Paul Brown – France’s Nuclear Industry Struggles On

With its new reactors needing modifications and its older ones awaiting costly updates, France’s nuclear industry is in trouble.

Paul Brown is a journalist and founding editor of Climate News Network

Cross-posted from Climate News Network

Flamanville: Welding problems mean more delay and greater cost. Image: By schoella, via Wikimedia Commons

EDF, France’s nuclear industry leader and the last European company trying to build large reactors, has had further setbacks to its flagship project that make the company’s future prospects look bleak.

The giant Flamanville-3 European pressurised water reactor (EPR), in Normandy in northern France, has difficult-to-repair faulty welds that will delay its start-up, possibly for years, and add to an already overstretched budget.

The French nuclear regulator ASN is yet to decide exactly how EDF must repair 66 faulty welds that currently render the nearly completed 1,600 megawatt reactor too dangerous to load with nuclear fuel. Eight of the welds are inside the reactor’s containment and extremely difficult to reach and fix.

The company is due to meet ASN on 29 May to discuss the best way of tackling the problem that will require specialist skills and equipment. It makes EDF’s current start date for the reactor, March 2020, extremely unlikely to be met, and will probably put the whole project back at least a year, probably two.

Licence problem

Apart from the enormous extra costs involved, the delay will also extend the construction beyond the current licensing decree granted by the French government, another embarrassment for the company.

According to Reuters news agency, when construction started in 2007 the target date for completion was 2012, but a string of technical difficulties have meant delays, and costs have tripled. The latest delay adds €400 million to the cost, which is now estimated to be €10.9 billion ($12.2bn).

Although the meeting on the problem is to take place this month, it may be weeks before any decisions are made on exactly how the problems will be tackled.

The news about Flamanville-3 comes at the same time as further modifications have been ordered to another long-delayed EPR, which should have been completed in 2009 but has yet to become fully operational.

Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, the first prototype EPR, was “hot-tested” in preparation for loading fuel last year, but encountered unexpected vibrations during operation, making it potentially unsafe. The company TVO that is to run the plant says some bitumen cushions have been developed to stop the problem and these will “resolve the vibration issue.”

Under the latest schedule fuel will be loaded into the reactor in June and, all being well, it should start producing power to the grid in 2020 – 11 years late. It is due to produce 15% of Finland’s energy demand.

These events are being watched closely from the United Kingdom, where EDF is starting the building of two more EPRs at Hinkley Point in Somerset, in the West of England.

Older reactors affected

Both reactors are supposed to be completed by 2025, but this seems an extremely optimistic timetable when on average delays to the two built so far in Western Europe seem to be 10 years. For any civil engineering project apart from nuclear power, this kind of delay would be catastrophic.

The company, which has a separate British subsidiary, is also having trouble with its older reactors in the UK. They are long-abandoned UK designs with graphite cores to control the nuclear reaction, but inspections have revealed hundreds of cracks in the graphite.

Although some cracking in the ageing reactors, at Hunterston B in Scotland, is to be expected, the number far exceeds the existing safety case. The UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is considering a new safety case put forward by EDF to allow the reactors to start up after many months of idleness. So far no permission has been granted.

Several deadlines have passed, and last week EDF wrote to local stakeholders advising them that the start-up had been delayed again, to 24 June for one reactor and 31 July for the second. On past performance it is unlikely that either of these dates will be met.

Operation in question

The issue is crucial for the future of EDF in the UK because all but one of the nuclear stations are advanced gas cooled reactors of the same generic design as Hunterston B and produce more than 10% of the nation’s electricity.

If the safety case for the two Hunterston reactors is rejected, then it puts a question mark over whether the remaining 12 should also be shut down.

It is clear that the French government is aware of the parlous state of the energy giant in which it is a majority shareholder. The government is considering splitting the company into two, separating the nuclear arm from the parts of the company that are now heavily investing in renewables.

The renewables sector is booming in France, but EDF’s ageing nuclear fleet of 58 reactors requires immense investment to bring them all up to date. Only by separating the renewable portfolio and renationalising the nuclear arm can the government hope to keep EDF from sinking deeper into debt.

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