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10/12/2016

Nuclear safety now a ‘worrying’ issue

Health & Consumers

Nuclear safety now a ‘worrying’ issue

A nuclear power station in Tricastin, France.

[IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

Indebted companies, an overwhelmed safety authority and a complex and muddled caseload show the French have not cracked the recipe for atomic success. Our partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

A concerned Pierre-Franck Chevet, the president of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), told the press on Wednesday (20 January), that “in the current context, the issues of nuclear safety and radiation protection are worrying”.

Safety problems are not confined to energy generation, but also plague the nuclear medicine sector. Last November, a patient in Créteil hospital in France underwent 22 radiotherapy sessions on a healthy part of their body.

Other errors include the administration of excessive doses of radiation and the misuse of new equipment, according to the former director-general of energy and climate at France’s Ministry of Ecology.

The country’s medical and nuclear authorities have struggled to solve these recurring problems.

Old and complex challenges

The situation of the nuclear energy industry is just as problematic. Extending the operating life of 900 megawatt (MW) reactors, dealing with incidents in the construction of the EPR reactor in the Northern town of Flamanville (a pressurised water reactor), implementing the new post-Fukushima regulations and running costly nuclear waste facilities are just some of the complex challenges the sector faces.

>>Read: Nuclear power stations underestimate risk of cyber attack

“What is new is that the French nuclear operators are now having technical and economic difficulties,” Chevet said.

And the problems are piling up.

Areva, the France’s biggest nuclear company, is struggling to complete the construction of a lead unit for an EPR reactor in Olkiluoto (Finland), currently ten years behind schedule. The same company is also responsible for repairing defects the EPR reactor vessels which it recently built in Flamanville.

€78 billion

A number of incidents have delayed this French EPR reactor’s entry into service. An operation that has not been smoothed by EDF’s plan to refit its oldest reactors to extend their operating life to over 40 years.

The French electrical giant is also building two EPR reactors in the United Kingdom, at a cost of €78 billion, which the heavily indebted semi-public company will have trouble covering. “It does not have the financial capacity,” the president of the ASN confirmed.

>>Read: EU approves British nuclear project with EDF

Officially, no nuclear company would begrudge an investment in nuclear safety. But Chevet hastened to point out that it was the work of the ASN and the French Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), and not checks by Areva or EDF, that brought to light the sub-standard quality of the steel used in the construction of the reactor vessels in Flamanville.

A backlog of cases

So it is under these conditions that a mountain of complex cases has accumulated, and the ASN does not have the resources to examine them all at the same time. Priority will be given to existing installations, at the expense of those which are yet to be built. What this means in reality is that the French nuclear regulators will focus on preparing an opinion on the possible extension to the operating life of the country’s 34 900MW reactors.

Another big issue unsettling the nuclear sector is the adoption of new “post-Fukushima” safety standards in France’s main nuclear power stations (EDF power stations, Areva’s fuel cycle plants, reactors and research laboratories). “That should take us around another five to ten years,” said Chevet.

>>Read: Nuclear industry seen emerging from Fukushima shock

But the first steps of this strategy put together by the IRSN are already in place: “The nuclear emergency response force has been operational since the end of 2015. We will inspect it in March with a crisis simulation,” he added.

Anticipating the avalanche of work in the pipeline, the safety authority had called for extra resources during the energy transition debate. “Of the 200 extra staff we requested for the ASN and IRSN, the government gave us 30,” Chevet said.

But penny-pinching has never been the best way to guarantee nuclear safety.