The quiet catastrophe in the French nuclear fleet

When a mega-earthquake and tsunami caused the unplanned and rapid decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP, the world awoke to the dangers of an over-reliance on electricity generated from nuclear fission. There are unacceptable hazards involved in operating just one nuclear reactor, but when a nation, state or province relies on nuclear for the majority of its electricity (for example, South Korea, Ontario, Ukraine, France), it risks having a dangerous shortage of electricity during a nuclear reactor meltdown. The disaster causes not only the loss of the affected reactors, but it also causes a political crisis, and it forces a precautionary shutdown of all reactors until regulators can investigate whether the fatal flaw exists elsewhere in the nuclear fleet. But in fact a major meltdown disaster is not required to force a nuclearized state into this situation. The discovery of heretofore unknown risks, such as seismic fault lines, tsunami risk, threat of terrorism or war, could force regulators to shut down all reactors until the problem is resolved, if it can be resolved—and if one follows the logic of nuclear risks, they can’t be solved. A case in point is the situation occurring in France this season. The report that follows describes how the recent discovery of manufacturing defects in French nuclear power plants has forced the national regulator to shut down one third of the nuclear fleet as peak demand season approaches. During its period of nuclearization, France encouraged people to consume electricity, promoting electric heating while doing too little to promote conservation and efficiency. Now, on top of all the political and social turmoil France has to deal with, it faces a metaphorical meltdown of its nuclear industry as regulators take precautions to avoid a literal meltdown.

by Benjamin Desssus and Bernard Laponche, Altereco+Plus, October 25, 2016
Translation by Dennis Riches of Vers un nucléogate français?

Recent weeks have revealed much about the actual state of the French nuclear power infrastructure.

It was known already that the reactor pressure vessel for the EPR in Flamanville was flawed in a way that made it unusable: the concentration of carbon in the vessel head and the vessel base made the steel susceptible to cracking during an instance of thermal shock. This evidently crucial issue for the future of the EPR in Flamanville is under consideration by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) which will release its diagnosis and prescription next March (2017).

18 Defective Reactors

However, in recent weeks we have also learned that this defect in manufacturing affects 18 reactors that are presently in service, either in the pressure vessels or in steam generators. The ASN has thus ordered a provisional shutdown of these reactors in order to diagnose the gravity of the situation. The order also halts the planned restart of the steam generator of one of the reactors at Fessenheim. At fault is the manufacturer Creusot, owned by Areva, and a Japanese manufacturer which may not have sent its best products to France.

A catastrophic situation

This is clearly a catastrophe at several levels. Firstly, almost one third of the nuclear fleet (parc nucléaire) is now stopped as winter approaches, which is 20% of total French production capacity. It is a conundrum for EDF (Électricité de France) which the government has tried to solve by renouncing its solemn commitment to establishing a floor price applicable to fossil fuel generating stations. This would have been too costly financially for the already weakened national enterprise (EDF) which has hastily restarted all the fossil fuel generating stations that it still possesses.

Furthermore, this discovery of defects in parts as important as reactor vessels, steam generators and pressurizers is all the more serious because they had been formally excluded from various hypothetical scenarios of possible accidents. These parts were excluded from consideration as “possible sources of rupture.” The discovery of these defects in fabrication casts doubt on the philosophical structure and the calculations that support judgments about the probability of major accidents occurring. What are these calculations worth if we find that serious and irreparable defects exist in the most critical parts that we had once assumed to be perfect?

Areva might have quietly falsified the required safety certifications

But there is worse to come. The ASN, concerned by this avalanche of discoveries, investigated Areva to verify whether hundreds of other parts conform to the required specifications. This led to a new surprise, the discovery of hundreds of “locked files” within which Areva might have quietly falsified the required safety certifications. This practice seems to be so common that it is hard to imagine that it is a matter of an isolated occurrence.

The unimaginable has occurred

Anomalies and falsifications of materials once supposed to be perfect: it’s all there. As we were told by Jacques Repussard in 2011, then general director of the Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN), “We have to imagine the unimaginable.” With half of the French nuclear fleet in a state of degraded safety, we are in an unimagined situation, and it is very serious. Before these “discoveries,” the president of the ASN declared, “A major nuclear accident is possible anywhere.” In the present situation, it is more and more possible in France.

A parallel situation to dieselgate comes to mind

The comparison to dieselgate in Germany comes to mind: technical norms not respected on materials critical for safety, numerous falsified certificates in order to get approval from authorities. It’s all there, but with a crucial difference. This wasn’t like in Germany where the scandal occurred under the direction of a dictatorial head of a multinational corporation. In France it occurred in enterprises that were quasi-nationalized, led by the aegis of the technocratic elite who pride themselves in their honesty and devotion to the nation. And all this occurred with total impunity for the managers responsible.

The situation should make all citizens reflect on the limits of our democracy…


For more on this story, see the Greenpeace report  


and the power industry magazine:
Lee Buchsbaum, "France's Nuclear Storm: Many Power Plants Down Due to Quality Concerns," Powermag, November 1, 2016.

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