When France launched its next generation nuclear reactor a few years back, French leaders were proudly touting their EPR project in glowing terms, claiming it heralded energy independence and the end of worries about global warming. This is what President Nicolas Sarkozy had to say in 2009:
… ladies and gentlemen presidents of EDF, Areva, Bouygues, Alstom, ladies and gentlemen. Since I have been president of the République I have wanted to come here, to Flamanville, to see the biggest construction site in Europe. Now I have come, and I regret that I didn’t come sooner. Flamanville, it’s a site that the whole world looks up to. It is the model for the world of the nuclear renaissance. Renaissance… The analogy with that glorious period of European history will undoubtedly provoke a few debates, but there are some points in common with the Renaissance: the questioning of old ways of thinking, the questioning of irrational fears, the faith in science, and the faith in technology which were the elements of the Renaissance. It is up to us to ensure that this rediscovery of nuclear energy will be an opportunity for the progress and cooperation for all humanity. Flamanville is a model suite for the third generation of nuclear technology. Flamanville is a facet of French excellence, technological excellence, industrial excellence—and “industry” is not a dirty word, by the way—and environmental excellence.
Nicolas Sarkozy, 2009/02/06
quoted in Nicolas Lambert, Avenir Radieux (Editions L’Echappée, 2012)
Well, that was then and this is now. This month even the mainstream media didn’t ignore the bad news out of France, probably because it was disastrous financial news that the global financial industry needed to know. Several reports have appeared like the one in The Wall Street Journal that outlined the sad tale of hubris, lost opportunities, and bad management that has left France’s nuclear industry battered, bruised and down for the count, perhaps to never again rise to its previous stature.
Areva, the company building the EPR, announced last year that it was failing financially because of the downturn in the uranium market since Fukushima, cost overruns and delays on EPR projects, and acquisitions gone bad. This month, Areva announced there was flawed steel in a crucial part of the nuclear reactor it is building in Flamanville, northern France. The regulator has shut down the project until further notice. Since the major parts have already been installed, serious questions are being raised about the viability of dismantling and starting over. A report in The Ecologist noted:
One problem is the pressure vessel's sheer size and the fact that it was already in place when the fault was detected. The vessel weighs 410 tonnes and cannot now be removed, and it is hard to see how it could be repaired or modified.
EPR projects in China and Finland are sure to be halted until questions are cleared up, and the UK is now wondering whether it should back out of a plan to have Areva build four EPRs there.
It is tragic to see France repeat its mistakes of the past with this pathetic replay of hubris and downfall involving grand plans for the next great thing in nuclear energy. This tale of the EPR looks too much like the history of the Superphénix breeder reactor that gave the nation twenty years of grief before it was finally shut down in 1996—and it is still undergoing its long dismantling process.
Nicolas Sarkozy has been out of power for a while, but lately he has been trying to resurrect himself. It remains to be seen whether he will grasp for some way to keep spinning the EPR as a glorious French achievement, trying to convince investors and the public that their doubts are just irrational fears lingering from the Middle Ages.
|Demolition of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant cooling tower, Oregon, USA, 2006.|
There are several nuclear projects that came to an early demise after long
periods of costly and controversial construction followed by short lives in operation.
Inti Landauro, “Areva Finds Flaws in New Nuclear Reactor,” Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015.
Paul Brown and Oliver Tickell, “Nuclear reactor flaws raise Hinkley C safety fears,” The Ecologist, April 14, 2015.