The EPR is still a reactor in the making, whose design is likely to undergo serious modification before it can be built as a series.

The announcement last week by the Finnish utility TVO of yet another year-long delay in the construction of the new Areva European Pressurised Reactor/Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) being built at Olkiluoto in southern Finland has re-launched the controversy surrounding the world's biggest, most expensive and as yet untried nuclear reactor.

India is slated to purchase up to six of these reactors, of which the first two alone carry an estimated price tag of €11 billion. A memorandum of understanding for the sale of two EPRs was signed in 2009 and there are chances that a framework agreement will be signed during French President Nicolas Sarkozy's working visit to India which began on December 4.

Supporters of the EPRs say that India desperately needs nuclear energy to replace dwindling and polluting fossil fuels. Given India's population density and the paucity of land, Areva's powerful 1,650 MWe nuclear reactor would be best suited to its needs. However, critics point out that the technology, which is extremely capital intensive, remains untried and the EPR has run into trouble wherever it is being built.

Started in 2005, the initial completion and commissioning date for the Finnish OL3 reactor was 2009. Over the years and because of repeated delays, the reactor's budget too has increased from €3 billion to an estimated €5.7 billion with TVO and Areva locked in bitter arbitration. The Finnish company which awarded Areva a fixed price, turn key contract for the project is claiming damages totalling some €2.7 billion.

There are only four such reactors currently under construction in the world, two in China, known as Taishan 1 and 2, one in Finland known as OL3 and Flamanville3 in northern France. Work on Taishan 1 and 2 has just started and it is difficult to say whether it is running to cost and will be completed on time.

But the Flamanville3 reactor in France, being built by the French electricity giant EDF, the world's most experienced architect engineer which has 58 nuclear reactors to its credit in France alone, has also run up huge delays and cost over-runs. Anne Lauvergeon, the CEO of Areva, in a snide aside during an interview with The Hindu indicated that the problems of both Ol3 and Flamanville could come from the civil engineering firm retained for both projects — the French construction giant, Bouygues.

A third generation pressurised water reactor, the EPR was initially known as the European Pressurised Reactor or the Evolutionary Power Reactor. This has now been changed by Areva to the trademarked name of EPR. Designed to be more competitive because of its massive power output of 1,650MWe, the reactor uses fuel that is a mix of uranium and plutonium oxide known as MOX.

The EPR has been marketed as the safest and strongest reactor in the world capable of withstanding hits from a full-size passenger airplane. But critics say that the redundancy of the safety measures has made the reactor extremely complex and costly to build, resulting in huge delays and cost over-runs.

After the French consortium led by EDF, GDF-Suez and Areva was beaten by the South Koreans who were awarded a contract to supply the United Arab Emirates with four nuclear reactors, President Sarkozy asked the former CEO and present Honorary President of EDF, Francois Roussley, to write a report on the French nuclear industry.

“The credibility of the EPR model and the capacity of the French nuclear industry to successfully build new reactors have been seriously tested by the difficulties encountered on the sites of Olkiluoto and Flamanville3 …The complexity of the EPR resulting from its conception, notably its level of power, the core and the core catcher and the excessive and redundant safety features remains a handicap both for its construction and its cost. It is therefore important to rapidly redress the situation by taking urgent measures to allow the French nuclear industry to reposition itself on the civil nuclear market. If this is not done, it is the credibility and perhaps the very existence of Areva and the industry around it, which will be threatened,” Mr. Roussely says in his report.

He goes on to insist that Areva and EDF should bring the completion of the OL3 and the Flamanville 3 reactors to a rapid and satisfactory conclusion bearing in mind time and cost over-runs. “The lessons drawn from the construction of these two reactors should be properly understood and analysed before commencing the next EPR in France or the one in the U.K.,” the Roussley report says.

Professor Thomas, a specialist on nuclear energy at Greenwich University's School of Business, feels that India would be making “a terrible mistake purchasing technology that has been plagued by problems, is needlessly expensive and, above all, is yet to prove its efficiency.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, considered the gold standard in matters of nuclear safety, in a communiqué issued as recently as July 23, 2010, said it “has informed AREVA NP that the company has yet to demonstrate how some aspects of the EPR reactor's digital instrumentation and control system meet NRC requirements … AREVA need to better demonstrate that each safety division in the system can perform its function without relying on information originating outside the safety division and is protected from adverse influence from outside the division …”

The exact cost of each EPR in India has not been disclosed. Ms Lauvergeon told The Hindu that the cost would be less than Rs. 4 per Kilowatt/hour. Professor Thomas rubbishes the claim. “There are three important factors in determining the price of a kilowatt/hour of nuclear electricity. The first is the cost of building the plant and until you see Areva's bid you don't know what that is going to be. The second element is the cost of borrowing the money. Now what rate of interest will India have to pay? Areva does not know that. And the third element is whether the plant is reliable because if its unreliable there will be fewer kilowatt hours to spread those fixed costs over,” Professor Thomas told The Hindu.

In an interview with the newspaper, the project manager of the Flamanville3 site, EDF's Robert Pays tried to explain the delays and cost over-runs at the plant: “Last summer, we announced a re-evaluation of the budget for the entire reactor, global costs of €5 billion. It is clear that when the duration of the work goes up, the costs go up — that's the first reason for the cost over runs. The second is that we had drawn up cost estimates on the basis of preliminary quantity estimates — the number of kilometres of pipes, cables, the kilos of steel in the concrete, etc., but detailed studies indicated that the quantities required were in fact superior to the initial estimates. Since this reactor was the first in the series there were a certain number of studies or the design had not been entirely finished when we started construction and then the Nuclear Safety Authority also obliges to modify certain features because we have to comply with its comments and observations and that too adds to the cost.”

The long and short of it is that the EPR is still a reactor in the making whose design is likely to undergo serious modification before it can be built as a series.

Thomas Houdre, the chief of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), told The Hindu that his organisation was waiting for Areva to submit another report on the Instrumentation and Control question which continues to hang fire. The ASN has also pointed to welding problems. Classified EDF documents leaked to the press in March 2010 have raised questions about the safety of the nuclear core. “Spanning 10 years from 1999 to 2009, the documents refer to a major redesign of the core because original plans did not meet safety criteria for control rod ejection accident at high power,” the New York Times reported. “Control rods regulate the nuclear reaction in the reactor vessel, and a control rod ejection accident has a domino effect, causing parts of the reactor to overheat. In a severe case, that will break the cladding covering the radioactive fuel rods, causing them to release radioactivity, with potentially dangerous consequences,” the NYT noted on July 26, 2010.

EDF documents reveal that the architect engineer at Flamanville3 tried to find safer cladding material. However, these attempts have so far not been successful.

Says Professor Thomas: “The EPR will eventually be certified in the U.K. and the U.S., but not for two maybe three years. Until that point there could be significant design changes and the additional requirements of the regulators could further increase the cost. If the regulator asks for an additional safety system, for example, that could increase the price of the plant. If I was India, I would wait to see when that happened.”

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