. Members had difficulty gaining permission to listen in on the IAEA presentation at Daya Bay, committee chairman Wong Po-yan says.
``Ordinary Hong Kong people come into our office saying they are emigrating because of Daya Bay, not 1997 [the year China takes over Hong Kong],'' says Linda Siddall, director of Friends of the Earth and a campaigner against the project.