After reports were broadcast by CNN, Framatome issued a statement saying it was trying to resolve a ‘performance issue’ at the plant, in which it has a 30 per cent stake. The Chinese firm, CGN, refused to comment, though the plant said that everything was ‘normal’. Only on 16 June did the Chinese government inform the International Atomic Energy Authority that there had been an issue with some damaged fuel rods. It described the issue as a common occurrence, which did not trigger safety concerns.
It could have been far worse. The technical details are reassuring, but they were far too slow to come out. Had this been a wholly-owned Chinese plant, we would still be completely in the dark. It is chillingly reminiscent not only of the early days at Chernobyl, but also the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. During those early days in Wuhan there was open speculation that Xi Jinping had finally reached his ‘Chernobyl moment’ – the disaster that would hasten the demise of a monolithic communist party.
There is visibly a pattern emerging in China which we have seen in authoritarian regimes before. Bad news is quashed and denied. The Chinese Communist party is secretive by nature, and regards itself as accountable to nobody. This has been exacerbated by Xi Jinping’s concentration of power. Officials are afraid to pass bad news up the food chain, preferring to tell the emperor what he wants to hear. In democracies, bad news travels to the top quickly. In autocracies, less so.