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French regulator says nuclear safety and radiation protection situation “is of major concern”

09 February 2016

At a press conference on January 20, Pierre-Franck Chevet, Chairman of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire, ASN), reviewed the current challenges faced by his organisation and the strategic priorities for nuclear safety and radiation protection in 2016. He said the current situation “is of major concern” and that the sector is “facing unprecedented challenges”.

Flamanville 3 - Image: EDF
Flamanville 3 - Image: EDF

These statements are based on a number of factors: the ageing of the country’s nuclear facilities; the continued need for mitigation measures post-Fukushima; ongoing difficulties in the construction of new facilities and the nuclear sector’s difficult financial situation.

In February 2012, then-President Sarkozy decided to extend the life of existing nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, following a Court of Audit decision that this was the best option as new nuclear capacity or other forms of energy would be more costly and available too late. Within ten years, 22 out of the 58 reactors will have been operating for over 40 years.

But Chevet said: “The continued operation of the nuclear power plants beyond 40 years cannot be taken for granted. The operating conditions for nuclear power plants beyond 40 years is still a subject of some considerable debate.”

ASN says that there is as yet no guarantee that equipment necessary for safety remains compliant, that ageing is controlled and that safety is reinforced in line with the requirements applicable to new installations. This will only be determined after current studies into the condition of the nuclear power plant (NPP) fleet are concluded from early 2016 and generic position statements regarding proposed improvements are issued in 2018. ASN will then issue a position statement reactor by reactor from 2020.

Another priority is ensuring the deployment of post-Fukushima measures continues. Between 2014 and 2016, ASN determined additional requirements for deployment of a hardened safety core on operator Electricité de France’s NPP sites, as well as on the fuel cycle and research facility sites where the potential consequences are the most significant. These resolutions specify additional requirements in order to reinforce prevention and mitigate the consequences of a severe accident, for example affecting the reactor core or spent fuel storage pools. They also entail reinforced measures for emergency management by the licensee.

The regulator has initiated a detailed analysis of the measures proposed by EdF in response to its resolutions, more specifically those concerning the hardened safety core and an advisory committee  will be meeting in 2016 to review these various measures.

Chevet also emphasised that difficulties in the construction of new nuclear facilities would also be closely monitored. There have been serious problems with Areva’s EPR reactors, which are meant to be used in EDF’s new NNPs - including the much-delayed Flamanville 3 plant, the RJH experimental boiling water reactor and the ITER fusion research reactor.

Anomalies have been identified in the composition of the steel in certain parts of the EPR reactor vessel under construction at Flamanville, which could lead to lower than expected mechanical strength. This is the subject of a comprehensive investigation at Areva’s Creusot Forge site, where they were made, and close oversight of the Flamanville construction site will be maintained.

Despite the delays in the construction of RJH and ITER, ASN considers that safety on these construction sites is satisfactory.

Chevet said a key issue would be the industry’s “difficult economic and financial situation”.
As the French nuclear sector reorganises - principally the acquisition of reactor manufacturer Areva by EdF - ASN will be attentive to “ensuring that firms regain the financial capacity required to meet their overall responsibilities and that they maintain essential skills and safety investments”.

Other important issues include decommissioning and the Cigéo deep disposal facility project. As regards the latter, ASN says the cost estimates of between €20 billion, which date from 2005, are overly optimistic and in urgent need of updating.

During the press conference, Chevet also spoke at length about risks at smaller-scale nuclear sites, including research and medical facilities, and expressed satisfaction over recent changes to the nuclear safety and radiation protection legislative framework in France. The Energy Transition for Green Growth Act has already brought about significant progress in terms of transparency and oversight of nuclear installations, he said.

ASN also aims to develop a nuclear risk culture by encouraging the involvement by the general public in subjects relating to nuclear safety and radiation protection. In 2016, for example, iodine tablets will be distributed to those populations living near nuclear power plants. The purpose of this campaign is to inform the general public about nuclear risk and appropriate protective measures.

Finally, Chevet concluded that all the regulator’s responsibilities could not be carried out within existing funding levels and that hard choices had to made. Thought had to be given to the financing of oversight in order to ensure that ASN and the IRSN nuclear and radiation safety institute were given the long-term human and financial resources commensurate with the new challenges.

“It is in this demanding context that ASN has asked for a significant increase in its resources,” he said.

The ASN Chairman said with current resources, immediate priority would be given to the oversight of operating installations, with “the examination of new installations being temporarily put to one side until such time as a solution is found.”

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