Faulty technology

The nuclear reactors the government intends to import into Jaitapur are European Pressurised Reactors, or EPRs. Yet the EPR is a dangerous and untested technology that could be a disaster for India.

What is the EPR?

The EPR is a light water reactor developed by French company AREVA NP, in cooperation with German firm Siemens. AREVA NP (often simply referred to as AREVA) is state owned and an aggressive pusher of nuclear energy globally. French president Sarcozy’s December 2010 trade visit to India was successful: he came away with a USD 9.3 billion framework agreement that France would supply two EPRs for Jaitapur.

The EPR is one of the most powerful nuclear reactors in the world, with an electrical capacity of more than 1650MWe. It is a ‘generation III+’ nuclear reactor. Featuring ‘passive’ safety mechanisms (meaning the safety components rely more on natural processes rather than engineered systems), the generation III+ reactors are marketed as simpler, cheaper and easier to build than previous generation designs. However, it is not immediately apparent, and there is no guarantee, that the safety level of the EPR is significantly higher than that of its predecessors (1).

The nuclear industry hoped generation III+ reactors such as the EPR would lead a so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’ after the decline in support for nuclear power that followed the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. However, only four EPRs have been commissioned in the world. Of those two sites on which information is available, construction is years behind schedule and billions over budget. There are no operational EPRs anywhere in the world.

What’s wrong with the EPR?

1. More radioactivity

 The EPR is the largest reactor ever built, meaning it has more radioactive elements in its core than any other. It’s also designed to burn fuel for longer for reasons of economy, which leads to increased radioactivity and more dangerous nuclear isotopes. The consequences of releasing this large amount of radioactivity into the environment in the case of an accident would have vast and terrible consequences.

2. Vulnerable to terrorist attack

 The EPR was designed before 9/11, and its design does not reflect the changed global security situation that exists today. Official French documents, leaked in 2003, revealed the ability of the EPR containment dome to withstand impacts was under doubt. UK nuclear consultant John Large found there to be “an almost total lack of preparation to defend against a terrorist attack” within the companies that supply the EPR (2). The spent fuel cooling and spent fuel storage areas, which would house an enormous inventory of radioactive substances, are particularly vulnerable.

However, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Jaitapur makes no mention of these douments, and is also optimistic about the ability of the EPR to withstand impact of a commercial airliner.

3. Waste

AREVA’s claim that the EPR will produce less waste than other reactors is true: the volume of waste is fifteen per cent less. However, that waste will be more dangerous than the waste produced by other reactors because it is more radioactive.

This is because the EPR burns fuel for longer, which increases the amount of radioactivity. Its ability to operate with 100 per cent MOX fuel (mixed uranium and plutonium oxides) will also make it a major link in the reprocessing chain, which is highly contaminating. India has no long-term radioactive waste disposal plan, yet the Jaitapur EIA ignores the impact this waste will have.

4. Cost

Each generation of nuclear reactor has been more expensive than the one that came before it. Far from providing cheaper and more competitive nuclear energy, the EPR construction sites in Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France have already cost billions more than anticipated and are still yet to be completed. When the decision was originally made to build an EPR in Finland, for example, the government promised it would cost only €2.5 billion to build. In August 2010, AREVA acknowledged the estimated costs had already reached €5.7bn.

5. Flawed design

The instrumentation and control (I&C) panel of the EPR has three major functions: control, monitoring and protection. AREVA has chosen to propose only computerised I&C panels for the EPR, which can create new problems, and so can lead to new safety hazards. They can also potentially be exploited by cyber-attacks (3).

The British, Finnish and French nuclear safety regulators have issued a joint statement listing key issues and demanding improvement from AREVA on the I&C panel (4). India’s nuclear safety regulator has raised no concerns about the EPR design, and none are mentioned in the Jaitapur EIA.

6. Problems with construction

Both the EPR construction sites at Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France, have been plagued with problems that have left them years behind schedule. In Finland, problems have included: irregularities in the concrete used for the foundation, heavy forgings that were below project standards and had to be re-cast, deficiencies in the pipe welding and issues with the I&C systems (3). One of the delays was the need to strengthen the containment dome, as it did not comply with Finnish security standards.

The French site has also been delayed due to problems with the I&C systems, as well as civil works, welding and component manufacturing. While the Finnish site had the excuse of being the first in the world and so subject to teething problems, the French site is being run by the most experienced nuclear utility in the world, and has no such excuses.

 

Further reading

EPR: The European Pressurised Reactor  

Left in the dust: AREVA’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger

 

Sources

(1) Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century, Helmut Hirsch, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt, April 2005, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2006/8/nuclearreactorhazards.pdf

(2) Assessment of the Operational Risks and Hazards of the EPR When Subject to Aircraft Crash, John Large 2006 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/migrated/MultimediaFiles/Live/FullReport/7671.pdf

(3) Assessment of I&C Problems of the EPR, lead author Dr. Colin Hirsch, Perugia, Italy. Study commissioned by Greenpeace Nordic, October 2010

(4) Joint Regulatory Position Statement on the EPR Pressurised Water Reactor, HSE (UK), ASN (France), STUK (Finland), October 2009

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