French nuclear "flagship" holed below the water line

Feature story - May 27, 2008
France’s nuclear safety agency today took the commendable step of ordering construction work to be halted on the concrete base slab of the new European Pressurised Reactor, Flamanville 3, in northern France. Over recent months, the agency’s inspectors have uncovered a string of chronic faults in construction -- which only began in December 2007.

The French nuclear safety agency agrees: it's time to stop the construction of the European Pressurized Water Reactor.

Issues seem to have come to a head on 21 May. Maybe that explains why Anne Lauvergeon, Chief Executive Officer of AREVA, the French nuclear company aggressively backing the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), 'exploded' when we handed her a copy of the Greenpeace 'EPR Survival Kit' during the European Nuclear Energy Forum on the 22nd.

Apparently, for nuclear regulators in France, enough is enough. We can only hope that their move is not merely a temporary setback to construction but the beginning of the end of a failed experiment in building the world's largest nuclear reactors.

And as we pointed out to Europe's energy policymakers at the last week's European Nuclear Energy Forum, "Nuclear power? Non, merci!" is the correct response to anyone approaching you to buy an EPR.

French letters

The regulators' call to halt construction follows a series of letters from the agency to Flamanville's construction manager. In the letters, inspectors highlighted a range of problems including non-conformities in the pinning of the steel framework of the concrete base slab, incorrectly positioned reinforcements, inadequacy of technical inspection by both the construction companies and Electricité de France. Inspectors also uncovered inconsistencies between the blueprint for reinforcement work and the plan for its practical implementation. The incorrect composition of concrete had been used, that may lead to cracks and rapid deterioration in sea air conditions. Samples of concrete were also not collected properly, according to inspectors. Cracks have already been observed in part of the base slab beneath the reactor building. The supplier of the steel containment liner reportedly lacks the necessary qualifications. Fabrication of the liner was continuing despite quality failures demonstrating the lack of competence of the supplier. As a result, one-quarter of the welds of the steel liner of the reactor containment building were deficient.

Déjà vu all over again

The new reactors Flamanville 3 and Olkiluoto 3, in Finland, are supposedly the vanguard of a 'renaissance' in nuclear power, leading to a whole series of these type of reactors being built around the world. (It certainly seems to be a renaissance in the kinds of problems we hoped would be relegated to history as the number of a new nuclear builds declined in the 1990s).

Problems at Flamanville echo those with the first EPR, Olkiluoto 3, which has been under construction for three years but has been blighted ever since the concrete was poured. Poor quality concrete, bad welds on the containment liner and low-quality reactor components are among its problems. The schedule for completion has been put back by more than two years and estimated costs have nearly doubled to over Euro 5 billion.

Flamanville 3 is the umpteenth example of the nuclear industry failing to learn the lessons of history.

Cradle to grave

And if the problems of an unbuilt reactor aren't enough of a headache for the nuclear industry, the BBC reports that in the UK the cost of cleaning up old nuclear sites, including some deemed "dangerous" will soar beyond 144 billion Euros (US$ 91 billion).

Greenpeace has consistently argued that nuclear power is an unnecessarily complex, risky and expensive way to boil water, to raise steam, to generate power. James Watt will be turning in his grave. In defiance of all logic, enormous sums of public money have been devoted to unsuccessfully overcoming the technical obstacles inherent to nuclear power. 

It is time policymakers and power companies realised that businesses and citizens want clean reliable power at an affordable price rather than new monuments to the pursuit of technological folly. What's more, preventing dangerous climate change means halving global carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century. Energy efficiency improvements and expansion of clean energy supply - not more nuclear capacity - are the key to delivering this energy revolution.  

Download the Greenpeace factsheet on the EPR, prepared prior to today's announcement.

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