Post-Fukushima, France breaks silence on nuclear safety

Doubts have been raised about the benefits of the EPR reactor, of which India plans to buy six.

October 11, 2011 01:17 am | Updated October 17, 2016 12:21 pm IST

The construction site of the European Pressurised Reactor in the French city of Flamanville. Photo: AFP

The construction site of the European Pressurised Reactor in the French city of Flamanville. Photo: AFP

For a country as given to debate and argument as France, there has been a deafening silence surrounding the choice of nuclear as the prime source of energy. With a population of 62 million, France boasts 59 nuclear reactors — the highest per capita in the world, with over 75 per cent of its electricity coming from the power of the atom.

In the post-Fukushima period, however, that tacit silence is being broken with increasing frequency not just by anti-nuclear associations or candidates hoping to win elections but by French courts and the Nuclear Safety Authority.

Both these institutions are showing greater boldness in convicting nuclear operators guilty of negligence or issuing reprimands and demanding immediate corrective measures from giants like EDF or Areva, currently engaged in the design and construction of France's first mega reactor (the EPR) capable of producing 1,650 MWe of electricity. India is slated to buy six of these massive reactors from Areva. To be located at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, they carry a price tag upwards of €40 billion.

On September 30, Socatri, a subsidiary of Areva, was found guilty of contaminating underground water tables in a 2008 leak of toxic liquid uranium at the Tricastin nuclear facility in southern France. The appeals court in the French city of Nimes, which handed down the sentence, fined the company €300,000 for pollution and gross negligence. It was also asked to pay damages to anti-nuclear associations and local residents. More seriously, the company was reprimanded for delays in communicating the leaks to the Nuclear Safety Authority.

The appellate court said Socatri/Areva was guilty of “introducing toxic substances into underground water, bringing about a significant modification of normal underground water flows.” Significantly, Socatri/Areva had been let off with a €40,000 fine in a trial held in October 2010. The Fukushima events have evidently led the country to take the risks involved in nuclear power more seriously.

“The trial in Nimes once again placed the spotlight on the degree of negligence which caused the accident in 2008. The judge rightly summed up the totality of acts of omission such as abandoning ageing facilities until they become decrepit to the point of rusting and, of course, the actions that followed the accident. They waited over 24 hours before signalling the leak,” said Etienne Ambroselli, spokesperson of the association Sortir du Nucleaire (Quit Nuclear).

“Thirty cubic metres of effluents containing uranium contaminated river waters, cutting off local drinking water supplies and preventing locals from bathing. According to a report prepared by CRIRAD [the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity] the pollution was 27 times higher than the authorised limit for radioactive emissions,” the association said in a communiqué. For its part, the Anti-nuclear Collective is asking the population and the workers at Tricastin to call for shutting down the four reactors located at the facility.

France has always come down hard on any anti-nuclear protests and there has been very little debate on the decision taken in the 1950s or under the post-oil-crisis Messmer Plan of 1974, to wholeheartedly embrace nuclear energy. An appeals court in the northern city of Caen on September 27, upped the fines slapped on Greenpeace France for occupying the nuclear site at Flamanville (Normandy) where France's first EPR reactor is under construction.

Greenpeace France will now have to pay €2,500 instead of the initial €1,500 and individual protesters will have to cough up fines of €200 each. The French electricity giant EDF, which is the constructor and future operator of the reactor, had called for damages and interest amounting to €155,000.

Construction of the Flamanville EPR reactor which began in 2007 is experiencing significant delays with a large number of accidents including two fatalities. The EPR reactor, of which India plans to buy six, will now not be completed before 2016 at the earliest and its price tag has climbed to an estimated €7 billion per reactor of 1,650MWe capacity. Not a single EPR is as yet operational.

Of the four currently under construction, (one each in France and Finland, two in China) the Finnish reactor (construction began in August1985) is now slated to go on stream in 2013 but costs have risen from €3 billion to over €7 billion and the Finnish utility TVO is locked in costly arbitration (€2.7 billion) with Areva. Indian nuclear scientists promoting the purchase of the EPR say the country will profit from the experience gained and lessons learnt from the two Chinese EPRs — Taishan 1 and Taishan 2 — which are reportedly on schedule. But there are serious doubts as to whether the Chinese will want to share knowledge with India on nuclear issues.

The problem is that after a hiatus of over 20 years when no reactor was built, the institutional memory, the know-how and the manpower which allowed companies like EDF to build strong and reliable nuclear power plants have been lost.

A 20-page report by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), has highlighted a series of “gaps and weaknesses” in work being carried out at the Flamanville site on the new European Pressurised Reactor (EPR).

A letter sent to EDF by ASN has pointed out a number of differences from construction requirements affecting 13 essential parts of the reactor, including the steam generators, water injection filters and batteries used for the cooling system.

Recently, the ASN asked EDF to re-do already completed concrete work on the cooling pools meant to accommodate spent fuel rods. Several fabrication defects were detected on the concrete pillars supporting the structure. Concrete walls were found to be fissured and ASN has asked EDF to change the method used to pour the concrete.

The ASN has also severely criticised the amount of outsourcing practised by EDF at the Flamanville plant. Unions say up to 80 per cent of the work is done by companies which have little or no experience of nuclear construction and that EDF picks the cheapest offer without verifying whether that service provider has previous experience of similar work or the requisite skills and competencies. EDF says it outsources 60 per cent of the work and in the post-Fukushima audit the company carried out of its own practices, it has promised to reduce the number of outside sources to three.

Socialist Euro-MPs who visited the Flamanville site recently decried what they called a system of “social dumping” practised by EDF — whereby under-qualified but cheap labour is brought in from the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe such as Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary or the Czech Republic.

Euro-MP Estelle Grelier following a visit to Flamanville told reporters: “I went there to verify if working conditions were as poor as denounced by several unions and confirmed by the ASN. On site, our doubts were reinforced by the working practices of one of the subcontractors, Atlanco, which does work for construction giant Bouygues. The wages of Polish workers employed by Atlanco [a Cypriot subsidiary of an Irish temping agency whose services are employed by Bouygues], were taxed at source. All traces of these taxes taken off the workers' wages have disappeared. I myself was contacted by a Polish worker who has not been paid for several months and who lives in appalling conditions without any social protection whatsoever. I was taken aback by the lack of supervision, of checks.”

With accusing fingers increasingly pointing towards the nuclear industry, a hesitant debate is beginning to open up in France. Socialist leader Segolene Royal who was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in France's last presidential poll but hopes once again to be her party's candidate, said she would close down the EPR under construction at Flamanville and completely abandon the EPR technology being pushed by Areva.

During the 2007 campaign, she had taken a firm stand against undertaking the construction of Flamanville, which she described as being dangerous besides the fact that it was, financially speaking, a bottomless well that would cost the exchequer very dear.

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