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News Extra: French nuclear plant problems threaten nuclear new build plans around globe

15 May 2015

In April, French  nuclear engineering group Areva told the country’s nuclear regulator, Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN), that serious anomalies have been identified in reactor vessels at EDF’s new nuclear plant under construction at Flamanville on the Normandy coast.

The Flamanville plant under construction - Image: EDF
The Flamanville plant under construction - Image: EDF

Areva conducted chemical and mechanical tests in late 2014 on similar units to those of the Flamanville European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) vessel heads. ASN said it had been informed that these test results "revealed the presence of a zone in which there was a high carbon concentration, leading to lower than expected mechanical toughness values".

"Initial measurements confirmed the presence of this anomaly in the reactor vessel head and reactor vessel bottom head of the Flamanville EPR," ASN said. Both forged steel components were manufactured at Areva's Chalon/Saint-Marcel plant.

ASN said the vessel of a pressurised water reactor is an element that is particularly important for safety. It contains the fuel and is an important part of the radioactivity secondary containment barrier.

A second investigation is now required into the quality of the steel of the pressure vessel or the 50ft-high safety casing at the French facility.

This is another unwelcome development for EDF’s much-delayed nuclear power project at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The UK facility is set to use the same EPR design and the same steel has been used for the safety casings for Hinkley, which “have already been manufactured.”

The UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said it was aware of the ASN's concerns about the reactor and would continue to liaise with French authorities. "The UK currently have no EPR reactors but expects that learning from Flamanville 3 will be taken into account in the manufacture of components intended for the planned new reactor at Hinkley Point C," it said.

These safety issues in France could lead to even further delays in the construction and completion of the proposed £24.5bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant.

A final decision on Hinkley is expected in June, but the British government and EDF will be hopeful the latest setback will not deter vital Chinese investment in the project, which has still to be agreed.

The EPR is meant to be one of the safest reactors in the world, and the most energy efficient, but has suffered a number of delays and cost overruns.

The casings were made as long ago as 2007-2008 and though it would be possible to replace them, it would be very expensive and take a long time. Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of the ASN said that a similar Areva forging technique had been used for five other EPRs either planned or being built.

Two of these are in Taishan, China and another two are set for Hinkley Point C. Components have also been manufactured for one planned for Calvert Cliffs in the US state of Maryland, a project now on hold. 

EPRs are also under construction at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, where construction started in 2005. After many delays, its start-up date is now expected to be in 2018.

Construction work began on the 1650 MWe unit at Flamanville in December 2007. The reactor vessel was installed in January 2014. The unit is currently expected to start up in 2017.

EDF and Areva said that its teams were "working to perform the additional tests as soon as possible, following approval by the ASN on the test conditions, and to provide the safety authority with the necessary information to demonstrate the safety and quality of the corresponding equipment. In parallel, work continues at the Flamanville EPR."

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