French nuclear regulator finds serious problems at La Hague

La Hague, France. Nuclear Waste Reprocessing Facility.
Would you be depressed if you worked in a plutonium factory?

Le Monde reports this week that the nuclear waste reprocessing center (plutonium factory) in La Hague has been ordered by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire to cease some operations until several “serious gaps” in security are addressed. Several pieces of equipment, containing high levels of radioactivity, have not been handled properly. Pressurized containers of radioactive gas have not been properly secured, and fire safety violations were noted. In addition, the workforce has much higher rates of depression and suicide than the outside population – a problem that the regulator also identifies as a threat to the safety of operations.
The English language media doesn’t seem very interested in covering the French nuclear industry, so in case translations of the report don’t get picked up by British and American media, my translation is available below.


Le Monde. Agence France Presse.
January 29, 2013

It is the third time in less than a year: On January 28th, Areva’s nuclear waste reprocessing facility at La Hague was again ordered to halt operations. The ASN is demanding compliance with regulations regarding tens of pieces of equipment, of which some, it was stressed, contain very high levels of radioactivity.
The “gendarme du nucléaire” has discovered, from an inspection that began in early December, sixty pieces of equipment that are “nuclear pressurized,” meaning gases containing radionuclides stored above atmospheric pressure. These “could present a significant security risk,” noted the ASN. Among these pieces, some consist of confinement of radioactive substances and are susceptible, in case of failure, to lead to the release of radioactivity.
The ASN also found “serious gaps,” notably in documentation, which is the way to record the required verifications for this type of nuclear pressurized equipment. Areva has been given six months to conform with the demands made for six pieces of equipment that help to evaporate solutions, and twelve months for the others, according to AFP.


Areva management explained this stoppage was due to “a delay in transmitting documents,” and it assured that it was in the process of rectifying the error by gathering the documents into a common source.
But this is not the first time that warnings have been given to the facility in La Hague – the site which concentrates the highest level of radioactivity in Europe. Already in April 2012, following a surprise inspection, the ASN halted operations and ordered the reinforcement of fire security. The “gendarme du nucléaire” (ASN) reported then “serious gaps in the measures taken to protect against the risk of fire” and a “lack of rigor in the application of provisions for limiting this risk and, in particular, a poor management of fire permits required by regulations” (fire permits notably being required for certain types of operations for maintenance or dismantling of facilities).
Five months later, in September, there was another stoppage ordered at La Hague. This time, the concern was the “rate of suicides” among workers at the facility – “three times higher than the average in the region (La Manche), which is itself higher than the national average.” The health officer at the site, where, according to AFP, 5,000 people work, was alarmed in 2011 over “the state of the mental health of the workforce” which “had degraded at an accelerated pace in two years.” This was estimated to be a risk factor “for the safety of the installation.”


Another warning from the ASN to La Hague: In 2011, it indicated that the facility under-estimated the gravity of numerous incidents that had occurred on the site in the previous year. Further, in June 2012, following the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, the ASN cited the reprocessing facility, as it gave out hundreds of directives to all French nuclear installations. In the case of La Hague, it demanded the implementation of robust backup systems for spent fuel storage pools.
One month later, in July 2012, the ASN came back with another concern: it reminded Areva to take heed of predictable failures and reinforce the security of radioactive waste at La Hague. This applied to the storage of waste products accumulated during the operation of the first treatment facility, of which the most part “was left in an unfinalized state” representing “an insufficient level of security.”


At the site in La Hague, two facilities have taken over from the old nuclear waste treatment facility, baptized UP2 400, which functioned from 1966 to 1998 and must now be decommissioned. This task is to employ 500 people at the height of operations and should achieve the treatment of 50,000 cubic meters of wastes. It is a long-term operation, much more important than the decommissioning of one reactor.
Areva recently estimated the cost at 4 billion euros over twenty-five years, according to the director of La Hague, Jean-Jacques Dreher. In 2010, Areva nonetheless announced a figure much lower: 2.5 billion euros. This estimation “didn’t include the cost of packaging the wastes, which means the most finalized storage of wastes,” explained Areva. In January 2012, the Court of Auditors announced, citing EDF (Electricité de France, the French electricity utility), an estimated cost of decommissioning for the 58 French reactors of about 18 billion euros. In this report, it included a figure, dated as of 2010, of 3.2 billion euros for the UP2 400.

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