With the news that two new nuclear reactors being built in China are having the same serious problems as two being built in France and Finland, it looks like lightning has struck four times for the next generation of nuclear power.
You may or may not have heard of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the world’s largest nuclear reactor. It’s supposedly cutting-edge, so-called 3rd Generation technology, designed by French nuclear giant AREVA. According to nuclear industry hype, 3rd Generation reactors will lead nuclear power into a golden age – the nuclear ‘renaissance’.
So does the hype match up to reality? Not at all.
Construction of the first EPR began at Olkiluoto, Finland in 2005. It was scheduled to begin electricity generation in 2009 and cost 3 billion euros. The project has been beset by thousands of safety concerns and construction defects. The concrete foundations were found to be substandard. Contractors working on the reactor were inexperienced and poorly supervised. Foreign workers did not share a common language leading to communication problems. Blueprints and guidelines were not approved. Mandatory quality controls were skipped. There was a deliberate cover up of structural defects. Six years later and the reactor will not go online until 2014 at the earliest and its costs have rocketed to 6.6 billion euros. And it’s not over yet. AREVA has promised lessons would be learned in future construction of EPRs.
In 2007 construction AREVA began work on another EPR, this time at Flamanville, France. The project would be completed in 2011 and cost 3.3 billion euros. Like in Finland, the French EPR has suffered thousands of safety concerns and construction defects. Again, the concrete used was found to be substandard. Again, contractors working on the reactor lacked experience and adequate supervision. Again, foreign workers not sharing a common language led to communication problems. Again, blueprints and guidelines were not approved. Again, corners were cut with mandatory quality controls. Again, structural defects were deliberately covered up. Four years later AREVA announced that the reactor will not be ready until 2016 and costs have almost doubled to 6 billion euros. Once again, AREVA gave assurances that lessons would be learned when building EPRs in the future.
Have lessons been learned? Absolutely not. We’re seeing exactly the same mistakes in Finland, France and now China.
Construction of the third and fourth EPRs began at Taishan, China in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Building is (or was?) expected to take four years. We now hear that there are quality problems in the reactors’ concrete. Contractors are inexperienced and poorly supervised. Language problems have lead to shortcomings in the translation of blueprints. When will these reactors start electricity production and what will their final costs be? Your guess is as good as ours (or the nuclear industry’s).
Why is this important? In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, confidence and belief in nuclear power is as low as it’s ever been. These EPR projects have been subject to literally thousands of problems. Defects in reactors, it should go without saying, can cause or exacerbate serious accidents. STUK, the Finnish nuclear watchdog, said in 2006 that the number of problems at Olkiluoto was so high that not all of them may have been found. Not only that, these spiralling costs mean taxpayers and electricity users pick up the big bill for cost overruns.
Look at the time, resources and billions that have been wasted building EPRs. Imagine the advances that could have been made against climate change if they had been devoted to renewable energy and energy efficiency measures instead of nuclear power. According to the International Energy Agency, ‘even if existing nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050, this would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4 percent’.
So, where now for the EPR? The UK government wants to build a bunch of them as part of its own nuclear ‘renaissance’. In a speech recently the country’s climate change minister said that when it comes to nuclear power ‘we must show that we have learned the lessons of the past’. Would you bet money on those lessons being learned?